Major scales are common scales especially in Western music.
Major scales are diatonic scales in which the notes follow this pattern of whole steps and half steps:
On higher or lower octaves this pattern repeats. This pattern only occurs on an ascending major scale. The pattern of descending major scale is reverse of this. We can identify a major scale as two major tetrachords and a whole steps between them. Each major tetrachord consists of this pattern of steps:
Now let’s see this on a staff.
In this example, you can see C Major scale. The seven unique pitches of this scale are C, D, E, F, G, A and B. After B, a higher C comes. So the scale is C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C.
We can describe this scale with two tetrachords. Each tetrachords has four notes. The first one has C, D, E and F. The second one has G, A, B and C. Between these two tetrachords there is a whole step. It is between the last note of the first tetrachord (F) and the first note of the second tetrachord (G). This pattern repeats on lower and higher octaves. Because the intervals between same notes never change.
Now, this is an ascending scale. Let’s have a look at the same scale both ascending and descending.
In this example, you can see the ascending C major scale in the first measure and the descending C major scale in the second measure. C major scale consists of all white keys from a C to another on a piano keyboard.
We can identify the notes of a major scale by their scale degree. A scale degree is the name given to a particular note of a scale according to its location relative to the main note (tonic) of that scale. So the first degree of the scale is tonic. We assume that each octave of a scale begins with its tonic. For example, the octaves start with C in the C major scale.
We usually apply scale degrees to the scales in which a tonic is specified by definition like a major scale. However for 12 tone chromatic scale, we don’t call the first degree as a tonic. Because all notes of a chromatic scale have the same importance. Now let’s have a look at the scale degrees of a diatonic scale in a table.
Building A Major Scale
We can build a major scale starting with any note. First, we place the first note (tonic) on a staff and place other notes alphabetically until the octave of the tonic. Then find the steps between those notes. After that, we look at the major scale pattern and make sure that our scale is consistent with it. For example, let’s say our tonic note is G this time and try to build the G major scale.
As you can see, the first step is placing all notes of an octave in an alphabetical order. Because we are building the G major scale here, the tonic is G. So our octave should be from a G to a higher G. The steps between the notes are:
However, the major scale pattern is:
When we compare them, the first five steps of our scale are consistent with the major scale pattern. But the last two steps are not. Those steps are between E-F and F-G. So we should alter them to be consistent with a major scale to build G major scale.
Altering An Interval
To alter an interval between two notes, we should change the notes by placing sharps or flats.
There is a half step between E and F. But we want it to be a whole step. There are two ways of altering E-F interval. We either place a flat to E or a sharp to F to enlarge the interval. We don’t want to change the previous intervals since they are consistent with the major scale pattern. This is why, we shouldn’t change E. Because if we change it, it will affect the previous D-E interval too. Our only option here is changing F. So we should place a sharp on F. When we do that, the sixth interval will be a whole step and it will be consistent with the major scale pattern.
In this figure, you can see the new status of our scale when we place a sharp on F. Notice that altering F to F sharp changed both the interval between E-F and F-G. It enlarged the E-F interval to a whole step from a half step. It narrowed down F-G interval from a whole scale to half scale. Because it is F sharp-G interval now. In fact, it literally made our entire scale consistent with the major scale pattern. Because it fixed both sixth and seventh intervals at the same time. So now this is G major scale. Another easy way to show the G major scale is using a key signature. Let’s learn about it.
Key signature is a set of sharps or flats placed together on a musical staff. We place key signatures right after the clef, before the time signature. A key signature designates notes that are to be played with sharps or flats. The sharps and flats that are dictated by a key signature is in effect throughout that piece of music, unlike accidentals which are in effect in the measure they appear. So if the key signature designates a note as a sharp, it will stay sharp until the end of that piece of music unless a temporary accidental or another key signature alters it. We use key signatures for diatonic scales. Each key signature shows either a major scale or its relative minor scale. Let’s see G major scale with a key signature.
Key signatures are there to help us. If we indicate all sharps or flats of a diatonic scale by a key signature, we don’t have to place sharp or flat symbols over and over again for the same notes. It dictates that each and every F’s are sharps until we changed them with temporary accidentals or by other key signatures. Accidentals changes the notes temporarily. But if we place another key signature, it means that we changed the key of the music. So it lasts until further changes.
There are 15 major scales in total. First one is the C major scale which uses no sharps or flats. It means we don’t have to use any key signature for C major scale. All other major scales use either sharps or flats. In fact, seven of them use sharps and the remaining seven use flats. How can we know which one uses what?
