The Major Scale is one the most widely-used scales in music and certainly one that every musician should know. As with every other scale, it follows a particular pattern (i.e. formula), which is what gives it the quality that we call “major”. By the end of this lesson, you will be able to comfortably build a major scale starting on any key. Let’s get to it!
WHAT WE NEED TO KNOW
1. THE FORMULA
The formula for the major scale is expressed as a series of whole steps (W) and half steps (H). Here it is:
2. THE NAMING CONVENTION
This tells us the correct way to name the notes in a scale. For major scales, we must remember the following:
DO NOT REPEAT THE SAME LETTER NAME TWICE IN A ROW.
e.g. If our first note is an F and we need to move up a half step, we cannot name the next note F#, as that would be repeating the same letter name. Instead, we have to name it G♭. F# and G♭ are what we call enharmonic equivalents (two notes that share the same pitch), but when naming scale notes, only one version is correct!
EXAMPLE 1: "C MAJOR SCALE"
One of the easiest scales to play and one that music students usually learn first is the “C Major” scale. The reason it’s considered easy is because it only uses the white keys on the piano and has no sharps or flats. If we play every single white key from one C to the next C, we will discover that it fits example with our major scale formula. Let’s take a look:
C to D gives us a whole step, D to E is another whole step, E to F is a half step, F to G is a whole step, G to A is a whole step, A to B is a whole step, and B to C is a half step. Voila – we have built a “C Major” scale! Here is what it sounds like:
EXAMPLE 2: "D MAJOR SCALE"
Let’s try another scale. This one is slightly harder as it will include some black keys. But don’t let that scare you – just focus on applying our formula! Here is what “D Major” looks like:
D to E gives us a whole step, E to F# (not F!) gives us another whole step, F# to G is a half step, G to A is a whole step, A to B is a whole step, B to C# (not C!) is a whole step, and C# to D is a half step. Get the idea? Here is what “D Major” sounds like:
EXAMPLE 4: "A♭ MAJOR SCALE"
In the interest of variety and to take our knowledge one step further, let’s build a scale that has some flats in it. “A♭ Major” is going to have four flats (including A♭) – can you figure out what they are?
As we can see, the notes that make up the “A♭ Major” scale are A♭, B♭, C, D♭, E♭, F, G, and A♭ again (scales normally begin and end on the same note). Hopefully you were able to figure this out by yourself at this point!
Building a major scale isn’t all that difficult as long as you remember the formula and stick to it. Although the naming convention makes no difference if you are just trying to play, it does become important when you want to write it down or be able to communicate correctly with a fellow musician. For example, if you say to someone that the scale of “D Major” has a G♭ in it, this would not be correct (as you by now know, it has an F#). For this reason – it’s well worth it to learn to name scale notes correctly from the very beginning.
Tip: if you want to get really good and fast at playing major scales, choose any key at random and try to play a major scale starting on it. Don’t worry – you’ll get the hang of it in no time!
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