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July 31, 2015
March 21, 2024

A Complete Rundown of Major Scales

Major scales are the foundation of almost all songs written in major keys. Because of this, it is very important to understand what major scales are, how to determine the notes in any given major scale, and then be able to translate that onto your instrument.

Once you grasp the concept of major scales it makes learning them so much easier. Plus, when the worship leader changes the key of a song on the fly, you will be able to figure out the notes on the spot! This is why I love music. The fundamentals of music are supported by simple formulas, and once you learn those, you can use your creativity to combine them with other aspects of music.

Most worship songs are written in major keys. There’s a reason for this. You’ve probably heard the line “major is happy and minor is sad”. To some degree this is true, and especially to the untrained ear, major chords, scales and keys are generally more uplifting if you will.

So what notes make up a major scale? This is where the simple formula comes into play (pun intended).

Major Scale Formula: Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half.

Wait a second, what does “whole” and “half” mean? Good question. If you aren’t familiar with intervals or steps or tone/semitone then this next part will be new to you. If you already understand what the words next to “Major Scale Formula” are but aren’t quite sure how to use them to make a major scale, feel free to skim ahead – but a review is always helpful.

Half Step (Semitone): A half step is the distance between 2 consecutive pitches on a 12-tone scale. On a guitar or bass, a half step is the difference of moving up 1 fret or down 1 fret. On a keyboard, a half step is the difference of moving up 1 key or down 1 key.

The Chromatic Scale includes all of the pitches in the Western musical system (not including quarter tones etc). Each pair of consecutive pitches is a half step. The Chromatic Scale is made up of all half steps and is listed in order as follows:

A A#/Bb B C C#/Db D D#/Eb E F F#/Gb G G#/Ab A

So the distance between A and A#, for instance, is a half step. Gb to G is also a half step. C to B is a half step. See the pattern?

Notice that there are only 2 pairs of pitches in the Chromatic Scale that are immediately next to each other without a sharp/flat pitch between them, those being E to F, and B to C. On the piano, these consecutive pitches do not have black keys between them and so the intervals between these natural pitches are ALWAYS half steps. On the other hand, if we go from C to D we combine 2 half steps (C to C#, and C# to D) to make a whole step.

Whole Step (Tone): A whole step is simply 2 half steps, or the distance between two pitches with only (and always) 1 pitch in the middle. On a guitar or bass, a whole step is the difference of moving up 2 frets or down 2 frets. On a keyboard, a whole step is the difference of moving up 2 keys or down 2 keys. When we only use the interval of a whole step and exclude all half steps from our pattern we end up with what is called a Whole Tone Scale. Don’t worry about this scale pattern, but notice how the pitch selection changes when we use whole steps instead of half steps as shown here:

A B C# D# E#(F) G A

The Major Scale

The major scale is made up of whole steps and half steps in the following order: Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half. We can abbreviate this by using W for whole step and H for half step: W W H W W W H. This is the Major Scale Formula.

If you transpose or ever need to know the notes of any major scale, you should memorize this formula. This will come in handy when the worship leader says, “We’re going to switch this song to the key of Eb.” You think to yourself, “Ummmmmmm… I haven’t practiced that one…what was the formula again?”

Major Scale Formula: W W H W W W H. Memorize it!

Let’s go through each step of determining the pitches within a couple of different major scales for practice.

Whatever the pitch of the major scale is, that is what the starting pitch for our formula is going to be. So if we want to find the pitches in the C Major Scale, we will start on C.

C is our starting pitch, so we go up a Whole step to D, go up a Whole step to E, go up a Half step to F, go up a Whole step to G, go up a Whole step to A, go up a Whole step to B, and finally go up a Half step to C. We’ve just figured out the notes for the C Major Scale. Do you see the pattern?

Again, wherever there is a whole step (W), there is exactly 1 pitch between that starting pitch (C) and the “end” pitch for that whole step (D). Another way to say this is that you count up 2 pitches on the Chromatic Scale from the starting pitch, C to C#/Db to D. Where there is a half step (H), there aren’t any pitches between it and the next one, as a half step is the smallest interval using 2 different and consecutive pitches.

If we follow this pattern and use the chromatic scale as our guide, we can figure out any major scale quickly. For example, let’s start a major scale on B.

The Major Scale Formula is: W W H W W W H

If we follow the Major Scale Formula, we end up with the pitches in the B Major Scale which are:

B, C#, D#, E, F#, G#, A#, B

Let’s start a different major scale on F.

The Major Scale Formula is: W W H W W W H

If we follow the Major Scale Formula, we end up with the pitches in the F Major Scale which are:

F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E, F

Your Turn

Now you give it a shot. Let’s try the Key of A.

The Major Scale Formula is: W W H W W W H

If we follow the Major Scale Formula, what pitches do we end up with in the A Major Scale? Write them down and check your work at the end of this post.

Let’s try one more scale, D Major.

The Major Scale Formula is: W W H W W W H

If we follow the Major Scale Formula, what pitches do we end up with in the D Major Scale? Write them down to see if you understand the application of the Major Scale Formula. Check your answers at the end of the post.

Do I Use Sharps or Flats?

You probably noticed that for some scales I chose the sharp notes from the chromatic scale and for other scales I chose the flat notes, but I never mixed them. This is an important aspect of music theory, as well as making sure you are using the correct terminology. It is possible to mix sharps and flats because F# is the technically same pitch as Gb, for instance. But the point is to communicate music in the easiest way possible, and by that I mean to be consistent.

When a musician is told to play a song in the Key of B Major, they should use the B Major Scale. The B Major Scale (as you’ve seen above) contains the following pitches:

B, C#, D#, E, F#, G#, A#, B.

You could theoretically write the pitches as this instead: B, C#, Eb, E, Gb, G#, Bb, B. But who is more confused now than they were with the previous B Major Scale? I know I would be if I saw a Gb and Bb as well as a C# and G# in the B Major Scale.

Another way to think about this is to have one of each pitch in the major scale.

So for the correct version of B Major, there is one B, one C (C#), one D (D#), one E, one F (F#), one G (G#), one A (A#), and then the repeat of the starting pitch, B.

The difference and confusion comes in when you get to the alternate version of B Major where there is one B, one C (C#), no D, two E’s (both Eb and E), no F, two G’s (Gb and G#), no A, and two B’s (three total including the starting pitch).

In conclusion

You’ve learned what a half step is and what a whole step is. You’ve learned to apply that knowledge combined with the Major Scale Formula to create a major scale starting on any pitch. And you’ve learned why and when to use sharps or flats. These are all great things to understand and be able to have in your toolbelt when it comes to transposing, soloing, knowing what notes are in which scales and keys, as well as building chords.

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