I mentioned before that we can build a major scale by starting with a tonic note and maintaining the major scale pattern of steps on the scale you build. Another way of building major scales is using tetrachords. I also mentioned that tetrachords vary from a diatonic scale to another. All we need to do is building two tetrachords and combine them with a whole step. The first tetrachord starts with the tonic note or the first degree of the scale. The second tetrachords starts with the dominant note of the major scale. Let’s look at the C major scale now and start building the C major tetrachord. Then we will build C major scale and all other major scales with tetrachords. This way you can figure out the relationships between all scales.
C Major Tetrachord and G Major Tetrachord
When we start with a note and write three others beside it in alphabetical order, we build a tetrachord. In this figure, you can see C major tetrachord. I mentioned that the major tetrachord pattern is Whole-Whole-Half. Notice that it occurs if we start with C and use only basic note names without any sharps or flats. So C-D-E-F is C major tetrachord. This is the first major tetrachord of the C major scale. Now let’s build the second major tetrachord. It starts with the fifth degree (dominant) of the major scale. So it starts with the note G for the C major scale and we call it G major tetrachord.
The same logic applies. We write four notes starting with G and maintain a Whole-Whole-Half step sequence between notes. There we go, we have a G major tetrachord. Now let’s add G major tetrachord to C major tetrachord and see what happens.
C Major Scale With Tetrachords
Notice that when we combine G major tetrachord with C major tetrachord by leaving a whole step between them, we build C major scale. The whole step between the two tetrachords act like a link. In a major scale, we call the first tetrachord a lower tetrachord. Because it is lower than the second tetrachord in pitch. We call the second tetrachord an upper tetrachord. In C major scale, C major tetrachord is the lower tetrachord, while G major tetrachord is the upper tetrachord.
G Major Scale
Let’s keep on building more tetrachords, adding them each other to build more scales. Now we will start building G major scale. The note G is the fifth degree or dominant of C major scale. The lower tetrachord of G major scale is G major tetrachord. It starts with the tonic note (G in this case). We’ve already built it. As I said the upper tetrachord starts with the dominant note. So it should start with D in G major scale. Let’s build D major tetrachord now.
D Major Tetrachord
We start with D, then add three more notes alphabetically. So the tetrachord becomes D-E-F-G.
The steps between these notes are Whole-Half-Whole. But it is not consistent with the major tetrachord pattern which is Whole-Whole-Half. So the interval between E and F is problematic. We should enlarge it to a whole step. To do this, we can either use a flat on E or a sharp on F. If we use a flat on E, the first interval will be half step. So it won’t be consistent with major tetrachord. But if we use a sharp on F, the interval between E and F sharp will be a whole step and the interval between F sharp and G will be a half step. So it will be consistent with the major tetrachord pattern.
Now let’s add D major tetrachord to G major tetrachord.
Notice that when we combine D major tetrachord with G major tetrachord by leaving a whole step as a link between them, we build G major scale. G major scale is the first scale that uses a sharp. So there is only one sharp in the key signature of G major scale and it is F sharp.
D Major Scale
From the fifth degree of the G major scale, we can start building D major scale. The lower tetrachord of D major scale is D major tetrachord. A is the fifth degree of D major scale. So the upper tetrachord of D major scale starts with it.
The same logic applies here. We start with A, then add three more notes which are B, C and D. To maintain the major tetrachord pattern, we need to place a sharp to C. Let’s combine A major tetrachord with D major tetrachord to build D major scale.
As you can see, D major scale uses two sharps which are F sharp and C sharp.
If we want to show D major scale with a key signature, we need to place the two sharps in the order of their appearance. So the first sharp we need to place will be F sharp, then C sharp.
The Relationship Between Major Scales
Let’s look at the bigger picture now. The major scale with no sharps or flats is C major scale. When we start building another major scale from the fifth degree of C major scale, we get G major scale. It is the major scale which uses single sharp which is F sharp. The other notes of this scale have no sharps or flats. When we start building another major scale from the fifth degree of G major scale, we get D major scale. It is the major scale which uses two sharps which are F sharp and C sharp.
If we started building another scale from the fifth degree of D major scale, we would get A major scale. It is the major scale which uses three sharps which are F sharp, C sharp and G sharp. If we started building another scale from the fifth degree of A major scale, we would get E major scale. It uses four sharps which are F sharp, C sharp, G sharp and D sharp. As you can see a pattern starts to emerge.
