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A Complete Guide To Major Scales

The mention of the words “music scales” can promote different emotions in different people. To some, they are just a chore, something you have to learn. While some seem to get terrified, even if you just mention the words. They can seem a bit daunting at times. Others just accept they are necessary and get on with it.

A Complete Guide To Major Scales is not possible within the restrictions of an article such as this. There are books containing 100s of pages on the subject. However, considering the amount of space I have, I am just going to give you a brief outline of major scales in music.

What are Scales?

What are Scales

Scales are simply a group of notes that make a key. The word originally comes from the Latin word for ladder, “scala.” If you look at the progression of the scale written down, it rises in equal increments, just like a ladder.

Scales can be placed in either ascending or descending order. You will become aware that some have different characteristics in the way they sound. Some sound positive and some negative. Composers often use this as a setting for the type of music they are creating.

The Key Signature

To save someone writing down a series of accidentals, that is, sharps or flats beside each note, there is a key signature. This sets the pattern for the music unless you happen to alter a note.

As an example, the Key Signature of G has one sharp. That is the seventh note of the scale, the F#. That note is always played as a sharp unless you put another accidental in front of it to change it. This saves an awful lot of work when there might be three or four sharps in a key signature.

What is the Major Scale?

It is one of the most prevalent parts of western music. It is probably one of the first things you learn when you start to play. Have you ever sat at a piano and just played consecutive white notes? If so, you’re playing a scale.


Major scales are what are known as Diatonic scales. Simply put, they contain seven notes, with the eighth note you play being the octave up of where you started. Essentially though, seven notes.

Constructing your major scale

Constructing your major scale

The Major Scale has five whole note or tone intervals and two half note or semitone intervals. These are set in a pattern, or some refer to it as a formula. Using this pattern, you can start on any note and construct a major scale.

The pattern we use is T – T – S – T –T – T – S. That is where T= a tone and S= a semitone.

Or, if you prefer, the alternative descriptors are:

W – W – H – W – W – W – H. In this case, the W = a whole note, the H = a Half Note.

So, let’s construct a Major Scale in C

Using the pattern I have just described would result in the following notes.

Start on C. Then move up One Tone (= T) C to D. Up One Tone to E. Then up a Semitone ( =S) to F. Up One Tone to G. Up One Tone to A. Then up One Tone B. and finally up a Semitone to return to C.

Easy, of course, using all white notes on a piano, no sharps or flats.

Let’s try the same pattern for the key of D

The notes for the Major scale would be D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, and D. The Key Signature shows two sharps, one on F and one on C. That means that all F and C notes are played to the sharp unless you state otherwise in the music.

Let’s make it harder

So what happens if it gets a little more complicated in the Key Signature. The Key of E has four sharps. They are C, D, F, and G. In this key, whenever there is any of those, it is played sharp, again, unless you dictate otherwise.

The E Major notes are, therefore: E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#, and E. This pattern applies to creating major scales of any kind.

Musical Modes

This is an example of what can scare some people about scales. But, it’s a crucial part of a complete guide to major scales. If we take the scale of C to keep it simple, there isn’t just one variation on the scale; there are seven.

  • Ionian mode
  • Dorian mode
  • Phrygian mode
  • Lydian mode
  • Mixolydian mode
  • Aeolian mode
  • Locrian mode

Each mode has its own peculiarities within its framework. We can split these into Major and Minor Modes. The Major modes are Ionian, Lydian, and Mixolydian. The Minor modes are Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, and Locrian. They are all Diatonic, meaning they have seven notes.

Defining the difference between Major and Minor scales is quite easy and revolves around the third note. If you are in a major mode, then the third note will be a Major 3rd, in C that is an E. Likewise, if you are in a Minor Mode, it is a minor 3rd. That would be an Eb.

Rules for Musical Modes

Rules for Musical Modes

As I said, each has its own peculiarities and creates its own atmosphere. So, let’s take a very brief look at each one briefly.


This is the same as the major scale. You may well play this all the time without realizing it.


This is the relative minor scale of the Ionian. Flatten the 3rd, 6th, and 7th notes of the scale.


Another minor scale that pops up at times in modern music. Flatten the 3rd and the 7th note of the scale.


The third of the three minor modes. We see the flattened 3rd but also flatten the 2nd, 6th and 7th notes. This creates a very somber atmosphere to the music. If a composer wants a dark feeling to the music, they may use this mode.


The final minor mode, you don’t see this so often except maybe in Jazz. The 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, and the 7th notes are flattened. As the 3rd and the 5th notes have flats, this is often referred to as a half-diminished scale.


From dark to happy and the other end of the atmospheric scale. For this mode, just raise the 4th note of the scale by a semitone.


A very small difference between this and the basic Ionian mode as it only has a 7th note that is flattened. This mode is sometimes referred to as the dominant scale.

Modes have been known to us since the times of the Greeks, hence their Greek names. But over time, the process and usage have changed. What we see and use now evolved in the Medieval music period.

Understanding the Musical Modes and Scales

A good way to understand music modes and major scales is to try them out on some simple tunes. Play them in one mode and then another. Recognize how the sound differs. That will show you how you can use them. If you are composing music, this opens a whole new set of doors you can explore.

Some books that might help are Scales and Chords in all the Major and Minor KeysThe Complete Book of Scales, and Modalogy: Scales, Modes & Chords.

Want to Learn More About Music Theory?

Our experts can help you improve your skills. So, take a look at our handy guides on Diatonic ScalesWhat Is Theme And Variation In MusicWhat Are Dynamics In MusicTypes Of Bebop ScalesWhat Are Accidentals In MusicBest Apps and Games for Learning to Sight Read Music, and the Best Music Theory Apps for more useful information.

Also, you may want to upgrade your instrument. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Electric Cellos, the Best Electric Violins, the Best Portable Keyboard PianosBest 88-Key Keyboards, the Best Digital Pianos for Under $500, the Best Alto Saxophones, the Best Tenor Saxophones, and the Best Trumpet you can buy in 2023.

A Complete Guide To Major Scales – Final Thoughts

Major and Minor scales and their Modes are the building blocks you use to create your music. Your understanding and appreciation of them is the foundation stone on which it all stands.

Until next time, let your music play.

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