• Candice Alderfer

Building Major Scales!

Hey Guys!

Today I’m going to be talking to y’all about creating major scales! The major scale is one of the most essential scales to learn in music theory because many other scales are built upon it.

What is a major scale? It is a scale made from seven different notes. It ends on an eighth note that is technically the same as the first note, also known as the tonic note, but just in the next octave up. For a technical explanation, the eighth note will duplicate the first note, just doubling in frequency, meaning sounding higher by an octave. 

Major scales cannot repeat letter names, letter names must be in order and sharp and flat accidentals cannot mix in a single scale. 

For example: A C Major Scale is C D E F G A B C. Letter names cannot repeat in this way: C D E E# G A B C. If we were to read the scale in this manner, it would still SOUND correct but be written wrong. Similar to the English language of how the same sounding words can have different meanings depending on their spelling. Like “meet” and “meat.” The same sounding word changes definition based on the way it’s spelled. Context will decipher a way a note is written in a scale

In this case, F and E# will sound the same no matter which way we choose to notate. We have the same sounding note in both scales, but notated differently depending on context. 

Scales cannot be written with the letters out of order like this: 

C E D F G B A C. 

Changing the order of notes will change the interval pattern, no longer making the scale major. 

The pattern of intervals that exist between the notes of the scale are:

  1. Whole

  2. Whole

  3. Half

  4. Whole

  5. Whole

  6. Whole

  7. Half

Between the first and second notes of the scale, or between the first and second scale degree, there is a musical distance of a whole step, or a whole tone. Between the second and third scale degree, there is a whole tone. 

A scale degree is the technical term that refers to the position of a particular note on a scale that is relative to the “starting” note or tonic.

Between the third and fourth scale degree there is a half tone or semitone, which as the name implies, is half the distance of a whole step, or a whole tone. 

Between the fourth and fifth degree of the scale is a whole step, and so on and so forth until we finish the sequence of intervals. At that point we will have created a full major scale. 

If we had the letter names of the scale out of order like such: C E D F G B A C, not only would the intervals be wrong, but the notes would also be HEARD out of order. 

If we look at the incorrect way of writing a C Major Scale, the distance between C and E would not be a whole step. The distance between the first and second note needs to be a whole step because that is the first interval of the pattern used to create major scales. The distance between C and E in this order is not a whole step, which automatically means this scale cannot be major. Distances between notes are what define the type of scale the notes create. Our ears can hear these intervals, so playing notes out of order will change what the scale is and the way a scale sounds altogether. 

Let’s do a quick recap of the distances that make up a whole step and a half step. 

To move a whole step away from any note, you must travel two half steps. A half step is the distance that exists between every adjacent note. Each arrow in the drawing above indicates the distance of a half step. In both pictures we start on C. There is a half step between C and the black key, C#/Db. There is also a half step between C#/Db and D. To move a whole step away from C, you must travel two half steps, passing C#/Cb, making C and D a whole step away from each other. 

Now that we’ve got the basic gist of what a major scale is and the pattern of intervals necessary to create one, let’s dissect a C Major Scale. I’ve already shown you what a C major scale looks like, but now we’re going to dive deeper into looking at how the pattern of intervals for a major scale applies to C Major. We’ll be identifying the pattern between each of the notes on a keyboard. 

Since we want to create a C Major Scale, we know automatically that the “starting” or tonic note will be C, as well as the eighth note. Remember, the eighth note is the same as the tonic, just higher in pitch by double, or one octave. If we didn’t know the C Major Scale like we already do, our job generally would be to figure out the notes that make up the other scale degrees by following the pattern of intervals based on our starting note, C, and jotting down the notes we land on. 

Since we already know that the scale must be in alphabetical order, we can just plug in the letter names to start. Now all we have to do is find out what notes, if any, get sharp or flat accidentals. 

Currently, we already know that this is a C Major Scale because I’ve shown you earlier that it is. C Major is the only major scale that has no sharps or flats and is entirely made up of white piano keys. This makes it the easiest scale to memorize, read and understand. All we have to do is start with any C on the piano and play every white note until we reach the next C in the next octave up. 

It is for this reason that C Major is almost always the first major scale that is taught to music students. The layout of the piano is actually based upon the C Major Scale. 

Right now we’re going to PROVE that this is, in fact a C Major Scale by identifying the pattern of intervals in between all the notes. Afterwards, we're going to build a new major scale with a completely different tonic note, but still following the same pattern of intervals. 

This is the C Major scale on a keyboard. Each individual arrow indicates the distance of one half step or semitone.

  1. Let’s begin with the first interval. Between C and D, there is a whole step. We skipped over the black key C#/Db to land on D.

  1. Between D and E is a whole step. There is one half step between D and D#/Eb and another half step between D#/Eb and D. We skipped over D#/Eb to land on E.

