What’s the Big Deal about Major Scales?

Major Scales – Know your Half Steps and Whole Steps

Before we can talk about  major scales, be sure you remember half steps and whole steps. Half steps go from one note to the very next note. Whole steps are made of two half steps.  Read what we learned about whole steps and half steps here.

Illustrations of whole steps and half steps.
Blue arrows show half steps. Purple arrows show whole steps.

Definition of a Major Scale

A major scale is a successive series of 8 notes in ascending or descending order, that follows a specific pattern of whole steps and half steps. The first note and the last note of the basic form of a scale are always an octave apart. They have the same letter name.

Pattern of a Major Scale

A major scale always follows the same pattern of whole steps and half steps.

W-W-H-W-W-W-H

The scale that most easily demonstrates this pattern is the C Major scale. Following the pattern, a C major scale consists of these notes: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. Now, look at this on a keyboard. Look at how the whole steps and half steps are placed. Also, notice that the first note and the last note of the scale are the same, just an octave apart.

Pattern of whole steps and half steps for C Major scale
Pattern of whole steps and half steps for C Major scale

We can use this pattern to write a major scale starting on any note. Just remember, the half steps always come between the 3rd and 4th steps, and the 7th and 8th steps of the scale. Here are examples of some other scales. Look for the half steps and whole steps.

Examples of Major Scales with Half Steps Marked
Examples of Major Scales with Half Steps Marked

Importance of Scales in Music

Establish Tonality

Scales are important because they establish the tonality of a piece of music. The scale a piece is based on helps to set the mood of the music. It determines what chords will work best in a piece of music.

Establish Key Signature

When we talked about sharps and flats a couple weeks ago, we also talked about key signatures. A key signature is based on a scale. When we write a major scale starting on any noted except C we must use accidentals (sharps or flats) to make the notes fit the pattern of whole steps and half steps. Those accidentals determine the key signature for that scale.

Provide Structure

All music has structure. Scales provide that structure. They are the building blocks of music. Almost every step-by-step group of notes in your music comes from the scale the music is based on. The chords in the music are based on the scale.

What’s the Point of Learning all these Scales?

Improve Your Understanding of the Music You Play

The more you understand your music and how it is written, the better you will be able to learn and play your music. When you look at the key signature, you should know what scale your music is based on. You will know what notes to expect to see in your music. And when you see something different, it should stand out to you. If you have learned to play scales, and can identify scale passages in your music, you should know exactly what to play.

Improve Technical Ability

Learning to read, identify, and play scales will make you a better player, no matter what instrument you play! Your teacher does have a good reason to make you learn and practice scales. Practice them in one octave, two octaves, three octaves. Practice scales at different speeds. Use different rhythm patterns to practice scales. Learn your scales!!!  (Links to copies of scales?)

Improve Your Sight Reading Abilities

You will definitely improve your sight reading abilities if you can recognize major scales in your music. Any time you sight read a piece, always look at the key signature first! That key signature should automatically connect with a scale in your brain. And that gives you lots of clues to help you play the music better.

Obviously, all this takes time. But, take the time to thoroughly learn your scales! Be able to identify them, play them, and connect them with key signatures. I guarantee you will be a better musician as a result.

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