The Major Scale Explained!
The Major Scale Explained!
In this article, we will go over everything you need to know about the Major scale!
Oh.. Ok.. But why the &*^% do we need to know this?
Understanding the major scale properly is the first crucial step towards being an educated and skillful musician! As soon as you’ll start implementing these skills, you’ll find that learning about the major scale is helpful no matter what kind of musician you are, classical or a shredding metal-head.
This knowledge will help you understand your instrument better and you will be able to analyze musical pieces faster and more efficiently.
You’ll notice that every song you hear today uses these sets of rules and the major scale itself is one of the most basic building blocks of music.
📜 In this article:
We will start by understanding what exactly is a scale, and then break down the major scale in a few steps.
We will learn about intervals, triads, and 7th chords. We will also learn about the major scale modes, functionality, and its relative minor.
So… what is a scale?
The basic way to put it, without diving into the science behind it, is that a scale is simply a sequence of musical notes.
Each scale has a different color and musical atmosphere, some are more cheerful, some are sad or dark. Another way to measure differences between musical scales is by levels of brightness and darkness.
Each scale holds inside it a set of chords, rules, and functions. These rules can be used, stretched, and manipulated in many creative and interesting ways.
Songs can be built using one or various keys. Some songs can be simpler and will use one scale, in more complex genres like Jazz, there can be various key changes in one song.
Things will get clearer soon, don’t worry!
The Major Scale
The major scale is the first scale you want to master!
We start with the major scale because today's approach to music is based on the major-minor system. It is today's most popular way of thinking and writing music.
The sound of the major scale can be described as “happy” but we prefer to describe it as mildly bright.
The Major scale is the name of a specific pattern. We can start this pattern from any root note and get a major scale.
For example, a major scale with C as its root note will be named C major scale.
The sequence of tones and semitones constructing the major scale goes like this: 1-1-½-1-1-1-½
This pattern will always represent a Major scale!
C Major scale
That means that if we’ll take this pattern and retrace it from any given note, we will get this root’s Major scale.
If we start this sequence from C we will get a C Major scale, if we start it from G, we will get a G Major and so on.
Note: The semitones of the major scale will always be located between the 3rd and 4th degrees of the scale and the 7th and 1st (8th) degrees of the scale.
🤔 A common question: what is the difference between minor and major scales?
The difference between minor and major scales or between any given scales is the placement of every note in the pattern. Some scales use different numbers of notes but will usually use 7 notes in total.
The intervals of the major scale
The major scale pattern creates a unique set of intervals. These intervals are the smaller building blocks of the major scale. Here are all of the major scale intervals, listen to them, and notice the different colors that each interval generates.
Ascending and descending intervals from tonic in the major scale
Want to understand intervals better? Check out our “Intervals” article!
First, what are chords? Chords are sets of 3 or more notes played together. Different chords have different “colors” and different uses. Each chord has also a certain functionality in the scale. Sometimes it will function as a resolution chord and will feel stable, and sometimes will be tenser and will be drawn to other musical environments.
Don’t get caught up on definitions… It is much easier to just start building and using chords rather than talking about them.
Building the Chords of the Major Scale
We will start with the most basic form of chords, these are 3-note chords called triads.
What are triads?
Triads are chords that contain only 3 chord notes.
There are 4 basic triad chords - Major, Minor, Diminished, and Augmented.
These four basic triads share a distinctive and "simple” color, you may say that Major feels happy, Minor feels sad, Diminished feels dramatic and Augmented sounds anxious and suspenseful.
Building Chords on the Major scale
Building chords in the Major scale is a rather simple thing.
All you need to do is pick any note of the scale, the one you’ve picked is your root note, now stack notes on top of it while skipping every second note, until you get 3 notes in total.
For example, in C Major scale, the notes are C D E F G A B, let’s pick the note ‘C’ and stack 2 more notes on top of it while skipping every second note → C-E-G = C Major chord.
Example 2: Let’s pick the note E and build its chord. The notes are E-G-B = Em (E Minor chord).
Each triad has its own formula:
For example, C Major chord - C-E-G: The distance from C to E is 2 tones and the distance from E to G is 1½ tones, creating the Major 3rd - Minor 3rd Pattern.
For more information about intervals, check “Musical Intervals Explained”.
Major, Minor and Diminished chords of the Major Scale
In the Major scale, there are only 3 types of these basic triads - Major, Minor, and Diminished.
When building a triad from each diatonic note, we get the following chords. These are the triad chords in C Major scale.
(diatonic note means a note from the scale)
C Major - C-E-G
D Minor - D-F-A
E Minor - E-G-B
F Major - F-A-C
G Major - G-B-D
A Minor - A-C-E
B Diminished - B-D-F
✏️ How do I write these triads?
written with the uppercase letter of the root note.
C major chord → C
written with the uppercase letter of the root note + lowercase ‘m’.
D minor chord → Dm
can be written also with a minus symbol: D-
written with the uppercase letter of the root note + lowercase ‘o’.
B diminished → Bo
The Seventh chords in the Major scale
So what are Seventh chords?
The Seventh chord is simply a triad with a fourth note on top of it. It is called a Seventh chord because the interval between the bottom and top notes is a seventh interval (in Latin - Septima).
Let’s start building chords on top of the chords we already know.
