Introduction to Scales

A scale is a collection of notes that are related to each other by pitch. Scales provide the foundation for melody where each note in the scale is played individually, and in harmony where two or more notes are played simultaneously. To master music theory, you must have a thorough understanding of scales.

Individual scales are created by applying a specific pattern to the chromatic scale. This pattern is restricted to a fixed series of notes.

By understanding scales and their relationships, we gain an understanding of the practical applications of chords and melodies, and how combinations are used in music. When chords and melodies are derived from within a scale, they sound "right" to the ear.

The first scale we will study is called the Major Scale. The Major Scale consists of seven repeating notes derived from the chromatic scale using a specific pattern of half-steps and whole-steps.

Major Scale Construction

The first stage in building a major scale is to construct the first subsection of the scale; the lower tetrachord. A tetrachord is simply a group of four notes.

The lower tetrachord is constructed by taking the root note (the starting note), moving up by one whole-step to find the second note, moving up by one whole-step from the second note to find the third note, and finally moving one half-step up from the third note to find the fourth note.

For example, if we use C as the root (starting) note, we construct the lower tetrachord of C major:

Lower Tetrachord Construction

The numbers "2-2-1" represent whole-steps and half-steps respectively.

The Major scale requires two tetrachords to be complete. Now that we have constructed the lower tetrachord, we will use it to determine the starting point of the second subsection, the upper tetrachord.

The upper tetrachord begins one whole-step above the last note of the lower tetrachord. This one whole-step stage is called the link as it serves to link or bridge the two tetrachords to complete the scale.

Continuing from our example above, one whole-step above F is G.

Tetrachord Link

Now that we have the starting point for our upper tetrachord, G, we can construct the upper tetrachord using the same "2-2-1" pattern used to construct the lower tetrachord.

Complete Scale

We have now derived the complete C major scale, C D E F G A B C, using the "2-2-1-2-2-2-1" pattern of whole-steps and half-steps.

Naming Conventions

As this course uses numbers to count the distance between two notes, we are using this convention to derive our major scales.

It is important to be aware of other naming conventions used to calculate major scales. For example, instead of using the "2-2-1-2-2-2-1" pattern:

  • Use the words half-step and whole-step to create a "W-W-H-W-W-W-H" pattern
  • Use the words semitone and tone to create a "T-T-S-T-T-T-S" pattern

It doesn't matter which method you use, the end result is the same. Choose the pattern that you find easiest to memorise and work with.

Major Scale Names

The above example is the C major scale. The name of the Major Scale is taken from the root (starting) note of the lower tetrachord. There are 15 major scales that we will look at in the exercises to follow:

Scale Name Notes
C Major
C D E F G A B C
SHARP Scales
G Major G A B C D E F# G
D Major D E F# G A B C# D
A Major A B C# D E F# G# A
E Major E F# G# A B C# D# E
B Major B C# D# E F# G# A# B
F# Major F# G# A# B C# D# E#
C# Major C# D# E# F# G# A# B# C#
FLAT Scales
F Major F G A Bb C D E F
Bb Major Bb C D Eb F G A Bb
Eb Major Eb F G Ab Bb C D Eb
Ab Major Ab Bb C Db Eb F G Ab
Db Major Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb C Db
Gb Major Gb Ab Bb Cb Db Eb F Gb
Cb Major Cb Db Eb F

Enharmonic Tones and Note Naming

In the previous lesson, Introduction to Intervals , we discussed enharmonic tones. Enharmonic Tones are notes of the same pitch with different names, for example F# and Gb are two different note names representing the same pitch.

As you construct Major Scales, you will come across various sharps, #, and flats, b. To help you understand which note to select and unravel any issues with enharmonic tones, consider the following:

  • The notes of the major scale will follow the order of the alphabet
  • You will never have 2 of the same letters in a scale; for example, Eb and E cannot exist in the same scale. The correct choice would be D# and E
  • Major scales do not mix flats and sharps