The major scale is a selection of 7 notes within each frequency doubling based on a fixed relationship between each note, explained below.
- The major scale has 7 scale degrees of different pitch classes, sorted by pitch, from lower to higher.
- Each scale degree has a specific name.
- There are two semitones that occur between the 3rd and the 4th scale degree, also between the 7th and the first 1st (8th) degree. Every other pair is a whole tone apart.
- The major scale can only have one of each pitch class, i.e., you can’t have C and C# appearing at the same time, only C Db or B# C#.
- As for the name of each scale degree, for now we only need to know that the first note of the scale is called the Tonic, for example the Bb major scale will have tonic of Bb.
- To compose a major scale, write down the 7 pitch classes from the first note.
- Then for each pair of note, check for their relationship to confirm that the distance between 3-4 and 7-1 degree is semitone, while a whole tone for other pairs.
- If the relationship does not match the above pattern, use accidental to change the later note. A practical pattern to remember is that if the first note of the scale is F or any other note that contains flat, then use only flats, sharps otherwise.
Let’s find E major scale.
First we list all the pitch classes starting from E: E F G A B C D. Then we go through each adjacent pair of notes to confirm that the two semitone is at 3-4 or 7-1 scale degrees.
Starting from the first degree, we see E and F, a semitone, immediately at 1-2 degree, not matching 3-4, so we need to alter one of them. Since the tonic of a scale is fixed, we can only change the later note. We need to increase the semitone to a whole tone, and to do that, we sharpen the F, making the result F# the second degree of the scale.
Now look at the relationship between F# and G, the 2nd and 3rd degree of the scale. We know that F-G is a whole tone (contains a note in between) because it is not E-F or B-C, therefore F# (a note higher than F) to G is a semitone, and that is also incorrect, and again we need to sharpen the G, making G# the 3rd degree of the E major scale.
Taking the existing G# and the next pitch class A, the 3rd and 4th degree of the major scale, which needs to be a semitone, let’s check whether we need to do anything. G natural to A is not E-F or B-C, not a semitone but a whole tone relationship, meaning G# to A is a semitone, which matches the pattern of 3-4 degree being a semitone, leaving A natural as the 4th degree of E major scale.
From here, we can use the same method of reasoning to deduct the rest of the E major scale.
Let’s look at another example, the Ab major scale.
First list all pitch classes starting from A: A B C D E F G. Then inspect each pair of scale degrees.
Starting from the first degree, A-B. It is not E-F or B-C, must be a whole tone. However, the tonic is Ab, meaning it is the note below A, making this relationship a whole tone plus another semitone, thus we need to alter the B. To decrease the distance, we flatten the B and get Bb as the 2nd degree of the Ab major scale.
From Bb, we see the next pitch class is C, and B to C is a semitone, but we are looking at the 2nd and 3rd degree of the major scale, which is not a semitone, so this should be a whole tone relationship. Before we do anything, remember that the 2nd degree of Ab major scale that we just deduced is Bb, a note lower than B, enlarging the semitone to a whole tone, and thus fitting the description. Therefore C is correctly placed as the 3rd degree of Ab major scale.
Take D as the starting point for the 4th degree. We need a semitone between 3rd and 4th degree, and C to D is a whole tone. Thus we lower the D to Db and that is our 4th degree.
Then compare the next pair, Db and E, it is the same as Ab to B for our first pair, you can look up and easily solve this pair, along with the rest.
The major scale is the foundation of almost all western theory regarding note relationships, because all other topics, from interval to chord structure to functional harmony, are based on the it, hence it is vital to familiarize all major scales to the point that it becomes second nature.
This tutorial provides a method of reasoning to formulate a major scale from it’s tonic using rules and patterns, equivalent to learning mathematical formulas. We must first deduce a formula from the results, then memorize it to employ in applications. Memorization comes from understanding, exercising, and applying, but don’t worry, we will have plenty of time for that in the later chapters.
Many theory books follow note name with intervals, the relative relationship between two notes, perhaps for the reason that it involves fewer notes to deal with. However, to learn intervals with no knowledge of the major scale will likely result to counting numbers. Other than that, many books teach scales with the idea of the circle of fifth and key signatures, although important concepts on their own, only confuses people because they can’t memorize the seemingly random order which the sharps and flats occur. To learn the major scale based on key signatures requires the familiarity of the circle of fifth, while learning the circle of fifth requires study of interval (and some calculation), and the study of interval requires the study of the major scale…and we are running in circles.
Therefore, we should learn to construct the major scale first, with minimum number of rules to memorize. In fact, there are only three principles plus three simple procedure steps in this article. Pure logic, no tongue twisters required.
It’s your turn! Use the method from this article to deduce and list major scales with tonic of all note names, including those with enharmonic. Some major scales may require double sharp or double flats.