music theory online : major scales lesson 8
Dr. Brian Blood



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I know that the twelve notes in each octave and varieties of rhythm offer me opportunities that all of human genius will never exhaust.
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) Russian-American composer

The Major Scale :: The Tetrachord :: The Twelve Major Scales :: Deriving Major Scales :: Chart of the Major Scales

Important: To see and hear our 'live' music examples you will need to install the free Scorch plug-in for PC and MAC systems.

The Major Scale :: top

Key words:
major scale
chromatic scale
key note
degree
Roman numerals
1

The Major Scale

Lesson 25 details the origins of the Western scale.

This lesson concentrates on what a major scale is, and how starting from any of the twelve notes in the chromatic scale one derives the twelve major scales.

C
D
E
F
G
A
B
*
C
D
E
F
G
A
B
C
D
E
F
G
A
B

Examine the keyboard again. Starting from the key marked middle C (that is, the key C with an asterisk), play the naturals (i.e. the white keys) in ascending order, C, D, E, F, G, A, B and finish on the C above middle C. This sequence or row of eight notes is the C major scale, the major scale for which the key-note is C. Music written using the notes of this scale is said to be ' in the key of C '. The different notes are called the degrees of the scale such that the key note, C, is called the 'first degree of the scale', D is the 'second degree of the scale', and so on.

The eight degrees of the scale may be numbered using 1 - 8 or Roman numerals I - VIII (i.e. I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII) or i - viii (i.e. i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, vii, viii).

What makes this a major scale is the distinctive sequence of tones (whole steps) and semitones (half steps). If we write down the intervals between the notes rather than the note names then the C major scale becomes tone-tone-semitone-tone-tone-tone-semitone, seven intervals between eight notes.

If you play any other ascending row of eight consecutive naturals you will find many different sequences of intervals. C major is the only major scale, that is a scale obeying the interval sequence tone-tone-semitone-tone-tone-tone-semitone, using only the white keys.

In 'whole step-half step' notation this sequence is written whole step - whole step - half step - whole step - whole step - whole step - half step.

If you would like to hear a major scale played we have included a score produced with the music publishing program Sibelius. To play the scale, press the play button below. To see and hear the score you will need to download and install the Scorch plug-in which works with the latest Internet Explorer and Netscape browsers.

Major Scale

The Tetrachord :: top

Key words:
tetrachordon
tetrachord
1

The Tetrachord

There is another way of looking at the major scale. It is derived from a pattern of four notes called the tetrachord (Greek: tetra = four, chorde = string or note: originally from tetrachordon, an ancient Greek four-stringed instrument). The ancient Greeks applied the term originally to a falling sequence of four notes with a number of patterns including the interval pattern tone - tone - semitone. Today, we use the term to mean a rising sequence of four notes including that using the interval pattern tone - tone - semitone. The word tetrachord can be applied to the interval, a perfect fourth, between the first and last note of the four note sequence as well as to all the notes in the sequence itself.

The C major scale is in fact two tetrachords, one after the other, separated by a tone, in which case the two tetrachords are said to be combined by disjunction.

Thus:

C - tone - D - tone - E - semitone - F : the first tetrachord
G - tone - A - tone - B - semitone - C : the second tetrachord

The interval between F, the last note of the first tetrachord, and G, the first note of the second tetrachord, is a tone.

If we start on G, to produce the G major scale, the pattern will be

G - tone - A - tone - B - semitone - C : the first tetrachord
D - tone - E - tone - F# - semitone - G : the second tetrachord

The interval between C, the last note of the first tetrachord, and D, the first note of the second tetrachord, is a tone and so again the two tetrachords are said to be combined by disjunction.

The Twelve Major Scales :: top

Key words:
major scales
sharp key
flat key
natural key
1

The Twelve Major Scales

We return to the chromatic scale starting on middle C which has been written twice: on the upper line with only naturals and flats and on the lower line with only naturals and sharps. Both scales 'play' the same row of notes.

by convention the major scales are divided into three groups:
the 'sharp' keysG major, D major, A major, E major, B major, F sharp major, C sharp major
all the 'sharp' scales that employ black keys, use that key's 'sharp' name
in some 'sharp' keys, you may have to use E sharp and/or B sharp
the 'natural' keyC major - which uses only the white keys
the 'flat' keysF major, B flat major, E flat major, A flat major, D flat major, G flat major, C flat major
all the 'flat' scales that employ black keys, use that key's 'flat' name
in some 'flat' keys, you may have to use F flat and/or C flat
in addition there are two other points worth remembering:
the degrees I to VII of any major or minor scale must have different 'letter' names
thus, A (whether flat, natural or sharp), B (whether flat, natural or sharp), and so on, can only appear once in any major or minor scale
only naturals, sharps and flats may be used when notating major scales although double sharps can appear in certain minor scales. Mark Pfannschmidt points out that double flats appear in none of the standard major or minor scales

Deriving Major Scales :: top

Key words:
building major scales
key signature
1

Deriving Major Scales

Using the distinctive major scale interval sequence, tone-tone-semitone-tone-tone-tone-semitone we can construct each of the scales in turn.

We have provided two 'worked examples' below.

Let us examine first one of the 'sharp' scales, the ' A major scale '.

degree of scale note interval to add resultant note
1 A tone or whole step B
2 B tone or whole step C sharp
3 C sharp semitone or half step D
4 D tone or whole step E
5 E tone or whole step F sharp
6 F sharp tone or whole step G sharp
7 G sharp semitone or half step A

Notice that we have used C sharp rather than D flat to avoid using D twice in the scale. Similarly F sharp and G sharp must be chosen in preference to their enharmonic names G flat and A flat.

We have laid out the A major scale on the treble clef below, the upper line showing the notes themselves, missing only superfluous natural signs, and the lower line showing how, by using a key signature, (the three sharps displayed on the left hand side of the stave), the sharp signs are 'understood' and need not be displayed again within the score. You will notice that the three sharp signs in the key signature mirror the three sharps in the scale on the upper line.

And now, let us derive one of the 'flat' scales, the ' E flat major scale '.

degree of scale note interval to add resultant note
1 E flat tone or whole step F
2 F tone or whole step G
3 G semitone or half step A flat
4 A flat tone or whole step B flat
5 B flat tone or whole step C
6 C tone or whole step D
7 D semitone or half step E flat

Again we have chosen flat names rather than their enharmonic sharp names to satisfy the requirement than all note letter names be different.

We have laid out the E flat major scale on the treble clef below, the upper line showing the notes themselves, missing only superfluous natural signs, and the lower line showing how, by using a key signature, (the three flats displayed on the left hand side of the stave), the flat signs are 'understood' and need not be displayed again within the score.

Chart of the Major Scale :: top

Key word:
chart of major scales
1

Chart of the Major Scale


In the next lesson we will examine the way key signatures are used and the 'conventions' associated with the use of 'natural', 'sharp' and 'flat' signs.

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