The major scale is the most commonly used scale in our music. You should learn all major scales by heart, but it’s also good to know how they actually work. In this article, we’ll learn to build the major scales from scratch.
Because Western music only has 12 unique tones, there are also 12 possible major scales: one beginning on each of these tones.
You have probably seen the C major scale before. It consists of just the white keys on the piano.
The C major scale: C D E F G A B C
There are many other types of scales besides the major scale: several minor scales, the pentatonic scale, the whole-tone scale, the blues scale, and so on.
What is the difference between all these scales? Answer: the distances between the tones!
If you play the C major scale on your piano, notice that even though you’re playing only white keys, some of these white keys have a black key in between (e.g. C and D) while others haven’t (e.g. E and F).
In other words, not all tones in the major scale are spaced evenly apart: sometimes they skip a tone.
Each type of scale has its own interval formula. You apply this formula to any of the 12 possible tones to build that particular scale on that tone. (Read more about intervals here)
The interval formula for the major scale is: W W H W W W H
Where W is a whole-step and H is a half-step.
So in order to construct a major scale, we need to pick a starting tone and apply this formula.
Example 1: C major scale
Let’s build the C major scale using the formula.
We start at C, that will be the first tone in our scale.
Our formula says we need to move up a whole-step, so we skip C# and end up at D. That is the second tone in our scale.
To find the third tone we again move up by a whole-step, so skip D# to arrive at E.
According to the formula we now only have to move up only a half-step, from E to F.
Then another whole-step to G, a whole-step to A, and a whole-step to B.
Finally, one last half-step up from B brings us back to C (but one octave higher).
That’s how you do it!
Example 2: Eb major scale
Let’s look at another major scale, the Eb major scale.
We start at Eb and apply the formula. A whole-step up from Eb is F. A whole step up from F is G. So far, so good.
Then the formula calls for a half-step and we go up from G to… Ab.
Now why is this called Ab and not G#? The reason is simple: in the major scale, we use each note name only once.
We already used G so we cannot also use G#. Therefore, we must take the letter that follows G, which is A. And because we only moved up a half-step, we add the flat to make it Ab.
Of course Ab and G# are the same key on the piano, so it will sound the same no matter what you call it, but it’s a good idea to learn the proper note names for the scales.
From Ab we go up a whole-step again to find Bb, and so on.
If you apply the rest of the formula, you’ll find the Eb major scale: Eb F G Ab Bb C D Eb
Example 3: C# major scale
One more example: the C# major scale.
You know the drill by now: Start at C# and count up the proper number of whole and half-steps. Try it for yourself!
The C# major scale is: C# D# E# F# G# A# B# C#
Wait a minute… what on earth are E# and B#?!
Remember that I said we only use each letter once? When you go a whole-step up from D#, the next tone must be some kind of E. Even though on the keyboard it is technically the F key, we cannot call it F yet otherwise we would have skipped the letter “E”.
Just like C# is a half-step up from C and D# is a half-step up from D, E# is a half-step up from E.
The same goes for B#, which is a half-step up from B.
You already know that we can refer to each of the black keys using two different names (e.g. C# and Db) but the same goes for several of the white keys. In some of the major scales it is necessary to refer to F as E# and to C as B#.
(Note that on certain instruments E# and F are actually slightly different tones. On the piano, however, they share the same key and are therefore “enharmonically equivalent”.)
In case you were wondering: In some other major scales we refer to the E key as Fb and to the B key as Cb. Fortunately for us, this only happens in the less-often used scales.
I hope this article has given you insight into the construction of the major scale. From now on you should be able to build all 12 of them from scratch, as long as you remember the formula:
W W H W W W H
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