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Music Theory: The Major Scale


By popular demand I decided to write a series of basic music theory lessons. This lesson about the major scale is the first one in the series. When learning guitar scales it is important to know the music theory behind the mother of all music scales: the major scale.

Here are some of the basics we need to know:

  • The major scale is the first of the diatonic scales
  • Another name for the major scale: the Ionian Mode
  • A major scale has 7 notes

 

The first and simplest major scale is the C major scale:

C Major Scale

  • The C major scale is the only major scale that doesn't have sharps (#) or flats (b). We'll see a bit further what this means.
  • If you play the C major scale on the piano, only white notes are used (all the white notes) .
  • In solfege, the notes of the major scale are named like this: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti (or Si)
  • Another notation that is used is the following: C    D    E    F    G    A    B

 

It's important that you're able to switch between these two notation methods without thinking. You need to know that C=Do, D=Re,...

C D E F G A B
Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti

 

Here's how the C major scale is played on the guitar:

C major scale for guitar

 

How To Construct Major Scales

All major scales have a typical structure. Let's have a look at the C major scale to find out more about that structure:

     C    D    E    F    G    A    B    C

I added a C at the end of the scale. This C is one octave higher (12 half tones) compared to the first C. Now we are going to have a look at the intervals between the notes of the C major scale. An interval is the distance between 2 notes.

  • C-D: D is 2 half steps higher than C
  • D-E: 2 half steps
  • E-F: 1 half step
  • F-G: 2 half steps
  • G-A: 2 half steps
  • A-B: 2 half steps
  • B-C: 1 half step

 

So, every note in the C major scale is 2 notes higher than the previous note, except the F and the C (this is important, remember these two notes):

  C   D   E F   G   A   B C
           -             -
    2   2  1  2   2   2  1

 

We can use this as a scale formula:

Major Scale Formula: 2  2  1  2  2  2  1

 

And we can use this formula to construct other major scales. Let's find the major scale of D:

  • The first note is of course: D
  • The formula tells us that the second note is 2 half steps further: E
  • The next note also needs to be 2 half steps further.
    • We remember from before that F is only 1 half step further than E.
    • To make the F 2 half steps further, we have to add a sharp (#).
    • A sharp adds 1 half tone to a note, so when we write F#, it means one half step further than F.
    • To summarize: the 3rd note of the D major scale: F#
  • The formula tells us that note 4 can only be 1 half step further then the 3rd. G is 2 half steps further than F, but only 1 half step further than F#, so G is the 4th note of the D major scale.
  • Note 5 is 2 half steps further: A
  • Note 6 is 2 half steps further: B
  • Note 7 needs to be 2 half steps further, but C is only 1 half step further than B, that's why we need to add a sharp: C#
  • The next note in the scale is the same note as the first, but one octave higher and is one half step further then C#: D

So here's the D major scale:

   D   E   F#  G   A   B   C#   (D)
     2   2   1   2   2   2    1

 

Let's try another scale, the F major scale:

  • The first note is F
  • The second note needs to be 2 half steps further: G
  • The third note also: A
  • The fourth note only needs to be 1 half step further. B is 2 half steps further than A, so we need to add a flat (b) to make it only one half step further than A. So the fourth note is: Bb
  • The fifth note needs to be 2 half steps further. C is only 1 half step further than B, but because we flatted the B we are ok: C is 2 half steps further than Bb
  • The next note needs to be 2 half steps further: D
  • The seventh note is also 2 notes further: E
  • We close the circle by adding the first note, but one octave higher. F is one half step further than E.

 

The following two are important to remember, we call them accidentals:

  • #: the sharp sign: makes a note a half step higher
  • b: the flat sign: makes a note a half step lower

 

Here's a list of all the major scales:

C Major Scale C D E F G A B
D Major Scale D E F# G A B C#
E Major Scale E F# G# A B C# D#
F Major Scale F G A Bb C D E
G Major Scale G A B C D E F#
A Major Scale A B C# D E F# G#
B Major Scale B C# D# E F# G# A#
C# Major Scale C# D# E# F# G# A# B#
Eb Major Scale Eb F G Ab Bb C D
F# Major Scale F# G# A# B C# D# E#
Ab Major Scale Ab Bb C Db Eb F G
Bb Major Scale Bb C D Eb F G A

 

 

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