MUSIC THEORY part 2: The major scale
Updated: Oct 26, 2022
Hi, and welcome to part two of my series of basic music theory. Today, we will have a look at the major scale and hear some examples of how to use it. I recommend reading part one before reading this tutorial. You can read it HERE. Introduction So, the famous major scale. The scale is the basis of a million songs we listen to all year. A scale that musician practice to be able to play faster and composers use for making melodies. The major scale is pretty "standard" and works in many cases. You can either use it to make a happy, nostalgic, calm, pretty, or a fun melody. There are many ways of using it. Some famous songs in the major key are for example: - Taylor Swift - Shake it off
- Creedence Clearwater Revival - Bad moon rising
- The Beatles - Love me do
- ABBA - Dancing Queen
The scale But what IS a major scale? The major scale is simply just a set of notes. If we look at the piano and start from C, you could play all the white keys and be in the C major scale. Pretty easy, right? The structure is root - wholetone - wholetone - half tone - wholetone - wholetone - wholetone - half tone
Listen to it here (but please not for 10 hours):
But this does not tell us what the major scale is. The distance between the notes (their relationship), and the context they are in, does this. The major scale is just a set of intervals. Think of this as a building set. You get a specific group of notes you can choose between, that together make the scale. You don't have to use all the notes (and some scales will overlap) to play it. Remember the intervals from lesson 1? The intervals to make a major scale are: - C: Root (1) - D: Major second (2) - E: Major third (3) - F: Fourth (4) - G: Fifth (5) - A: Major sixth (6) - B: Major seven (7) - C: Octave/root (8/1) The major scale is just these notes put together. You can start where you want in the scale when making a melody, so you don't have to start at C to play the major scale. You can also repeat any of the notes as many times as you want or go an octave higher or lower. It will still be that same good old scale. But now we have only been checking out the C major scale. There are many more keys to explore. How does the C major scale compare to for example G major? They follow the same principle:
Root - wholetone - wholetone - half tone - wholetone - wholetone - wholetone - half tone Or you can use: - G: Root (1) - A: Major second (2) - B: Major third (3) - C: Fourth (4) - D: Fifth (5) - E: Major sixth (6) - F#: Major seven (7) - G: Octave/root (8/1) What is the difference here? G major share a lot of the notes from C major, with one exception: The F#. Why is that? That is because if you go a major seven from the root note G, you will get to the F#. The F would be a minor seven, and that interval is not present in the major scale (the mixolydian scale is a major scale with a minor seven, but we will look into that in another lesson). The major scale follows the same structure no matter what key you are in. This means that if we play a D major scale, it would look like this:
You can see that many of the notes are on the white keys, but now we both have F# and C#. But the scale follows the same structure as C major and G major, only now we have some other notes.
The E major scale. So what should you do if you want to write a song in the major scale? You should find one root tone, and lay out the keys on your keyboard to see what notes you could use. You don't have to stick to the scale at all costs. Many songs use multiple scales in one song. This will give the melody some unexpected variations. But you can of course just stick to the major scale and that would be perfectly fine. It is all up to you. Here are some short examples of melodies that I made, using only the major scale 1.
But how to remember what notes that go sharp or flat? Since I have been doing this a lot, I just...remember. And that is a good thing because then I don't have to work my way up the scale to remember it. But trust me, I practiced a lot to be able to do this. And so should you. This frees up a lot of brain capacity so you can focus on composing instead of remembering shapes. We have, luckily, a tool that helps us with this; The circle of fifths:
C major has no sharps or flats. If you go a fifth up from C, to a G, you can see that you add one sharp. This means that when you play G major, it has one sharp (F#). If you go another fifth up from G to D, you will get two flats. This continues up each time you go a fifth from the new key. The same goes with minor. A minor has no sharps or flats. A fifth up from it to E gives to one flat. The flats follow the same principle, only that you go a fifth down (or a fourth up). Remember, this is only a tool. You could use it when you don't remember how many sharps or flats you need in a specific key. I would advise you to play along in some keys to get the hang of it. Once you do that, you will start to remember what keys you need to go to without using a picture like this. Chords So now that we have seen what the major scale is, and how it can be used in some contexts, the next question that comes up is "what chords could I use with the major scale?". There are 7 chords that are idiomatic in the major scale. That means that there are 7 chords you would normally find in a song that is based on the major scale. You can use all the chords you would like, but to find the chords that match the scale, we need to see what notes we have. Each chord is based around each tone of the scale. Chords normally consist of a root-third-fifth. If we use the C major now, each chord you can use starts on each step of the scale. That means C - D - E - F - G - A - B. C major consists of the notes C - E - G, all found in the major scale. The next chord will be D minor. D minor consists of D - F - A, all in the C major scale as well. However, a D major is D - F# - A, and the F# is not present in C major. Therefore, it has to be D minor. This applied to the rest of the scale. The list would look like this: - C major (C - E - G) - D minor (D - F - A) - E minor (E - G - B) - F major (F - A - C) - G major (G - B - D) - A minor (A - C - E) - B minor b5 (B - D - F) These are all the chords you would normally find. There is no harm in adding other chords than this, but then we would add another scale. B minor b5 has a flat fifth because if the fifth was perfect, it would be F#. When we write chords, we often use roman numbers. This indicates what function each chord has. The major chord has capital letters, the minor has small. - C major I - D minor ii - E minor iii - F major IV - G major V - A minor vii - B minor b5 viii I - ii - iii - VI - V - vii - viii I often use this when I transpose songs. If I know a song uses C (I) - G (V) - Am (vii) - F (VI), I can use these numbers to know what chords I would have to use in another key. If I am playing in G, the chords would be G (I) - D (V) - Em (vii) - C (VI). Notice that even in the new key that uses different chords, the numbers remain the same. This helps me think of each chord as a function, rather than a chord. I would also recommend making some chord progression using this. Try to make an easy progression in C, and think of the chords in roman numbers. Try now to transpose it to another key. When you have some experience with this, you will know right away what chords you can use to a key, or what chords you could expect to hear, either when composing, transcribing, or listening. Conclusion This sums up part 2 of our basic music theory lessons. Major scales consist of a certain and logical set of intervals. These intervals are equal no matter what key you are in, but the notes (pitch) might change. The chords we can make out of the major scale all start from the notes in the scale, but they are either major or minor based on the notes from the major scale. Hope you learned something from this tutorial, and stay tuned for the next one! - Haakon Related: MUSIC THEORY part 1: The fundamentals