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Scale Theory: Part 1

Scale Construction – Part 1 The Major Scale Formula

The major scale is the single most important thing to know about scale theory. On this page, you’ll learn this (“quasi-magic”) formula to build the major scale in any key…

If you don’t read music (“notes” on the staff) and if you’ve never encountered any music theory in the past, this is a good place to start. Go slow, read on and don’t be afraid to ask questions!

In the course of this scale theory article series about scale construction, you’ll find music theory info about the major scale, how to read key signatures, modes and more…

Ready for your first leap into scale theory? Go! (-:

Jump to a page:

Scale Construction 1: The Formula [You’re Here]
Scale Construction 2: Building All the Keys (Signatures)
Scale Construction 3: Intro to Modes
Scale Construction 4: 21 Most Common Modes

Generalities

  • Scales in this article series have 7 notes.
  • The distance between every two consecutive notes is the interval of a second. We have major second (2 frets, also called whole-step) and minor second (1 fret, also called half-step.)
  • We’ll start in the key of C here (C D E F G A B C … or … do re mi fa sol la si do) and we’ll go step by step through *other* keys.
  • We will be using sharps (#) to raise notes one half step and flats (b) to lower notes one half step in all following scale theory articles.

Scale Theory: Major Scale Formula

In order to “build other keys” with scale theory, we need FIRST to make sure that we understand the foundation really well.

The formula for major scale construction is :

W  –  W  –  H  –  W  –  W  –  W  –  H

(W stands for whole-step and H for half-step)


We’ll use C major scale to exemplify the distance between each two consecutive notes with the scale…

C

__whole step__

D

__whole step__

E
–half-step–
F

__whole step__

G

__whole step__

A

__whole step__

B
–half-step–
C

The half-steps are between the third-fourth and seventh-first degrees of the scale (E-F and B-C in the case of C major.) The placement of those half-steps in two specific location creates this scale’s unique sound characteristics.

Piano Layout: the major scale

Looking at a piano keyboard also clear things up for me: (there’s no black key between E-F and B-C) From this point on, it will be taken for granted that you understand this small bit of scale theory: WWHWWWH.

Building Scales in Other Keys

So here’s the fundamental trick in scale theory: the structure is constant!

It may not sound like much now, but this simple idea allows you to build scales in 12 keys (or even more). Simply use the original WWHWWWH by starting on another note (I mean, not necessarily C) and the scales basically builds themselves!

BUT because the layout of the notes (see piano above) doesn’t change, we’ll have to adjust … with sharps and flats! (-:
(ok ok, THAT’S the real trick).

Let’s proceed through an example together and you’ll “get” what I mean: let’s spell the major scale in the key of G major: (doing so, please counter-verify that we’re actually respecting WWHWWWH)

G A (check) — Whole Step
A B (check) — W
B C (check) — Half Step
C D (check) — W
D E (check) — W
E F (oups!) — ???

We would need a whole-step a that point, but we know (from the keyboard layout) that between E and F notes lies a half-step… Let’s raise the F note a half-step up so it becomes F# (and continue our verification process).

G A (check) — Whole Step
A B (check) — W
B C (check) — Half Step
C D (check) — W
D E (check) — W
E F# (check) — W
F# G (check) — H

Perfect! G major scale = G A B C D E F# G. So, in order to respect the scale theory “formula”, we now understand that the key of G major requires an F-SHARP note for it to work smoothly. And that is exactly what I mean by “the structure is constant”. (-:

More Keys

Let’s try the major scale in the key of F major this time:

F G (check) — Whole Step
G A (check) — W
A Bb (check) — Half Step
Bb C (check) — W
C D (check) — W
D E (check) — W
E F (check) — H

Perfect! F major scale = F G A Bb C D E F. Did you notice we had to utilize a FLAT this time?

We could carry on with the scale theory business, but I’d rather give you a generalized process so you can apply it on you own right away.

The 4-step process to building a major scale in any key

  • 1- Decide on the key. Write down the letter-name of the first note;
  • 2- Write down all consecutive letter-name of all the notes until you reach your starting point again (total 8 letters on the page);
  • (In step 2, DO NOT write any flats or sharps! Just the letters.)
  • 3- From the first note, verify that the scale complies to WWHWWWH;
  • 4- Whenever two consecutive notes do not agree to the formula, simply adjust with sharps OR flats (but never both).

This is extremely important: do not mix flats and sharps in the same major key!!!

Now, for your own sake and understanding, take a sheet of paper and come up with the keys of: D, A, Bb and Eb. Without my help. Simply write “WWHWWWH” at the top to remind you of the scale theory formula.

So, did you noticed what happened? In the process, we are adding more and more alterations (flats / sharps) as we get further and further away from the “natural” notes (white keys on the keyboard) of the C major scale.

Scale Theory: Uniqueness

Very interesting fact: Every scale has its own amount of sharps or flats. That’s right! In fact, it’s the easiest way to identify a tonality.

So, the “key you are in” can be uniquely determined by what notes are altered. If I tell you “one sharp”, you can immediately take for granted that we’re in G major. If I say “one flat”, it’s F major. (see both examples above).

We’ll continue in this vein for the next installment of this scale theory series: key signatures and how to know in a glimpse in what key you’re playing…

Jump to a page:

Scale Construction 1: The Formula [You’re Here]
Scale Construction 2: Building All the Keys (Signatures)
Scale Construction 3: Intro to Modes
Scale Construction 4: 21 Most Common Modes

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