Interpreting Scales and Chords in Music

Scales and chords in musical theory can seem difficult or convoluted at times. However once you know how to interpret them, they are quite simple!

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All scales are fully comprised of 8 notes. The simplest scale is the C major scale. It contains no sharps (or otherwise flats) within it. Shown below are the notes comprising all major scales:

C maj: C D E F G A B C

D maj: D E F# G A B C# D

E maj: E F# G# A B C# D# E

F maj: F G A Bb C D E F

G maj: G A B C D E F# G

A maj: A B C# D E F# G# A

B maj: B C# D# E F# G# A# B


A chord can be broken down into a root, third and a fifth note. Variations such as sharps and flats of each respective note are what give a chord it's variances (e.g. minor, augmented, suspended, etc.)

A major chord is comprised of a root note (the base note of the scale, which governs the chord's name), it's harmonic 3rd, and it's 5th. A minor chord is a major chord with a flattened 3rd. So, in the case of the C minor (Cm) chord for instance, rather than C E G, we would have C Eb G. Below are some of the chord equations to learn:

major: R - 3 - 5

minor: R - b3 - 5

augmented: R - 3 - #5

diminished: R - b3 - b5

dominant 7th: R - 3 - 5 - b7

dominant 9th: R - 3 - 5 - b7 - 9

dominant 6th: R - 3 - 5 - 6

Scale Formulae:

Similar to how we can rationalize chords, we can also rationalize all forms of scales in music theory. As mentioned previously, every scale can be broken down into 8 notes. We can express the scales with formulae just like chords; with variations of each note (e.g. flat or sharp) governing the scale type. Using the major scales, every other scale type may be found using the formulae below:

Harmonic minor scale formula:
1 - 2 - b3 - 4 - 5 - b6 - 7 - 8

Minor scale formula:
1 - 2 - b3 - 4 - 5 - b6 - b7 - 8

Pentatonic scale formula:
1 - 2 - 3 - 5 - 6

Minor pentatonic scale formula:
1 - b3 - 4 - 5 - b7

Using these formulae, and the scale notes, one can easily deduce each note in a given scale type. These are by no means every type of scale, it is meant as a learning tool. The rest of the scales I leave to you.

More to come!

3 comments sorted by best / new / date

    The chord equations shown above should really be thought of in this instance as the "main intervals" (i.e. the "main" chord types...being major, minor, aug, dim, 7th, 9th and 6th chords). I will post in my next lesson many more chord formulae (or "equations," if you will).
    The last sentence of the first paragraph under Scale Formulae is supposed to read "Using the major scales, every other scale type may be found. The formulae below are a few examples."