The Major Scale

Now that we have some experience with whole steps and half steps, we can move on to one of the most important building blocks of music: the scale. A scale is a set of musical tones that usually spans one octave and therefore typically starts and ends on the same note. The start and end note of the scale is also where the scale get its name. For example, a scale that is written C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C would be called a C scale, and a scale written A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A would be called an A scale.

When a scale is made up of all seven letters of the musical alphabet it is called diatonic. In most music we hear one of two types of diatonic scale, one called major and the other called minor. As a general rule, major scales tend to sound happy and minor scales tend to sound sad. While these labels aren't quite accurate, it provides a good starting point for how to begin recognizing them by ear. Here is an example of a C major scale and a C minor scale, pay special attention to the third note you hear in each, this is the most important note in differentiating the two.

C Major

C Minor

Major = W-W-H-W-W-W-H

We will learn to construct scales using the major scale. The major scale can be constructed through a simple pattern of whole (W) and half steps (H): W-W-H-W-W-W-H. To construct any major scale, it is best to begin by placing all the notes we will need onto the staff, starting and ending on the name of the scale. We will construct a C major scale first, so we will begin the process by writing all the notes of the musical alphabet beginning and ending on C: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C.

Next, we will move from left to right (or bottom to top) and check each step in the scale. You will see that the C major scale fits the whole step/half step pattern for the major scale without any changes. Now let's see what happens with a scale starting on a different note. Let's create a G scale by writing the notes and checking each step against the major scale pattern. As you can see, the notes fit the pattern fine until we reach the step between the 6th and 7th notes (between E and F). We will need to make this a whole step to create the major scale pattern. In order to fix this, we will add a sharp to the F to make a whole step. With this one change, all the whole steps and half steps now fit the major scale pattern, and we can now see that a G scale requires an F-sharp to make it major.

Let's summarize our steps to creating major scales, and add a few things to keep in mind as you begin to construct your own:

  1. Begin by drawing eight notes in order, starting and ending on the name of the scale you want to create
  2. Work from left to right, making sure each step fits the major whole/half step pattern: W-W-H-W-W-W-H
  3. All major scales contain only one type of accidental, if you find you are using both flats and sharps at once, then there is an error somewhere in your scale

Let's try this with a few examples. Click the example button to see the notes of a scale, then do your best to figure out the correct accidentals in your notation program, or by hand on your music manuscript paper, then click the answer button below it to reveal the correct answer. *Keep an eye on the clef!