MUSIC
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MUSIC
THEORY
FOUNDATIONS

Major Scales - What are they and how do you use them?

The major scale is perhaps the most important musical scale in Western Music theory! It is used in all diatonic harmony, in the construction of chords and also when improvising!
 

Where a minor scales sound often evokes a feeling of sadness, a major scales sound is often used to evoke a feeling of happiness! Although these are by no means the only descriptive words we can apply to scales!

A major scale is a seven note diatonic scale and consists of a pattern of notes/intervals within an octave arranged in ascending and descending order. An octave simply means eight notes and in the scale, the 8th note we play doubles the tonic. Remember the tonic simply means the root or main note of the scale. A major scale can be built on any one of the twelve available pitches.

How do you build a major scale?
A major scale is built using a specific formula of tones and semitones (half step and whole step). The pattern of intervals in a major scale, using tones and semitones is as follows:

Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semitone

If you prefer to think in whole steps and half steps it is the same pattern as follows:

Whole step, Whole step, Half step, Whole step, Whole step, Whole step, Half step

This is the same for both ascending and descending in the major scale. If you apply this pattern of intervals (whole/half steps) to any note you will end up with a major scale starting on that note. Take a look at the C major scale. The notes in the C major scale are as follows:

C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C

Take a look at this represented on the piano keyboard

Now let's look at the scale written out with the tones and semitones labelled.
Let's take a look at a sharp scale. How about G major? The notes of G major are as follows:

G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G

Take a look at it on the piano keyboard.

Now let's look at the scale written out with the tones and semitones written out.
Let's have a look at a flat major scale now. How about Eb major?

The notes of Eb major are as follows:

Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, D, Eb

Now let's look at Eb major represented on the piano keyboard:

Here it is with the tones and semitones labelled. 
Below you can see the scale of Eb major written out on the stave.

Difference between Major and Minor scale

The main difference between a major and a minor scale is to do with the interval of a third!

In a minor scale we have the interval of a minor third and in a major scale we have an interval of a major third!

The major scale, C major, has the notes:

C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C

C-E natural is a major third!

Now let's compare this to C natural minor.

C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C

C-Eb is a minor third!

To learn more about intervals in music theory then make sure to check out our blog dedicated to explaining interval.

Chords within a major scale

It is also important to note that the chords we can build in a major scale are always the same! Before we look at this it is important to make sure we know the different scale degrees:

 

Tonic

Supertonic

Mediant

Subdominant

Dominant

Submediant

Leading Note

Once confident with the different degrees of the scale it is then easy to add in the chords on each of these seven notes of the major scale. Let's look at each chord in the C major scale:

On the root of the scale we always have a major chord - I.

On the supertonic of the scale we always have a minor chord - ii.
On the mediant of the scale we always have a minor chord - iii.
On the subdominant of the scale we always have a major chord - IV.
On the dominant of the scale we always have a major chord - V.
On the submediant of the scale we always have a minor chord - vi.
On the leading note of the scale we always have a diminished chord - viio.
In every scale all of these chords are exactly the same and follow the same sequence. Let's look at the chords in the e major scale for example.

Major scales in music

When playing music you will often see that music is written 'in the key of c major' or 'in the key of g major' etc. This simply means that when writing a piece of music you will use notes from this scale. When using notes from this scale we refer to them as diatonic notes! If we use any notes outside of this then they are considered chromatic notes!

 

Remember, because there are 12 available pitches this means that there are 12 available keys that you can write your music in! A key is simply another word for the scale but is used in conjunction with talking about a piece of music.

Major scales and the circle of fifths

The circle of fifths is perhaps the best and easiest way to learn and remember your major and minor scales! On the outside of the circle we have the major scales and on the inside of the circle we place the minor scales.

The first scale at the top of the circle of fifths we always place the scale of C major as there are no sharps and flats. To work out the next scale on the sharp side of the scale, we simply move up five notes. Five notes up from C is:

C, D, E, F, G

This simply means the next scale on the circle will be G major and this scale will have one sharp. We continue clockwise around the circle in this way!

For the flat scales we simply move backwards five notes. Five notes backwards from C is:

C, B, A, G, F

This means the next scale on the flat side of the circle will be F major and this scale will have one flat. We continue anti clockwise round the circle in this way!

Take a look below and you can see the complete circle of fifths. To learn more about the circle of fifths and how it works make sure to check out our post on it!

What are all the major scales?

Below you can see all the major scales written out on the stave. Use this to help you play them all. Really listen to the sound of each one!

All Major Sharp Keys

All Major Flat Keys

There are many more different scales on top of the major scale within the topic of music theory that you can learn to make the music you write even more exciting, including the chromatic scale, whole tone scale and many others. To find out more do check out our other blog posts on these!

FAQ's

What is the pattern of tones and semitones in a major scale?

The major scale is built using a pattern of intervals. The intervals are as follows:

Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semitone

(Whole step, Whole step, Half step, Whole step, Whole step, Whole step, Half step)

How do the major and minor scales differ?

The difference between a major and minor scale is actually very simple and it is to do with the interval of a third!

A major scale has a major 3rd!

A minor scale has a minor 3rd!

What do we mean when we say a music is in a key?

When we talk about a piece of music being 'in the key of e major' or 'in the key of g major' this simply means that the notes used in that piece of music will come from that particular scale.

How many notes are there in a major scale?

There are seven notes in a major scale. The eighth note is simply a repetition of the first note of the scale. The notes of a major scale encompass an octave and then you simply repeat this octave up or down.
Author: Jade Bultitude
Jade is an experienced musician and teacher as well as being the founder of Music Theory Foundations.
 

She has been helping people learn music theory for more than 10 years from pre school children all the way to degree level studies.

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Lay your foundations for Grade 5 Music Theory with this summary of each topic.
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