Forming Circle of Fifths
The higher we go with new tetrachords from the fifth degree of the scales, the higher the number of sharps we will use in our new major scales. It goes like this until we reach seven sharps. Because there are only seven major scales which use sharps. Then the major scales which use flats start to appear. But this time the flats start decreasing in number from 7 flats to 1. After the major scales with flats ends, C major scale comes again. In music theory this relationship is shown with the circle of fifths which you will learn later. In the following diagram, you can see the relationship between the major tetrachords and the relevant major scales we have talked about so far.
When you look at this diagram, you already see the first four scales of the circle of fifths.
The Major Scales Using Sharps
You have already seen the first three major scales which use sharps in their key signatures. Those are G major (1 sharp), D major (2 sharps) and A major (3 sharps). If we kept on building new scales from the fifth degrees of the previous ones, we would have E major (4 sharps), B major (5 sharps), F sharp major (6 sharps) and C sharp major (7 sharps). Let’s see all major scales which use sharps in a table.
NUMBER OF SHARPS
ORDER OF SHARPS IN KEY SIGNATURES
F♯, C♯, G♯
F♯, C♯, G♯, D♯
F♯, C♯, G♯, D♯, A♯
F♯, C♯, G♯, D♯, A♯, E♯
F♯, C♯, G♯, D♯, A♯, E♯, B♯
The Order Of Sharps
There is an order of the sharps which appears with all new major scales. This is also the order of sharps in the key signatures.
F♯, C♯,G♯, D♯, A♯, E♯, B♯
Now let’s have a look at all major scales using sharps with their key signatures.
Circle of Fifths and Circle of Fourths
Circle of fifths is an illustrative representation of relationships among all major and minor scales and their key signatures. It shows how many sharps or flats are in a key signature of a major scale. Also, it shows the order of sharps or flats in key signatures. It is a pedagogical device to learn the relationships of all major and minor scales easily.
In this figure, you can see the circle of fifths for all major scales including enharmonic ones. If you go clockwise in this circle, you’ll see all major scales that are built upon the fifth degrees of the previous ones. Also, it shows the order of the sharps and flats. Somtimes this circle is known as Circle of Fourths too. It is all about the direction we build the major scales. If you go clockwise, we build the new major scales from the fifth degree of the previous ones. If we go counter-clockwise, we build the new major scales from the fourth degree of the previous ones. So we can say that F is the fourth degree of the C major. B flat is the fourth degree of the F major etc. Let’s have a look at how to build the major scales that use flats.
F Major Scale
We can build F major scale by using our tetrachord method. But this time, the lower tetrachord will be the fourth degree of the previous major scale. F major scale starts with F and F is the fourth degree of the previous major scale in Circle of Fourths which is C major. First, we should create F major tetrachord. To do that, we start with F and add three more notes alphabetically. They are G, A and B.
The steps between these notes are Whole-Whole-Whole. But it is not consistent with the major tetrachord pattern. So the interval between A and B is problematic. We should narrow it down to a half step. To do this, we should place a flat to B.
F major tetrachord is the lower tetrachord of F major scale. The upper tetrachord is again built from the fifth note of the scale and it is C for F major scale. So the upper tetrachord is C major tetrachord.
Let’s combine C major tetrachord with F major tetrachord to build F major scale.
Now let’s look at the same scale with its key signature.
The first major scale using flats is F major scale and the first flat that appears in the major scales which uses flats is B flat.
The Major Scales Using Flats
You have already seen the first major scale which uses flat in its key signature. If we kept on building new major scales from the fourth degrees of the previous ones, the number of flats would increase and we would see that the circle of fourths were reached.
NUMBER OF FLATS
ORDER OF SHARPS IN KEY SIGNATURES
B♭, E♭, A♭
B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭
B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭, G♭
B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭, G♭, C♭
B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭, G♭, C♭, F♭
The Order Of Flats
There is an order of the flats which appears with all new major scales. This is also the order of flats in the key signatures.
B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭, G♭, C♭, F♭
Now let’s have a look at all major scales using flats with their key signatures.
Overall, there are fifteen major scales including the enharmonic equivalents. One of them, C major scale has no accidentals in its key signature whereas there are seven major scales using sharps and seven major scales using flats. You can build them all by using the major tetrachords method or just by finding and maintaining steps within a major scale. The major scales are considered to have a happy mood.