When we start to play with pitch, it can be a bit like a child with finger paint. When we first begin working with notes, arranging them on the musical canvas of a DAW or a piece of staff paper, we tend to smear them all over the place with no real rhyme or reason, like a child with unlimited colors and no plan.
In the process of learning to make sense of pitches, the major scale is an important first step.
The major scale, like any scale, is a set of pitches arranged based on a pattern of intervals. The major scale is a heptatonic scale, meaning that it is a set of seven pitches.
The seven pitches relate to one another in a pattern of whole steps and half steps, also known as whole tones and semitones. The first pitch of the scale, also known as scale degree 1 and the pitch for which the scale is named. Once we have this point, we can ascend up the keyboard and start building our major scale based on this pattern:
W – W – H – W – W – W – H
Where W is a whole step (2 semitones) and H is a half step (1 semitone). Once we finish the final half step we arrive back at the first degree, only one octave higher.
The pattern of whole and half steps thus refers to the intervals between the scale degrees. The C Major scale, for example, is composed of the pitches C D E F G A B C.
This pattern can be transposed to any starting pitch, so the D Major scale would be D E F♯ G A B C♯ D.
The F Major scale would be F G A B♭ C D E F, and so on.
Sharps And Flats
One important aspect of the scale is the way in which note names do not repeat within the same octave. Remember, a note without an accidental (sharp, flat, or natural) explicitly written is assumed to be natural.
Now, notice the use of sharps and flats: the D Major scale has an F-sharp rather than a G-flat (its enharmonic equivalent) because there is already a G-natural in the scale. Similarly, F Major features a B-flat rather than an A-sharp because there is already an A-natural. This distinction is not typically made in a MIDI roll in a DAW, but it is helpful to keep it in mind when building and utilizing a scale.
Building A Major Scale
Now that we know what goes into a major scale, what is the process for building a major scale? This is the type of procedure that really brings to light the mathematical nature of music theory, but there’s nothing to fear!
Step 1: Choose Your Starting Pitch
We have twelve distinct pitches within an octave: A, A♯/B♭, B, C, C♯/D♭, D, D♯/E♭, E, F, F♯/G♭, G, and G♯/A♭.
As mentioned earlier, the sharp/flat pitches are enharmonic equivalents, which means that the scales beginning on either of these pitches will sound the same even though they are spelled differently.
For example, the A♯ Major scale is A-sharp, B-sharp, C-double sharp, D-sharp, E-sharp, F-double sharp, G-double sharp, A-sharp.
The B♭ Major scale, on the other hand, is B♭, C, D, E♭, F, G, A. One of these is certainly more user-friendly than the other, and they sound exactly the same, so it is far more common to see the B♭ Major scale than the A♯ Major scale.
Thanks to octave equivalence a major scale built on A1 will contain pitches equivalent to the major scales built on A2 and A3. This means there are 12 major scales, one built on each distinct pitch within the octave.
Step 2: Include Each Note Name Within The Octave
The musical alphabet goes from A to G and starts over. Regardless of the major scale, every note name will occur in a heptatonic major scale. If you are building a major scale on G, for example, regardless of whether it is G-natural, G-flat, or G-sharp, the scale will include some form of G A B C D E F G.
In the case of the G Major scale, you need only to sharpen F, thus your G Major scale is G A B C D E F♯ G.
The G-flat Major scale is G-flat, A-flat, B-flat, C-flat, D-flat, E-flat, F, G-flat.
Finally, the G-sharp Major scale is G-sharp, A-sharp, B-sharp, C-sharp, D-sharp, E-sharp, F-double sharp, G-sharp.
Though E♯ is enharmonically equivalent to F and F-double sharp is equivalent to G, they are spelled as E-sharp and F-double sharp in the case of the G-sharp Major scale because heptatonic major scales include each note name within the octave.
Step 3: Use The Pattern To Determine Accidentals
You have your starting pitch and you have your note names laid out in order, which only leaves adding the accidentals (the sharps and flats) that will maintain the necessary order of whole steps and half steps between the scale degrees.
The A Major scale, for example, would start with an A and include each note name from A to A: A B C D E F G A. From A to B is a whole-step, so no alteration needed there. From B to C is only a half-step, though, so C has to be raised to C♯. From C♯ to D is a half-step, which is what we need between scale degrees 3 and 4.
From D to E is already a whole-step, so no problem there, but from E to F is only a half-step and it needs to be a whole-step, so F must be raised to an F♯. Scale degrees 6 and 7 need to be separated by a whole-step, thus G has to be raised to a G♯. Finally, G♯ to A is the required half-step, and we’re done.
Thus, the A Major scale is A, B, C♯, D, E, F♯, G♯, A.
Scales are important tools, so much so that there are apps like Scaler 2 out there designed to help musicians use them more effectively. Scaler determines what key and scale you’re in and suggests chords that match your music.
Now that we can build major scales in any major key, you might be wondering: what can I do with the major scale anyway? Consider paint by numbers, in which a small subset of colors are selected from an infinite variety because they work well together. Major scales are similarly effective at guiding us towards pitches that will work well together in creating basslines, melodies, or at choosing chord tones.
You could compare the sound of a melody generated randomly from all 12 discrete pitches within the octave to one generated randomly from the 7 discrete pitches of a heptatonic major scale. Please note, this would not necessarily be my advice for generating musical ideas, but it makes for a good musical experiment. While the former will mostly sound scattered and nonsensical, the latter stands a good chance of being a usable melody.
Now, if instead of randomly selecting pitches, you mix in the balance of innate musical sense and learned skills all songwriters, producers, and composers utilize, along with an understanding of major scales, you stand an even greater chance of writing a strong melody.
The great thing about the paint by numbers approach, too, is the fact that the numbers are only suggestions. It is your prerogative as its creator to make your music sound however you want it to sound. If this means drawing on pitches from outside of the major scale that corresponds to the key in which the bulk of your music is written, then that is your choice to make.
If you are not yet ready to make freeform pitch decisions like this, however, take comfort in the fact that the major scale is there for your use as a helpful tool. You might also want to check out our free MIDI chord pack aimed at newcomers to music theory.
Like it or not, understanding music theory is important if you want to write great music that moves people. Learning how major scales work is the best way to be introduced to the concept of key signatures.
Discovering the heptatonic major scale may be a breakthrough moment for you, finally permitting you to write coherent melodies and basslines, especially if you’re new to music.
It may just as easily be old news for you, yet it never becomes totally irrelevant, as music theory builds on itself, layer upon layer. Regardless of where you fall in your musical journey, there will always be another layer for you to explore.
If you want to learn more about music theory, we’ve got you covered!