We start by building a C Major chord (triad), the notes are C-E-G, then we add another step while skipping one diatonic note. The notes we get are C-E-G-B, these notes together construct the Cmaj7 chord.
Notice: Bo → Bø - (Half Diminished, can be written also like this - Bm7b5)
This process has created 4 different chord types - Xmaj7, Xm7, Xø, and X7. These are the only types of chords found in the Major scale.
Common Chord Progressions of the C major scale
These chord progressions are just a few the most basic chord progressions in music, try to play these and see if you can recognize these progressions from many well-known songs.
The Major scale degrees
When musicians talk about scales, it is a lot easier to address each step of the scale as a degree instead of using the actual notes. But why? Because when we speak in “music language” we speak of relations between (or inside) notes or chords.
Every step of the scale gets its own roman numeral!
A few examples...
let’s try to speak in “music language”, what are the 3rd and 7th degrees of C major scale?
Well, that’s easy, E and B.
Let’s try something a little harder, what are the 2nd and 6th degrees of A major scale?
The answer is B and F# (F sharp)!
We can use the Roman numeral system in order to define chords as well. Each degree can symbol the chord (triad or seventh chord) built from its root note.
What is the 3rd and 5th degrees of the C major scale?
The answer is Em(7) and G(7).
☝️ This formula is a lot easier to operate in your head while playing, instead of thinking about notes, you're thinking in "templates". Because this is a note-less system, it fits as it is to every major scale!
For more information about the degrees of the major scale check the “Harmonic Function” article.
The avoid notes and available tensions of the major scale (“Jazz Chords”)
The chords we’ve learned so far are triad and 7th chords, these chords consist of notes called “chord tones”. We can enrich these chords with more notes called tensions. Each chord has its own available tensions, the other notes that are not tensions nor chord-tones are avoid notes!
On this table, you can see which tensions and avoid notes fit every chord in the C major scale.
For more information about avoid notes check the "Avoid Notes" article!
Modes of the major scale
Each degree of the major scale has its mode. A mode is created by playing the notes of the major scale starting from different steps of the scale.
For example, when we will play the C major scale notes starting from D to upper D, we will get the D Dorian mode.
The modes of C the major scale
Each mode has its own color, we prefer to address these colors as levels of brightness and darkness. A great video on this subject was done by David Bennet Piano, check it out.
Relative Minor and Relative Major
As we’ve just learned, every scale holds various modes inside it, the 6th mode of the major scale is the minor scale (also called Aeolian mode). These 2 scales are called related major and minor scales.
For example, the 6th degree of C major scale is A, which means that the related minor of C major scale is A minor scale. The related minor scale of Eb major is C minor scale.
How to find the key signature of a Major scale 🔍
Accidentals in Scales:
Accidentals (flats or sharps) define the key signature, depending on the number of flats OR sharps displayed at the beginning of a musical piece.
The accidentals are written at the beginning of a musical piece and mark all the sharp or flat notes for this piece. This way the composer won’t have to add countless accidentals if a piece is written in a key with flat or sharp notes.
How to write the scales Accidentals?
The accidentals are written at the beginning of a musical piece, next to the clef. There is a specific order in which the accidentals are arranged:
The Accidentals in keys that contain sharp notes will be arranged in ascending Perfect 5th intervals (or descending 4th intervals).
The Accidentals in keys that contain flat notes will be arranged in ascending Perfect 4th intervals (or descending 5th intervals).
How do you know what sharps or flats are in a scale?
There is a fairly simple system to memorize the Accidentals of each key. As stated before, the order of which the Accidentals that define keys are arranged is always the same - Perfect 4th or 5th intervals.
Let’s take a look at the following set of sharps and flats:
Notice any similarities?
These are the same arrangements in different directions.
The sharp notes order - F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B#
The flat notes order - Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, Fb
☝🏽 In order for this method to work you need to memorize this sequence from start to end and backward.
Now, how to recognize a key instantly…
Let’s look at the sharp note sequence first. When trying to figure out what key you are looking at and the key signature contains sharp notes, the key will always be half step above the last sharp note.
For example, if we try to recognize a key with F#, C#, G#, we need to move one half-step above the G# (which is the last sharp). The goal note is A, therefore the key that contains these 3 sharp notes is A major.
Note: the last sharp is B# and to prevent any confusion, the scale it indicates is C#.
When trying to recognize the key signature with flats next to the clef, we will always look at the flat before the last flat.
For example, when we see Bb, Eb, Ab, and Db next to the clef, which is the one before the last?
Ab is one before the last, that means that this is Ab major scale!
But wait, what if we see only one flat? In that case, this flat will be Bb (since it's the first in the series of flats) and the scale will be F major.
How was the major scale created
The diatonic scales origin, which includes the major scale, traces back all the way to prehistoric periods according to various sources. The written form of triads and tonal harmony started taking its shape during the 15th century.
The diatonic scales were found in many cultures, not every culture and not in the same way, but we can find similarities in all of them and there's a good reason for that.
This connection lies in the physics of sound, especially in a thing called “the overtone series”.
In a nutshell, every organic tone is compiled from a root note (fundamental) and overtones located above it. These overtones create different relations between notes that appeal to the human ear so it makes sense that the same physical rules that lie within the notes will be used by many cultures throughout history.
So where does the major scale come from? The actual major-minor system appeared for the first time in European culture (1600-1900).