Lesson 29: Scales and Why We Need Them.

Category: Lessons, Music Theory

Well, it has officially been over a year since I posted my last lesson. I’m sure you have been waiting patiently, checking the website daily; brimming with hope that I would post the next lesson. And every day for the past year, you would have been sorely disappointed, your hopes dashed as the new lesson did not appear. And for that, I apologize. Let me make it up to you by teaching you about scales.

The first question you must be asking is: What is a scale? Well, I will answer that question for you. A scale is a series of ascending and descending notes, that often repeat from octave to octave. Scales are important tools that can be used for composition.  Ever heard of a blues (hexatonic) scale? Many blues musicians use this scale to help with melodic improvisation while playing the blues.

We won’t be learning about the blues scale today, but I will teach you about a different basic scale – the C major scale. In the C major scale the “C” is the key. The C note can also be called the “root” or the “tonic” note. “Major” is how we describe the quality or the type of the scale. Other scale types could be minor, chromatic, pentatonic, etc.. The list goes on and on.

So, how do we construct a major scale? The major scale has a basic formula, no matter what note you are starting on. The basic formula is this: Tone-Tone-Semitone-Tone-Tone-Tone-Semitone. Uh, got it? If you don’t remember about tones and semitones, you can review them in Lesson 23: Tones, Semitones, Chromatic Semitones, Diatonic Semitones.

OK, so let’s apply this magic to the C major scale so you can see what you are dealing with. A major scale has seven notes: tonic (1), supertonic (2), mediant (3), subdominant (4), dominant (5), submediant (6), and leading note (7). These are just names, most are not really that important except the tonic (1), and dominant (5) which will come up again in later lessons.

So, whats your tonic note in a C major scale? … C! Nice work, detective.

From there it gets a bit more complicated. Remember the magic formula Tone-Tone-Semitone-Tone-Tone-Tone-Semitone. This means the interval between the first note (C) and the second note is a whole tone. That would make the second note.. a D. D is a whole tone above C. So D is our supertonic note. Lets go onto the next note, which we know is a whole tone from D. That would be an E. Our mediant or third note is an E. Now, following the formula, our next note is a SEMITONE away from E… E#? Oh wait, that’s F! So our subdominant (4th note) is an F…  and on and on it goes until all 7 notes of the scale are discovered. Can you figure them out?

You may discover that the C major scale is quite.. simple. No sharps, no flats, no jack-in-the-boxes, no kicks-in-the-a$$. This is not true for all of the major scales. If you are up for the challenge, try to write out the notes of the F major scale. I’m not going to give you the answer here, but if you post the answer, I will tell you if you are right.

For now, I will leave you with a handy-dandy graphic of the C major scale with our lovely major scale formula superimposed between the notes. This might give you a better idea of how to create a major scale.

C major scale with tones and semitones marked


Oh, so I forgot to mention that major scales end on the tonic note. You can see this in the scale above.

I think thats it. See you next year.

Posted on October 14th, 2011 by sharlene

1 Comment

  1. Lesson 33: Degrees of the Scale | Epianostudio Says:

    […] us apply this information to the G major scale. First, we will need to build our scale. Remember Lesson 29 where I discuss building a major scale using the formula: […]

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