A Shortcut For Learning Scales

This lesson will teach you a bit of a shortcut when it comes to major and minor scales, using the idea of relative keys.

Ultimate Guitar
Hello my friends and family of UG! I have a very special present for all the new guitarists out there, who are currently face to face with the important milestone of learning scales. It can be argued that this portion of your learning is the most crucial; to properly understand the idea of the musical scale. You have probably toiled in the excruciating flames of musical knowledge, shouting O! Where does my savior lie in the hour of this torment! while trying to put some sense together in this seemingly nonsensical arrangement of notes. Alas, your savior has come, with a gift of learning that will help you through your epic journey! (Too much?) What if I came up to you and said: Guess what? You only need to learn either the major or minor scale, and you will be granted the knowledge of both! Well, at first you would probably say who the hell are you, mister stranger approaching me on the street?, but then you would plead for this knowledge. Well, plead no more, my friend! Enclosed in this article is a shortcut of sorts that will allow you to learn both the major and minor scale, while essentially only learning one. So, if you want to unlock this secret, then read on

The Two-in-One Secret:

Now, this trick, which I have not-so-originally titled The Two-in-One Secret, is simple. It starts out like this: say we have an E major scale, like so:
Image and video hosting by TinyPic
Now, you have this scale learned, an important accomplishment. But, you now have to learn a new scale, the minor scale, which comes with a completely new fingering pattern. But wait a minute YOU'RE WRONG! Enclosed in this major scale, and any major scale, whether you can see it or not, is a minor scale. In the case of our E major scale, there is a C# minor scale. Don't believe me? Well, I'll show you: The E major scale consists of seven different notes, which are:
E F# G# A B C# D#
Fair enough, right? No smoke and mirrors yet? Well, the C #minor scale also consists of seven different notes:
C# D# E F# G# A B
Now, here's a challenge for you. Look at the notes in both the E major and C# minor scales above, and find one note that is in one, and not the other. If you were able to do that successfully, you have serious problems involving the identification of letters, because they both contain the same seven notes. Therefore, if you were to, for example, improvise a solo, you could play this scale,
Image and video hosting by TinyPic
a scale you traditionally refer to as the E major scale, over a song in either E major or C# minor. Still can't see it? Well, maybe this will help:
Image and video hosting by TinyPic
All I have done is scribble over some notes on the above E major scale, so that the root notes are C# as opposed to E. Compare the above to any traditional C# minor scale, and what do you notice. They're exactly the same! As you can see, the C# minor scale is literally inside the E major scale. Now, how does this translate to any other key, and not just E major and C# minor? Well, it's actually quite a simple conversion. Any and every major scale corresponds with the minor scale 3 semitones lower in key. Likewise, if you wanted to learn the pattern of the minor scale instead, any minor scale corresponds with the major scale 3 semitones higher in key. For example, let's look at the A major scale:
Image and video hosting by TinyPic
We now know that any major scale corresponds with the minor scale 3 semitones lower in key, so we just need to ask ourselves what is three semitones lower than A? The answer you should get is F#, meaning that this A major scale also doubles as an F# minor scale. Want proof?
Image and video hosting by TinyPic
Once again, I simply cross out a few notes so that the scale starts and ends at F#, and we have an F# minor scale. This also works for minor scales as well. For example, if we had the A minor scale instead:
Image and video hosting by TinyPic></center>

If you wanted to learn the finger pattern for the minor scale instead, and convert from minor to major as opposed to from major to minor, all you would have to do is go 3 semitones higher instead of lower. The note 3 semitones higher than A is C, meaning that this A minor scale also doubles as a C major scale. And once again, here is your proof:

<center><img src=
So, there you have it! The mystical, magical Two-in-One secret! This also works with the major and minor pentatonic scales as well. However, you aren't learning that much unless you know how this strange witchcraft of turning one scale into another works, so we should probably examine the science behind this strange phenomenon.

The Science:

Now, how is it that one scale can be enclosed inside of another? Well, in actuality, major and minor scales are closely related; only a few crucial notes are changed, and changed ever so slightly, to turn a major scale into a minor scale. A major scale follows this pattern:
Root, 2 semitones, 2 semitones, 1 semitone, 2 semitones, 2 semitones, 2 semitones, 1 semitone, Octave Root
A minor scale follows a similar pattern:
Root, 2 semitones, 1 semitone, 2 semitones, 2 semitones, 2 semitones, 1 semitone, 2 semitones, Octave Root
As you can see, the minor scale is the same as the major scale, except the single semitones are played, in essence, one note earlier. This small change is the only thing that separates a major scale from a minor scale. Therefore, it shouldn't be all that surprising that a major scale can contain a minor scale, and vice-versa. This idea is based around the idea of relative keys. For anyone who has examined sheet music, or more specifically, key signatures, you might have realized that each major key signature has a corresponding minor key signature; for example, the keys of both C major and A minor are natural, as they have no accidentals. This same idea can be adapted into scales: if the keys of C major and A minor are natural, then it is logical that the scales of C major and A minor are natural as well. Therefore, since both are natural scales, both would contain the same notes. The only thing that differs between the C major and A minor scales is the root note. From there, it was noted that each pair of relative keys had the same interval between them: in all pairs of relative keys, the major key was 3 semitones higher than the minor key. Therefore, instead of memorizing, for example, the relative key of F# major being D# minor, or the relative key of B major being G# minor, one can simply remember that the major is 3 semitones higher than the minor, and likewise, the minor is 3 semitones lower than the major. Therefore, when asked what is the relative key of F# major, one doesn't have to remember some list they memorized, but simply has to think of the note that is 3 semitones lower than F#. Translating this to scales, if one memorizes the finger pattern for the major scale, but wants to play, for example, an A minor scale, they just have to play the major scale that they memorized that is 3 semitones higher than A (being C major). Ta-da! So, there you have it, a trick that should make learning your scales much easier. Instead of learning both major and minor scales, you now only need to learn one or the other, and using the idea of relative keys, can play both! If you enjoyed this lesson, you can check out all my previous contributions HERE (There's a lot of them) Also, all my lessons are 100% free, but if you have the urge to throw money at me for my services, you can do so HERE. I'm trying to get a home studio going, so if you want to help out, and thank me for the lessons, that's the best way to do it. Thank you to everyone who has enjoyed my lessons thus far!

5 comments sorted by best / new / date

    The pattern for a minor scale is WhWWhWW, not what's shown above. The way I remember it is that C Major has no accidentals, and A Minor is its' relative minor.
    supersac wrote: i think he added an extra "2 semitones" in the minor scale
    That I did do. Supersac TheThunder are correct, I accidently put 3 "2 semitones" where there should only be two, it should be R 2 1 2 2 1 2 2(octave) PROOF-READING FAIL
    Another way to say it is, assuming people know the five box patterns of a scale: Pattern 2 of the Minor Scale is Pattern 1 of The Major Scale. Pattern 3 Minor is the Pattern 2 of Major and so on.
    JD Close
    5 Box patterns? Ionian Dorian Phrygian Lydian Mixolydian Aeolian Locrian. Maybe I failed number identification, but I count seven. The five boxes are in the Pentatonic scales, using those for this lesson will have you royally screwed. I think this lesson would have been better if titled "Relative Minors For Lazy Guitarists", instead of going all Billy Mayes on us.