Music Theory Tutorial: The Major Scale

In the Notes tutorial we learned about the pitches that make up music and how they are named. The next step is to group the notes in some logical/musical way. The foundation for this grouping in music theory is the Major scale. A large part of music theory is in some way based on the Major scale.

  • As we learned in the notes tutorial there are seven notes named A to G and five in-between notes with names based on the notes they are beside. This makes twelve notes that repeat in higher and lower octaves
  • Although you can play any of the 12 notes at any time it helps to have some structure to organize which notes to use

  • One of the fundamental ways of organizing the notes is into the major scale
  • Instead of using all 12 notes we select just 7 (that repeat in different octaves)
  • It turns out that the most basic major scale, the C major scale, is played using only the white keys on piano keyboard
  • The scale starts on C and contains the notes C-D-E-F-G-A-B
  • The note a scale starts on and is named after is called the “tonic”. “Root note” is used as well

  • What makes a scale sound the way it does is the series of steps between notes. If you change the spacing you get a different sounding scale
  • We mentioned the “half step” (H) previously which is the distance between two consecutive notes. There is also the “whole step” (W) which is equivalent to two half steps
  • The pattern for a major scale is: W W H W W W H as labeled above
  • Notice that the half steps in the C major scale are between E-F and B-C (where there are no black keys)

  • What happens if we try to start from another note? Say G? We want to play a G major scale
  • If we try to use just the white notes we run into a problem. Our formula doesn’t work. It’s a scale…but not a major scale…the part in red above is where we have the problem. Instead of W W H W W H we have W WH W W H W
  • In order to fix the spacing we need to use a black key… the F# to get the correct pattern back. E to F# is a whole step and F# to G is a half step…order is restored
  • The G major scale has these notes: G A B C D E F#

  • How about D Major? If we try to just use the white notes we run into the same problem as before. Our formula doesn’t fit. But it seems to be broken in two places.
  • In order to fix the spacing we need to use two black keys… the F# to change the H to a W and C# to change the W to an H
  • The notes in the D major scale are D E F# G A B C#

  • The notes in the D major scale are D E F# G A B C#
  • Since the black notes have two names why did we use F# and not G♭ or C# and not D♭
  • Although the full explanation is beyond the scope of this tutorial this is what it would look like if we did: D E G♭ G A B D♭
  • Looks pretty strange… two version of G and two versions of D… by using the sharps we ensure that each letter name is used only once
  • We’ve covered three Major scales so far: C (no sharps), G (one sharp) and D ( two sharps)
  • There’s a pattern. We’re adding sharps as we go along. Below is C and all the sharp keys
Number of sharps Major Key Notes
0 C C D E F G A B
1 G G A B C D E F#
2 D D E F#G A B C#
3 A A B C# D E F# G#
4 E E F# G# A B C# D#
5 B B C# D# E F# G# A#
6 F# F# G# A# B C# D# E#
7 C# C# D# E# F# G# A# B#

  • What’s the deal with E# and B#? There are no black keys for those notes?!!
  • Since there are seven sharp keys we need seven sharps. E# and B# are necessary. But how would the E# or B# fit into the keyboard. You have to go back to the definition of sharp….one half step higher
  • To play E# you’d actually just play an F and for B# you’d actually play a C. However in the context of the key (and the goal of each letter name being used once) it makes more sense to think of them as E# and B#

…and now the flat keys

  • Once you understand how the sharp keys are built understanding the flat keys should be simple
  • As you can guess starting from F would give us a problem. Our major scale pattern is once again not right. This time a sharp won’t help to fix the problem
  • By changing B to B♭ the major scale pattern is restored
  • The F major scale has these notes: F G A B♭ C D E
  • Just like with the sharp keys the pattern is to add flats one at a time
  • As you’d expect there are seven flat keys. Below is C and all the flat keys
Number of flats Major Key Notes
0 C C D E F G A B
1 F F G A B♭ C D E
2 B♭ B♭ C D E♭ F G A
3 E♭ E♭ F G A♭ B♭ C D
4 A♭ A♭ B♭ C D♭ E♭ F G
5 D♭ D♭ E♭ F G♭ A♭ B♭ C
6 G♭ G♭ A♭ B♭ C♭ D♭ E♭ F
7 C♭ C♭ D♭ E♭ F♭ G♭ A♭ B♭


  • Scales are a way of organizing the notes we use
  • The Major scale is created by using the whole/half step pattern: W W H W W W H
  • C Major has no sharps or flats. On the piano keyboard it’s made up of just the white keys
  • When starting from other notes sharps or flats are needed to maintain the pattern
  • There are seven sharp keys and seven flat keys
  • The note that the scale is named after is called the “tonic”. “Root note” is used as well

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