Major Scales - Lesson 1: Understanding Major Scales

The first lesson in the series on understanding major scales.

Ultimate Guitar
In western music we have 12 different notes in music. This is because we generally use instruments made to the 12-Tone Equal Temperament (12-TET) system.

The 12-TET is generally important to the instrument manufacturer as most western instruments are manufactured to these specifications, whereas, to the musician it is more important to understand that the language of western music consists of 12 different notes. The following is a chart of the 12 notes:

Figure 1: The 12 notes in western music

|   | C# |   | D# |   |   | F# |   | G# |   | A# |   |   |
| C | | D | | E | F | | G | | A | | B | C |
| | Db | | Eb | | | Gb | | Ab | | Bb | | |
(where # means sharp and b means flat)

Please note, that the C is repeated twice to indicate an octave. An octave is the same note but the frequency of the note is doubled so it sounds higher.

In the chart above, two notes that are in the same block such as C# and Db are sonically the same but in theory they are different notes. This helps reading notes from classical music scores.

After showing the language, now let's start to learn some basic rules. A tone (T) is when the second note is two steps away from the first note for example from C to D, the C# is skipped and then there is the D. A semi-tone, as the name implies, is half a tone, so a semitone from C would be C# or Db.

Now lets start with major scales. Each major scale has 7 notes and is represented by numbers from 1 to 8 where the 8 is the same note as the 1 but an octave higher. So the scale spelling of a major scale would be as follows:

Figure 2: Spelling of major scales

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
The intervals between each note for ANY major scale is the following:

Figure 3: The interval pattern of major scales

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Where T means tone and S means semitone. Tones are between notes 1&2, 2&3, etc.. and semitones only between 3&4 and 7&8.

The scale name is the root note or the 1st note of the scale of all major scales. So the scale of C major would be:

Figure 4: C major scale

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Please note that it all works together with the notes described earlier. Also, These numbers are very important for future lessons.

It is important that each scale has all the 7 letters from A to G (A, B, C, D, E, F & G) no letter except to the 1 and 8 is to be repeated. No letter is to be left out. so lets take an example with the scale of D major.

Figure 5: correct and incorrect scales

D E Gb G A B C# D => incorrect G is repeated and F is not included.

D E F# G A B C# D => correct as it complies with TTSTTTS and all
letters are there with no irregular repetition.

Also, for the purpose of this exercise a scale shall only have sharps (#) or flats (b). When a note such as B# does not appear in figure 1, another note is played (for example B#, the note C is played) while playing but in theory the note is not to be arranged as described in figure 5. If the note is # the note to the right of the letter is played as just previously described and if a note is flat such as Fb, E is played which is the letter to the left in figure 1. 

The following are a number of scales you can work out to exercise this:

Figure 6: Sharp scales

Number | Root | Scale | Sharps
of sharps | note | 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 |
| | |
| | |
0 | C | C D E F G A B C |
| | |
1 | G | G A B C D E F# G | F#
| | |
2 | D | D E F# G A B C# D | F#, C#
| | |
3 | A | A B C# D E F# G# A | F#, C#, G#
| | |
4 | E | E F# G# A B C# D# E | F#, C#, G#, D#
| | |
5 | B | B C# D# E F# G# A# B | F#, C#, G#, D#, A#
| | |
6 | F# | F# G# A# B C# D# E# F# | F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#
| | |
7 | C# | C# D# E# F# G# A# B# C# | F#, C#, G#, D#, A# E#, B#

Figure 7: Flat scales

Number | Root | Scale | Flats
of flats | note | 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 |
| | |
| | |
0 | C | C D E F G A B C |
| | |
1 | F | F G A Bb C D E F | Bb
| | |
2 | Bb | Bb C D Eb F G A Bb | Bb, Eb
| | |
3 | Eb | Eb F G Ab Bb C D E | Bb, Eb, Ab
| | |
4 | Ab | Ab Bb C Db Eb F G Ab | Bb, Eb, Ab, Db
| | |
5 | Db | Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb C Db | Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb
| | |
6 | Gb | Gb Ab Bb Cb Db Eb F Gb | Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb
| | |
7 | Cb | Cb Db Eb Fb Gb Ab Bb Cb | Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb Cb, Fb
Other major scales in theory exist but they would require double sharps or double flats. Otherwise they would work in the same fashion.

For example the major scale of G# is as follows:

Figure 8: G# scale

1  2  3  4  5  6  7    8
G# A# B# C# D# E# F## G#
Next lesson would be about an alternative way to find major scales. It will also show 2 ways how to spell minor scales, both ways would require knowledge of this lesson.

5 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Good foundation to scales, thanks!
    Thank You! Looks like the configuration of the lesson was fixed so, I should post a couple more lessons shortly!
    Sory for the format, IO believe they removed a number of spaces making the figures hard to understand.
    So I get it goes w w h w w w h, but I'm just wondering what these help with? What should I be applying them to?
    Hey Man, Think of a scale as a chord that is played one note at a time (this is actually called an arpeggio), the notes of the scale are what will make up your chords Basically though, we use scales as a tool for writing melodies on top of chords. To practice this, simply record yourself playing a chord over and over and find what scales will work over it. then ask yourself, why does this sound good?