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Music theory basics: the major scale

In this article you will learn more about the major scale.

Author: Lida van der Eijk

When you want to practice music, you have to practice your scales. It might seem boring, but it's an essential part of learning to understand music theory. It's common to start with practising the major scales, and there's a good reason for it.

You can find major scales in all popular western music. From The Beatles to Taylor Swift, everyone uses them. It is the building block for chords, intervals, and harmonies. Therefore, knowing your major scales is mandatory.

What is a major scale?

The major scale has seven notes. It is build op out of whole steps and half steps. There's a half step between the 3rd and 4th note, and between the 7th and 8th note.

Take a look at C-major.

C major

Building a major scale

It's easier to understand the scales by looking at a piano. You can clearly see that there's no black key between B and C, and E and F. Those are the half steps we just talked about.

One half step is the distance from B-C and E-F. But also from F-F# and D-D#. To help you understand this, we take a look at the G-major scale.

[picture G-major on piano]

Here you can see that the 3rd and the 4th note are one half step apart (B-C). The same applies tot the 7th and 8th note (F#-G).

And how does it work with a more complicated major scale? Let's look at D-major.

[picture D-major on piano]

Now it's time to take a closer look at the steps:

D-E = whole step

E-F# = whole step

F#-G= half step

G-A=whole step

A-B=whole step

B-C#=whole step

C#-D=half step

So, a quick reminder: a half step is a step of one semitone. A whole step consists of two semitones.

This way you can create any major scale. Now I will tell you a little bit about key signatures.

Music theory basics: key signatures

C-major has a key with no sharps or flats, and D-major has a key with two sharps. Get the picture? Key signatures are important, because they define the tonal centre of a piece of music.

Each key signature has a combination of sharps or flats. For example, Bb has two flats. It's very convenient, because by placing sharps or flats at the beginning of the staff, the sheet music becomes cleaner.

Major scales modes

So now you mostly understand the basic major scale. We can move on and talk about the seven modes. Don’t be scared, they’re very easy to learn. The only thing you need to remember is that they all start on a different note.

7 modes of the major scale

Ionian mode: So the basic major scale is already in de ionian mode. A synonym for major is ionian.

C major

Dorian mode: The Dorian mode starts from the second note of the major scale. So the C major scale in the Dorian mode would start on D.

[picture of C Dorian]

D dorian - Sheet Music Notation - Learn music theory with

Phrygian mode: So each mode starts from a different note, and we are going up. In the C major scale this mode would start on E.

E phrygian - Sheet Music Notation - Learn music theory with

Lydian mode: The Lydian mode starts on the fourth note of the major scale. For C major that would be an F.

F lydian - Sheet Music Notation - Learn music theory with

Mixolydian mode: Then we have the mixolydian mode, which starts on the fifth note. For C major that would be an G.

G mixolydian - Sheet Music Notation - Learn music theory with

Aeolian mode: Now it becomes more interesting, because you might already know the aeolian mode. It’s the same as the minor scale and starts on the sixth note of the major scale. For C major, it would start on A.

A aeolian - Sheet Music Notation - Learn music theory with

Locrian mode: The locrian mode gives a beautiful and complex sound. It starts on the seventh note. For C major, that would be the B.

B locrian - Sheet Music Notation - Learn music theory with

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