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The major scale

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Having discovered that the natural notes from C to B form a C major scale, let's look at the idea of the major scale in a little more detail.

The octave

First of all, let's just remind ourselves about the octave. When you step through the natural notes, C, D, E... you will end up back at C again:
C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
The span of notes from one C to the next, "from C to C", is called the octave (just as an octagon has eight sides, an octave spans eight notes!)

There are 7 different natural notes, starting at C, up to B, then starting again at C, within the octave.

These 7 notes, when played in order, are called a scale. In this case C, D, E, F, G, A, B is a scale of in the key of C major, or alternatively known as "the scale of C major".

The 7 natural notes beginning on C form a major scale in the key of C majorThe 7 natural notes beginning on C form a major scale in the key of C major

The major scale

The intervals between the notes in C major are a pattern of tones and semitones, as you've previously seen in Tones and semitones:

Forming a C major scale from semitones and tonesForming a C major scale from semitones and tones

This pattern of tones and semitones is the defining characteristic of a major scale and is important to remember:

Other major scales

Using only natural notes, you cannot reproduce this pattern by starting on any note other than C. Here are a few examples:

Starting on D:

Starting on E:

Starting on F:

Starting on G:

You can see, however, that the pattern starting on F and the pattern starting on G are very nearly the same as the pattern starting on C. We only need to make one alteration to either of these in order to produce the same pattern as C major.

G major

Let's consider the pattern starting on G:
G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G

What stops that pattern from being the same as the pattern starting on C is that last S-T combination, "E, F, G" (the interval between E and F being a semitone, and between F and G being a tone).

If only we could swap around that S-T to become T-S, then we'd have a major scale starting on G!

This can be done quite easily - simply by playing an F sharp instead of an F, like this:
G, A, B, C, D, E, F sharp, G

Therefore, we have constructed a G major scale, or more precisely "the major scale in the key of G major".

F major

Let's have a look at that pattern starting on F and see if we can apply a similar principle:
F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F

The problem this time is that first T-S pair, i.e. between A and B, and B and C.

We can easily "fix" this by making the B a B flat instead, like this:
F, G, A, B flat, C, D, E, F

This is now the same as the pattern starting on C, and is therefore now a major scale: the major scale in the key of F major.


We have seen this word key a few times now, and now we're in a position to see what it means.

If we started on any G and worked up through all the notes in turn, playing the scale of G major, we would have to make sure that every F we encountered was played as an F sharp.

If we wanted to play something more interesting than a scale, we could use only those notes of the scale in G major, but again, we'd have to remember to make every F into an F sharp. If we did this, we would be playing in the key of G major.

The key, then, is a description of which notes are not "natural" and have been altered to flats or sharps.

By making every F an F sharp, using the notes of the G major scale, we can play in the key of G majorBy making every F an F sharp, using the notes of the G major scale, we can play in the key of G major

We will return to this topic again soon in Keys level 1.

Numbering the notes

Often, when we are discussing music, it is useful to be able to refer to one of the notes in the scale, without naming the note or key itself.

For example, if we need to refer to the 2nd note in the scale, we could simply say "the 2nd note in the scale", but this happens so often in music theory that we have a special system for naming each note of the scale in general terms.

Each of the notes in a scale is given a number, from 1 to 7. So, in C major, C is number 1, D is number 2, and so on, up to B at number 7. Each of these numbers is called a degree, so in C major, C is the 1st degree, D is the 2nd degree, and so on.

This is a general system that applies to all scales; so in a G major scale, the 1st degree is G, the 2nd degree is A, and so on.

Degrees of the scale in C majorDegrees of the scale in C major

Naming the notes

In the same way that we number the degrees of the scale, each degree also has a special name.

There are of course 7 different names - one for each degree - but here are three that you are likely to encounter very often:

The tonic

The 1st degree of a scale is called the tonic. The tonic of any key or scale is always the "name note" of the scale - so the tonic of C major is C, the tonic of G major is G, and so on. Whenever we say "the 1st degree" we can also say "the tonic" - the terms are interchangeable.

The dominant

The 5th degree of a scale is called the dominant. The two most important notes in any key are the tonic and dominant, as you will discover. The dominant of C major is G, and the dominant of G major is D.

The leading note

The 7th degree of a scale is called the leading note. This is a more easily understood name, as the 7th degree "leads to" the 1st degree; the leading note of C major is B, which leads back to C. The leading note of G major is F sharp (not just F!), which leads back to G.

The tonic, dominant, and leading note in C majorThe tonic, dominant, and leading note in C major


There is one more system for naming the degrees of the scale, and you are quite likely to have encountered it already: do-re-mi (also known as the solfège system).

This is well known because of the song from the musical The Sound of Music:

  1. do, a deer, a female deer
  2. re, a drop of golden sun
  3. mi, a name I call myself
  4. fa, a long long way to run
  5. so, a needle pulling thread
  6. la, a note to follow so
  7. te, a drink with jam and bread
    That'll bring us back to do!

You can see from this that do is the same as the tonic and the 1st degree, and that so is the same as the dominant and the 5th degree.

You might come across any of these three systems (degrees, tonic/dominant, do-re-mi) and you should ensure that you are familiar with all of them. The "tonic/dominant" system is widely used in music theory, and we will meet the names for the other degrees in this system in The degrees of the scale.


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