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Building a Major Scale

Understanding how to build a scale rather than just being told what notes to play.

The major scale is essentially the building block of all Western music as we know it. It is the foundation in music from the classical artists of Mozart and Beethoven to the pop stars of Ariana Grande and Ed Sheeran today. And while there are many other scales in music, many are derived and can be built by some variation of the major scale. But, what exactly is the major scale, and how is it formed?

Without getting into too much detail on where the major scale comes from and how it became so prevalent (that requires a whole other article!), the scale is essentially seven notes of different frequencies that have a certain order pattern to them. When you take a music lesson, one of the first things you learn on an instrument is how to play a major scale. Make note of the image of the piano that headlines this article. If you are not familiar with how a piano is laid out, note the set of two black keys that are close together and the set of three black keys together. Let's say you begin your scale on the C note, which is the white key to the left of the set of the two black keys. If you play all white keys all the way to the next C (where the piano key layout starts over), you've successfully played a major scale. But why does it work? What is the pattern?

A major scale (or any scale) is built by a series of whole steps and half steps. Every instrument has their own mechanical way of moving up and down these steps, but on a piano a half step is key to key, whether that's a a white key to black key, or white key to white key. A whole step would skip over one key.

The major scale formula is as follows:

Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half (often abbreviated WWHWWWH)

Let's observe an image of a piano again, this time with our C Major Scale labeled:


From the note C to D, a whole step occurs as it skips over the black key, and then again from D to E. Following the formula, we then see a half step movement from E to F, as there is no black key in between. The major scale formula follows through with three more whole steps and then the half step between B and C. It just so happens that a C Major scale falls on all white keys on the piano, but we can use the formula to build the major scale for any other key.

If we begin at D, a whole step goes to E, and then we need another whole step, which would land on F#, the black key to the right of F. Then half (G), whole (A), whole (B), whole (C#), and a half step back to D.

The piano is a great instrument to demonstrate the movement of steps for scales, but as I mentioned earlier, every instrument has their own way of making steps. As another example, fretted instruments divide their steps by half steps from fret to fret.

Here is an image of the guitar fretboard with the notes labeled:

Let's follow the major scale formula on the E string. 

We start with the open E string as our first note.

Whole step to 2nd fret (F#)

Whole step to 4th fret (G#)

Half step to 5th fret (A)

Whole step to 7th fret (B)

Whole step to 9th fret (C#)

Whole step to 11th fret (D#)

Half step to 12th fret (E)

As you can see, as long as you follow the formula to a T, you will not go wrong and you can build a major scale from any note. 

The piano and guitar are simply used as an example since they are two of the most common instruments, but the formula is universal. Of course, there is no better way to get a handle on the major scale than actually playing it on your instrument, but laying the foundation of how a major scale is built is probably the most fundamental principle in understanding music theory. Apply this knowledge to your own instrument today!

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Twitter/Instagram: @kylefostermusic

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