  1. Between E and F on the keyboard is a special place, where there is no black key that separates these two white keys. The next interval we must travel to get to our next note, or the fourth scale degree is a half step. This means that we don’t skip over any note. We don’t skip over any black keys like we just previously did. We land on the note directly next to E, a white piano key, which is F. If we were to travel a whole step away from E, we would land on the black key F#/Gb. This would be incorrect since we need a half step between the third and fourth note, not a whole. 

  1. So far, we have traveled three out of the seven intervals out of the Major Scales Pattern. We have three more whole steps intervals and a half step interval in our pattern of a major scale to complete the C Major scale. Between F and G is a whole step. We skipped over F#/Gb.

  1. Between G and A is a whole step. We skipped over G#/Ab. 

  1. Between A and B is a whole step. We skipped over A#/Bb.

  1. And now, to finish our C Major scale with the last interval of the pattern, we travel a half step from B. This is the exact same kind of distance as between E and F. No black key separates these two white keys, so from B, we land on the piano key directly next to it, a white piano key, which is C. 

C D E F G A B C There we have it! Our C Major Scale! No repeating letter names or accidentals, and all the letter names are in the correct alphabetical order!


Now that we’ve dissected this C Major scale, let’s create a G Major Scale. G will be our tonic and eighth note. 

Because C Major is the only scale with no accidentals or black keys, we can anticipate an accidental being discovered among one of the notes in the scale. This is also a way of saying that we can anticipate landing on a black piano key somewhere.

We’ll begin with plugging in the letter names first since we know they have to be in order. G A B C D E F G Our job now is to follow the interval pattern, see when and where we land on a black piano keys, and apply the appropriate accidental to the correct scale degrees. We don’t know as of right now whether we will use sharp or flats accidentals yet, but we will find out once we start traveling from letter name to letter name. 

  1. The first interval in the Major Scale pattern is a Whole Step: Between G and A, this is true, so there is nothing we need to do to modify A to change the distance between the two notes. So we know the second scale degree for a G Major Scale is A. 

  1. We have another Whole Step: Between A and B, this is true, so there is nothing we need to do to modify B to change the distance. The third scale degree for a G Major Scale is B.

  1. The next interval is a Half Step: Between B and C, this is true, so there is nothing we need to do to modify C to change the distance. The fourth scale degree for a G Major scale is C.

  1. The next interval is a Whole Step: Between C and D, this is true, so there is nothing we need to do to D to change the distance. The fifth scale degree of a G Major scale is D.

  1. The next interval is a Whole Step: Between D and E this is true, so there is nothing we need to do to modify E to change the distance. The sixth scale degree of a G Major Scale is E.

  1. The next interval is a Whole Step: Between E and F, this ISN’T true. We need to travel a whole step, but there is only a half step between E and F. F is directly next to E without any black key separating them, which means only a half step exists between E and F. To change this and make this a whole step interval between the two notes, we MUST move two half steps in total. We need to move 1 half step from E to F and move another half step away from F to the black key F#/Gb, totaling two half steps, or one whole step. This black key is our seventh scale degree of a G Major Scale

We’ve raised F by a half step to create a whole step interval from E. The result of this increase has made us land on a black piano key.

This black key has two letter names, one with a sharp and the other with a flat accidental, so how do we know which one to use? 

If you haven’t yet already seen my video on enharmonic equivalents and accidentals, I’ve linked it down below to check out on my channel!

Let’s recap on the rules of building Major Scales. Sharp and flat accidentals cannot mix in a single scale and letter names cannot repeat. Letter names must also be in order.

We’re traveling a whole step from the note E. Since the letter names must be in order, the letter name for the next note MUST be called an F. Although, F# and Gb technically sound the same, we HAVE to call this note an F#. This also means any other black keys we land on, if any in the scale, must also be the letter name with the sharp accidental since we can’t mix sharps and flats together in a single scale. In conclusion, a whole step away from E is F#, so F# is the seventh note of the scale.

  1. The next and last interval to complete our major scale is a Half Step: Between F# and the eighth scale degree, which we already know is G, there is a half step. The scale ends on the same note as our starting note and is one half step away from the 7th note. And we're done!

G A B C D E F# G We’ve created a G Major scale! The G Major only has one sharp accidental on the seventh scale degree, F.

With the interval pattern for a major scale, whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half, you can create a major scale with any starting note of your choosing. To practice creating major scales, I would practice first by using all the white keys as different tonic notes until I feel comfortable with whole and half step distances on a piano and feel comfortable with writing scales with accidentals.

You can have a tonic note starting on notes with accidentals, or black keys like A#, Bb, D# Eb, and so on, but eventually you will run into OTHER accidentals called Double Sharps and Double flats, depending on which name for a black piano key you choose. Both Double Sharps and Double Flats refer to the distance of a whole tone, or a total of two half steps away from a pitch.

There ya'll have it! Please check out my video above to see images and drawings I've made for this blog post and my YouTube video to better help see the distances that make up Major Scales. I hope you guys enjoyed both my video and blog post!

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