Session 4: Major scales

For a video explaining this lesson, click here or scroll to the end

In Session 2 we looked at the natural notes on the second string, starting from C:

Natural notes on the B string

Did that sequence of notes have a familiar sound to you? What you heard was the sound of a MAJOR SCALE. When you start at C and play all the natural notes in order you create a C Major scale.

The major scale is pretty fundamental. In the West most of our music relates somehow to this particular pattern of notes.

  • Question: What makes a major scale sound the way it does?
  • Answer: The pattern of tones and semitones (i.e. two-fret and one-fret steps).

Here’s the pattern for a major scale:

Step In C Major Interval
Notes 1 – 2 C – D Tone
Notes 2 – 3 D – E Tone
Notes 3 – 4 E – F Semitone
Notes 4 – 5 F – G Tone
Notes 5 – 6 G – A Tone
Notes 6 – 7 A – B Tone
Notes 7 – 8 B – C Semitone

So, that’s Tone-Tone-Semitone, Tone-Tone-Tone-Semitone.
Or T-T-S, T-T-T-S

major-scale-structure

It just happens that in C major you don’t need to sharpen or flatten any of the notes to follow that pattern. How about building a major scale starting from other notes? Here’s how it looks starting from G – in other words a scale of G major.

Ex2_150301_Major_Scales

Step In G Major Interval
Notes 1 – 2 G – A Tone
Notes 2 – 3 A – B Tone
Notes 3 – 4 B – C Semitone
Notes 4 – 5 C – D Tone
Notes 5 – 6 D – E Tone
Notes 6 – 7 E – F# Tone
Notes 7 – 8 F# – G Semitone

Notice that instead of F we need an F# to keep to the pattern. In the scale of G major, you sharpen the ‘F’s.

Here’s the same pattern starting on F – the scale of F major.

Ex3_150301_Major_Scales

Step In F Major Interval
Notes 1 – 2 F – G Tone
Notes 2 – 3 G – A Tone
Notes 3 – 4 A – Bb Semitone
Notes 4 – 5 Bb – C Tone
Notes 5 – 6 C – D Tone
Notes 6 – 7 D – E Tone
Notes 7 – 8 E – F Semitone

This time following the pattern means you have to play a Bb rather than a B. In the scale of F major, flatten the ‘B’s. There’s a critical point here: Every letter name from A through G must be used, and used just once (ignoring octave repeats such as the F at the start and the end in the example above). That’s why in F major the fourth note is called Bb, not A#. And in G major the seventh note is F#, not Gb.

Here’s a last example of the major scale pattern, this time making a scale of D major.

Ex4_150301_Major_Scales

Step In D Major Interval
Notes 1 – 2 D – E Tone
Notes 2 – 3 E – F# Tone
Notes 3 – 4 F# – G Semitone
Notes 4 – 5 G – A Tone
Notes 5 – 6 A – B Tone
Notes 6 – 7 B – C# Tone
Notes 7 – 8 C# – D Semitone

In D major both the F and C have to be raised to become F# and C#.

Try working out the major scale that starts on the open A string. Just follow the pattern (T-T-S, T-T-T-S) and write the note names down .

Now do the same thing on either of the E strings.

Once you’ve done that you can check your work here.

Check out the video

Conclusion

The major scale is at the heart of western music, and understanding how it works, being able to play it from any starting note, and recognising its sound will all be invaluable as you explore other aspects of music. We’re also starting to clear up some of the mystery about note names – when (and why) the note between A and B should be called Ab and when it should be G# for instance. Just make sure that you have the sequence Tone-Tone-Semitone, Tone-Tone-Tone-Semitone burned into your memory!

major-scale-structure

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