Music Theory Basics: Major Scales
The Major Scale
Of all the scales found in Western music, major scales have assumed the dominant position in music education. The major scale is the first, and often the only, scale learned by young school children, who are more familiar with it as the "doh-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-doh" scale, the form of the major scale used for sight singing. For instrumental purposes, we use the first seven letters of the alphabet instead to represent natural notes of the major scale plus the 'in between' sharp notes (symbol: ♯) or flat notes (symbol:♭), as shown in the so-called 'musical alphabet' below. If you need more information on how notes are named in music, visit my Musical Alphabet lesson.
Tones and Semitones (whole steps and half steps)
What makes the major scale (or any scale for that matter) distinct isn't the notes used (as we can begin a scale on any note) but the spaces (or intervals) between the notes. It's that unique spacing between the notes that give the major scale its instantly recogniseable sound, no matter which note we choose to start from. Those intervals are called WHOLE TONES and SEMITONES.
The smallest distance normally found in Western music is called a semitone. Two semitones make the interval of a whole tone or simply a tone. (Most Americans are more familiar with terms "half step" and whole step instead.)
A semitone (or half step) is the interval between any note and its nearest neighbour. For example, it's the interval between any black note on a piano and the next white note above or below. On a guitar it's the distance on any string from one fret to the next higher or lower fret. For those who don't play any instrument, think of the ominous "Jaws" movie theme as the shark approaches; those notes are a semitone apart.
The Major Scale Formula
When we write out a major scale some of the notes are separated by a whole tone (whole step) and some by a semitone (half step)..
All music students should memorise either version of the 'major scale formula' shown below.
Building a major scale
To build any major scale, you simply start on any note and proceed through the musical alphabet selecting scale notes according to the major scale formula: TTSTTTS (or WWHWWWH). This will give you a different note for each of the seven so-called 'scale degrees' plus the final eighth note which has the same name as the first note, but is higher in pitch by one octave (from octo meaning 8)
The GOLDEN RULE of note naming
There is a strict rule that must be observed when naming the notes of major scales, which is: YOU MUST USE ALL THE LETTERS IN SUCCESSION.
This will be made clearer in the following examples.
The C major scale
Here's the scale of C major. It's considered the simplest scale to work with because by following the formula starting from C, all of the notes are natural notes. We avoided landing on any flat/sharp notes. Notice also that when we reached the last letter of the musical alphabet (G), we simply started again from A and continue until we reach C.
The G major scale
Starting on G, we proceed by tones and semitones (whole steps and half steps) exactly as we did with C major. There's a difference though. Look at the 6th scale degree, which is E. Our next note is a whole tone or whole step higher. E to F is only a semitone, or half step, so it can't be F. It has to be F sharp.
F sharp is the same as G flat but following the golden rule of using every letter in succession, we CAN'T call it G flat. It must be called F sharp.
The F major scale
This time we start on F. When we reach scale degree 3, which is A, our next note will be a semitone, or half step, higher. Having just used A, our next note can't be called A sharp. It has to be called B something according to the rule of using every letter in succession. So it's B flat.
Various major scales
For reference, some more major scales are included below. Notice that in the scales of C sharp major and F sharp major, by following the golden rule of using every letter in succession, we end up with some unusual note names such as E sharp and B sharp. Of course, E sharp is the same pitch as F and B sharp is the same pitch as C, but in these contexts they MUST be named according to the strict rule of using every letter in succession.
Non-valid major scales
By following the strict rule of using every letter in succession, there are certain major scales that aren't considered valid as they would require the use of double sharps. For example, if you try to work out the scale of G sharp major, you'll end up with scale degree 7 being F## (F double sharp).
Although double sharps (and double flats) can appear as chromatic alterations in major key music, they're not considered valid in constructing major scales, and you should always use the so-called 'enharmonic equivalent' scale instead. That means the scale that sounds the same but with notes named differently. In the case of G sharp major, which would have eight sharps including one double sharp, the more sensible 'enharmonically equivalent' major scale is A flat major containing only four flats.
Major scales that aren't considered valid, and that can be safely ignored include: G sharp, D, sharp and A sharp.
Recommended scale resources
Uses of the major scale
Apart from voice training purposes mentioned in the opening paragraph, the major scale has lots of uses, such as:
Composing music in major keys
When we say that a song is in a particular key such as G major, for example. It means that most (if not all) of its notes belong to the scale of G major, and that the first note, G, called the tonic, is treated as the main or 'home' note. So by taking the G major scale and mixing up the notes in a musically tasteful way, you'll have a piece of music in G major.
Instrument technique improvement
As most Western music is composed in major keys, practising major scale runs on any instrument, will improve your ability to play the kinds of note sequences that you'll constantly encounter in real music.
If a song is in a known major key, you can improvise along with it by playing notes of that major scale in any order that sounds good to you. Obviously, you would avoid playing the whole scale up and down as that just sounds like someone playing a scale.
Because of the predominance of the major scale in music, chords can be constructed by referring to it as a handy template. Every chord has a standard formula derived from its relation to the major scale starting on the same note. For example, all major chords have a formula of 1 3 5. That means the chord, C major is composed of the 1st, 3rd & 5th notes of the C major scale (C, E & G) arranged in any order, plus any optional octave doubling of those notes. The chord C minor, on the other hand, has a formula of 1, flat 3, 5. C and G (1 & 5) are still needed, but instead of E, the required note is Eb (flat 3). To learn more about how to build the many different chords by using each chord's formula, read my chord construction lesson.