What’s a Major Scale?

Before we go along too much more it might be worth making sure you and I both know how a major scale is put together.  The thing that makes a major scale sound the way it does is the distance between every one of the notes as it goes along–the distance i’m talking about is the number of tones and/or semi-tones from doh to re, from re to mi and so on all the way up the scale.  It turns out that no matter what note you start on the same pattern of tones and semi-tones will always turn out a thing that sounds exactly like a major scale.  So instead of trying to remember all of the scales I can either remember the pattern of tones and semi-tones if I’m that way inclined, or I can use one of the scales as a model to help me recognize and remember the pattern.

If I’m going the ‘remember the pattern’ route, the easiest major scale for me to remember is the one starting on a C-note.  I remember that one because it’s the only major scale where the letter-names of the notes have no sharps or flats (“note to self, circa 1974, only major scale with no sharps or flats is C-major”).  So armed with that tiny bit of information I can tell you without checking that a C-major scale goes up like this;

C = doh

D = re

E = mi

F = fa

G =soh

A = la

B = ti

C = doh (the high one this time)

And one other thing that you might remember because it’s one of those useful trivia bits I told you about is that there are two semi-tones (and two semi-tones are the same as a tone) between every note EXCEPT between;

a B-note up to a C


an E-note up to an F.

The distance between B and C is only a semi-tone.  Likewise the distance between E and F is only a semi-tone.

So if I put together knowing that a C-scale has no sharps or flats, and that there is a tone between every note except B-C and E-F, I first get this;


and then if I fill in the rest of the blanks with them being a tone apart, I get this;


And that pattern of tones and semi-tones is a template I can use to map out a major scale starting on any note.  It’s actually not hard to remember in itself, really.  I figure if I remember ‘two’ and then ‘three’ the rest sorts itself out–that’s two tones then something different (a semi-tone), then three more tones and something different (another semi-tone).  So a major scale goes;

Tone, Tone


Tone, Tone, Tone


At least if I’m in a memorizing mode.  But to tell you the truth I find it quite challenging to memorize disassociated jumbles of words and numbers.  So usually I don’t.  See I find it quite easy to remember melodies.  I’m sure I’ve explained to you that I remember long songs or poems by learning the melody the sound of the words makes.  Believe me, it’s way easier.

So in this case I just say this a few times;

Tone, Tone, Semi-tone

Tone, Tone, Tone, Semi-tone.

It’s a two-line song.  Sing it a couple times a day for a week or so.  The when someone asks you to put together a major scale starting on, say, a G-note.  The first thing you do is sing the scale song;

Tone, Tone, Semi-tone

Tone-Tone, Tone, Semi-tone.

The second thing you do is lay out the letter names;

G, A, B, C, D, E, F.

The third thing you do is remind yourself where there is only a semi-tone of distance between two notes (you remember that it only happens twice).  Right, only a semi-tone between B and C, and between E and F.

And the last thing you do is start matching up the pattern of tones and semi-tones with the letter names and see which ones need adapting with a sharp or a flat.

G to A is a tone–matches the major scale pattern

A to B is a tone–matches the major scale pattern

B to C is a semi-tone–also matches the major scale pattern

C to D is a tone–matches the major scale pattern

D to E is a tone–matches the major scale pattern

E to F is a semi-tone–doesn’t match the pattern, need to be a full tone, so the F will have to be raised by another semi-tone.  That F will have to be an F-sharp.

F to G is a tone–but the major scale pattern calls for ti and doh to be only a semi-tone apart.  Yes, but look, you just changed that F-note into an F-sharp.  And the distance from F-sharp up to G is in fact a semi-tone–just what we need.  So now you’ve successfully mapped out a major scale starting on a G-note;

G, A, B, C, D, E, F-sharp, G .

Not all that tough, see?  Try doing the same thing starting on something like an F-note and see what you get.  This pattern of tones and semi-tones is going to be helpful in a few different ways as we go along.  For instance, since we know that the distance between the 7th and 8th notes of a major scale is a semi-tone, that means we also know that given any high doh, the second last note of the major scale will be the semi-tone below that, and that’s pretty easy to figure out.  If doh is an A-note, ti will be a G-sharp (the semi-tone below A).  If doh is an E-note, ti will be a D-sharp (the semi-tone below E).  Works for the sharp and flat keys, too.  If doh is a B-flat note, ti will be an A-note.  So suddenly, as long as you keep in mind that special relationship between B and C (they’re a semi-tone apart, one of the two exceptions) , and between E and F (ditto), it becomes easy to know what the 7th note of any major scale is.

Seeing as I’m working with my guitar in DADGAD, it’s good to have a handle on a D-major scale.  So if you figure out what the notes are in terms of letter-names and sharps or flats for a major scale starting on a D-note, maybe we’ll use that as a starting point to get to know our way around the neck of the guitar a little bit.  Spend a couple of days figuring it out and getting it solid in your head, then we’ll begin the exploration.