As the major scale is so important in music, it’s something every musician should be familiar with. Learn here how to construct any major scale accurately and efficiently.
The importance of the major scale in music can’t be underestimated. Most Western music is composed using notes of the major scale, and it has become the yardstick against which we construct and name chords.
The major scale, like most scales, is a collection of notes placed in ascending order of pitch. Also, like any scale, it’s not the notes that define it but the gaps (called intervals) between the notes. In the case of the major scale, the notes are separated by small intervals that we call whole tones (or more commonly, just tones and semitones). Americans often prefer to call them whole steps and half steps, respectively. The semitone (or half step) is the smallest interval in standard music notation. It’s the difference in pitch between any note and its nearest neighbour. Two semitones (or half steps) make a whole tone (or whole step).
Before you can work out the notes of any major scale, you need to know how notes in music are named. If you know that already, skip to the next section. If not, here’s a diagram showing all the standard note names used in music arranged in ascending order of pitch. Every note is separated by one semitone. As you can see, it’s just the first seven letters of the alphabet but with some extra notes squeezed in between some of the letters. Look at the one squeezed in between A and B. It’s called A# (A sharp) because it’s higher in pitch than A. Alternatively, it can be called Bb (B flat) because it’s lower in pitch than B. We can use either name for this (and all the other squeezed in notes) but in certain situations, we have to choose one name over the other. Scale building is one of those situations as you’ll see later.
Notice that there is no note squeezed in between B & C or between E & F. That’s because they’re already just a semitone apart – so there’s no need. Remember those two pairs, B-C & E-F. It’s very important.
Here’s how they work out on a standard keyboard. Notice there’s no black key squeezed in between B & C or between E & F.
Of course, there are many more notes than this but they’re all named using those note names above. When the series ends at G#, we just start naming them again from A. We say that that higher A is an octave higher than one we started with. That interval is called an octave because it covers eight letters from A to the next A. (octa meaning 8)
The major scale formula tells us which intervals to use to build a major scale starting on any note.
The formula is a mixture of tones (whole steps) and semitones (half steps) in the following order, which should be memorised using the abbreviations T for Tones and S for semitones, or the American style using W for whole steps and H for half steps.
or, if you prefer the American way
We can start on any note, but for simplicity, the C major scale (which, as you might expect, starts on the note C) is the best one to begin with.
A golden rule in building standard scales such as major or minor scales, is that we MUST use every letter in succession. Look at the D major scale, below. The 3rd note is called F# (F sharp). As you know F# is also called Gb (G flat) but in this situation, it can only be called F# because of that strict rule of using every letter in succession. The same applies to the C# note. It can only be called C#, not Db or else we’d be breaking that golden rule.
Points to remember
British style T T S T T T S
American style W W H W W W H
That’s all there is to it. You can start on any note and build a major scale according to that simple formula, making sure to follow the rule regarding selecting the appropriate sharp or flat. You should also be aware that by following this rule starting from certain notes produces some very strange note names with double sharps. Those notes to avoid starting from are G#, D# & A#. Start from Ab, Eb & Bb instead.