Practical Music Theory unit 2: The Major Scale


  • The Major Scale

  • The Major Scale

    The major scale is the most fundamental scale in Western music, and has to be understood before you can understand much else about the way music works. You could say that the major scale is to music what an alphabet is to language.  Everything that musicians understand about music–chords, scales, music theory from the simplest to the most complex levels, is understood as it relates to the major scale.  In other words, we talk about other scales (and chords) by comparing them to the major scale.

    Fortunately, the major scale is very simple and very familiar.  Even non-musicians recognize the sound of it.  When you hear someone sing “do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do,” they are singing a major scale (assuming they’re singing it more or less in tune).

    Here is one way to play a C major scale on the guitar.  Give it a shot if you have a guitar in your hands:


    And check out what a C major scale sounds like on the guitar:

    The C major scale is the easiest one to visualize on the piano because it is the only major scale that is played on all white keys, from C going up to the next C. Note how it looks on the keyboard:

    Half Steps and Whole Steps within the Major Scale

    Now, as we go through the C major scale, look at the pattern of whole steps and half steps created by the C Major scale.

    W=whole step, H=half step:

    C to D = W
    D to E = W
    E to F = H
    F to G = W
    G to A = W
    A to B = W
    B to C = H

    • This pattern of whole steps and half steps (W-W-H-W-W-W-H) is the defining characteristic of a major scale. In other words, it makes the major scale sound the way it sounds, regardless of what note you start on.
    • As you listen to the audio examples on this page, notice that a major scale sounds like a major scale, no matter what key it is played in.  It always sounds like “do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do.”
    • This pattern is unique to the major scale–all other scales (and there are many, many other kinds of scales) have different arrangements of half steps and whole steps.  That’s why they all sound different…dig?

    Figuring out the Major Scale in any key

    We can spell out a major scale in any key using this pattern. Try plugging in this pattern starting on E (look at the above keyboard diagram for reference). Here’s what you get (W=whole step, H=half step):

    Here’s one way you could play it on the guitar:

    Let’s look at another example, this time in the key of Bb:

    And here’s one way you could play it on guitar:

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