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Harmony for Dummies : the major scale

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If the notes and manipulation of intervals are OK for you, let’s move to the following: construction of a scale.

Basics required for this lesson : None
Practice this lesson : None

If during the course you are in any doubt about what I said about intervals, please go back and read the course on notes. Another very important advice: write down what I explain, otherwise there will be too much to learn by heart and you will quickly get confused.

What is a scale?

A scale is simply a sequence of notes that will be repeated on different octaves (at different pitches, in fact, more or less low or high). A scale is composed of a number of notes. In the current scales, we have:

  • "heptatonic" scales (7 notes), which are the major scales and all its derivatives (minor, harmonic, mash etc ...)
  • "pentatonic" scales (5 notes), the famous minor or major penta.

There are PLENTY of other scales, but they do not concern us at all yet.

We'll start off by looking at the major scale, it is the most common, and that is from where all the rest will come. For simplicity, we will talk about the C major scale.
It's simple, everybody knows it, even if everyone does not know that it's called the C major scale. It is simply:
C, D, E, F, G, A, B (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G etc ...) (I added lots of notes between brackets to show the cyclic side or this scale).

How is a scale built?

Rather than to learn the notes sequence by heart... Because for each scale, we can write it in the 12 existing notes, so if you must remember 12 series of notes by heart, it's a hassle.

Let's start by looking at the name : C major scale

  • C, is what we call the key note. This is the first note of the scale, the most important one which gives its name to the scale, and it's from there that we start the scale.
  • major, is the nature of the scale. This will tell us, starting from the key note, other notes which we will play for the scale of this nature.

It is this nature that we will focus on particularly. Indeed, if we speak of the C major scale, we have a notes sequence starting from C. But if we talk about the A major for example? The first thing a beginner will do is "A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A." Well no. If you are able to find your notes on the neck of your guitar, try to play C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C, and then A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A and tell me if you find that it sounds the same.

To change the key note of a scale (or we call that to transpose also) we will actually shift the intervals that this scale is composed of. And yes, when we speak about a notes sequence, we also speak about a series of intervals. So in fact, the nature of a scale is summed up in a series of intervals. Then we must know the sequences of intervals that correspond to major scales, minor scales, minor penta etc ... and from there we can apply it to any key note.

Which intervals is our major scale composed of ?

Well it's easy, we know the notes, and we know the gaps between the notes:

C-D: 1 tone
D-E: 1 tone
E-F: 1 / 2 tone
F-G: 1 tone
G-A: 1 tone
A-B: 1 tone
B-C: 1 / 2 tone

So here we are... We start from C and we apply the following sequence of intervals: tone tone ½ tone tone tone tone ½ tone (write it down, tattoo it, learn it by heart, but you must always have this with you).

Since you probably know that a fret on the guitar neck = 1 / 2 tone (although we will speak about this later), you can already easily play the major scale on one string starting on any note and by shifting two spaces or one space depending on the interval, even if you do not yet know what notes you play (and you can now compare the true A major scale, with the A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A we did earlier, you will easily hear it sounds different)

So now, to understand more thoroughly and to ease communication between us, we must
agree on some naming standards. Let's say we want to find the A major scale, so we start from A, and we apply this sequence of intervals (this is when it becomes really important to write down everything so that you don't get lost):

A + 1 tone = B
B + 1 tone = C # (C is ½ tone above B, D is a tone and a half above B. For the note a tone above B you have to take a C # (half tone above C)
C # + 1 / 2 tone = D
D + 1 tone = E
E+ 1 tone = F # (again, only 1 / 2 tone between E and F, so we need a half tone more)
F # + 1 tone = G #
G # + 1 / 2 tone = A.

And now, full circle: A, B, C #, D, E, F # ,G # A.
It's not that hard right?

Why I chose C #, not Db?

In both cases, it is a halftone above C, it's the same note on your neck. There is one simple reason : let's write Db instead of C #, and we get: A, B, Db, D, E, F #, G #, A.

Here we have two concerns: first, a mixture of sharps and flats (and believe me, you will want to avoid it when you can, because that's very confusing), and second, there are two "D" (one normal and one flat) and not any C in the scale, and we want to avoid that also. So you must select the notes so that we find one note of each and only one, and so that we don't mix sharps and flats. There are obviously special cases of scales where this does not work, but with the major scales it always works.
One last detail: if after writing down your scale you do not fall back on the key note, there is for sure something wrong.


To summarize:

  • A scale is defined by a key note, and by its nature, which will give us the sequence of intervals to be applied starting from the tonic
  • Name the notes so that you do not mix sharps and flats, and have one and only one note of each (this of course only works for the 7 notes scales)
  • You have to know the different sequences of intervals by heart, even if it is very easy to find back the sequence of intervals of the major scale thanks to the C major scale

Do the following to tame all this

  1. Write down some major scales, many, starting from any note (you can very well start from F # or Eb, or even B #, it's really funny)
  2. Play them on the neck, on only one string for now, we will move to more complex positions a little later
  3. Try with the minor pentatonics. An A minor penta is A-C-D-E-G-A. So try and find the corresponding sequences of intervals, and try to transpose it into other keys.

You really have to try all this, ask yourself some questions (there are some interesting cases to see), explore all this. There are obviously many other things to say about the construction of scales (cycle of fifths, order of sharps and flats), but these are the tools that you should know only once you feel comfortable with the basics. It will only allow us just to better understand the link between the scales, so it's interesting when you start talking about modulation, but we are not there yet.


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Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.
(Victor Hugo)