Part Six


Major Scales - I

Having made it through the first five parts of this web site, our next challenge may seem like a step backwards. We're going to leave the world of chords and progressions for a while and discuss music that happens one note at a time. Welcome to the world of scales.

Concept - Half Steps and Whole Steps

First, a definition. On a keyboard, the distance from any note to the nearest note on the right or the left is called a half step. A distance of two half steps is called a whole step. (On a guitar string, every fret represents another half step.)

On a keyboard, when counting half steps and whole steps, look at the back edge of the keys (where white notes and black notes are both visible). If you look at only the front edge, where only white notes are next to one another, you might not count correctly. The distance from one white note to the next is sometimes a half step and sometimes a whole step. It depends on whether or not a black note is between them.

Concept - Formula for the Major Scale

Half steps and whole steps allow us to describe a scale as a series of jumps. The major scale follows the formula "whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half" or WWHWWWH. Beginning on the note C and following this pattern gives us C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C.

Notice that the words "whole" and "half" do not refer to any of the notes: they describe the distances between them. It could be written this way... C-w-D-w-E-h-F-w-G-w-A-w-B-h-C. Using numbers instead of notes gives us... 1-w-2-w-3-h-4-w-5-w-6-w-7-h-1.

Challenge - Learning the Major Scales

It's a good idea to make it your goal to learn all 12 major scales. This will take a while, but it's well worth it. When you have a good understanding of these 12 scales, it will be a lot easier to talk about modal and minor scales.

Secondly, it isn't enough just to play the scales up and down - it's important to play single-note songs. This forces you to jump around in that scale and still land on the right notes.

So the challenge is really two challenges... one is memorizing the scales, and the other is playing songs using the scales.

We'll Start With C Major

It's true that each of the major scales follows the formula WWHWWWH, and if you need to you can generate them that way, but that isn't how we memorize them. We memorize them as "shapes" or "pictures" or "clumps of notes grouped together." For example, the "shape picture" for C major might look like this.

The starting note (Note 1) is C, and the piano keys needed to play this scale are all white notes.

Look at the white circles for a moment. Can you mentally picture the rest of the letter names? Do you "see" C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C? What if we numbered them? Can you see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 1? Which key is number 5? The key E is what number? Number 6 is what letter? And finally, if you were asked to play the sequence 5-3-2-1-6-4-5, do you see which notes you would play and in what order?

When we say the challenge is to learn all 12 major scales, that's what we mean.

First, to be able to picture each scale...
second, to know the letter name of each note...
third, to know the number of each note...
fourth, to play sequences of notes when given the numbers.

A Moment For Perspective

If this is the first time you've seen this challenge, it may look like a long journey. I need to be honest with you... it is a long journey. But there is good news. First, your brain is very powerful, and it can keep track of all this information. Second, if we walk slowly through this (not rushing - just enjoying), and spend some time in all the places, eventually it will become easy, and you will be a better musician as a result.

Let's Review

In this section we learned about whole steps and half steps. We also learned that a scale can be described as a series of whole and half steps. When we know the "formula" for the scale, we can choose a starting note and generate the rest of the scale by following the jumps indicated by the formula. (Also, the whole and half steps are not actual notes themselves... they are the distances between the notes.)

The major scale has the formula WWHWWWH. Beginning with C and following the jumps, we get C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. These notes happen to be white notes, so the C scale picture looks like this.

Looking at this picture, we realized we would need to know each note as both a letter and a number, and then be able to play number sequences, not only in the C major scale, but also in eleven other major scales, which suddenly seemed like a big challenge. We accepted the challenge.

When you feel good about the concepts and ideas in this part, move on to Part 7. Have fun!

Index - Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Charts and Maps
Part 6 - Part 7 - Part 8 - Part 9 - 1st Steps in Keyboard - Part 10
Part 11 - Part 12 - 1st Steps in Note Reading

Copyright 2004 Steve Mugglin
Permission is given to make not-for-profit copies
of this material.