The Importance of Learning the Major Scale

Other articles here on Musicians Unite have already explained the Major Scale but just in case you have missed them, here is a brief synopsis:

The Major Scale forms the basis of most western music and our way of describing notes to each other and on paper. The Major Scale is made up of a series of intervals of either a tone or a semi-tone. They always follow the same pattern of intervals no matter what note you start from. For ease you can also describe each note as a number, not particularly imaginative but it certainly is easier! In the Major Scale the first note you play is called…..the 1st! The second is called…. The 2nd! I think you can guess where this is going!

For example: The C Major Scale contains the following notes:

A Tone (T) is 2 frets or 2 piano keys up from the note you are on. A Semitone (ST) is 1 fret or 1 piano key up.

We can use this formula T, T, ST, T, T, T, ST to work out the notes in we need in any Major Scale.

But, there is more to this than originally meets the eye. Learning this formula can open so many more doors for us, so the time taken to be able to remember it is time well spent. I will be coming back to this in future articles, so learn it now!

What about other scales? Do you have to learn this for every scale?

Thankfully the answer is no (although a lot of books I’ve seen would have you believe otherwise!).

What if I played the exact same notes but started on the A? My scale would now look like this:

The notes are the same, but, the scale ‘sounds’ different! In fact, what we have just played is the Natural Minor Scale. It sounds sadder than the Major Scale. Although we are using the same notes, we have changed our point of reference by starting on the A. We tend to hear things in relation to the starting point, not as a particular named note, so it's the intervals (or gaps) between each note that are important.

Earlier on I mentioned that the Major Scale formed the basis of describing music, and everything we talk about basically revolves around referring back to the position of the notes of a Major Scale.

In our new scale let’s try and work out what’s going on:

So, our intervals are different. But how do we describe them. We can work out the names of the notes in the A Major Scale (I’ll show you how to work out the names easily in a future article)

If we compare the two scales we can see some note differences.

The 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th notes are exactly the same in both scales. But we have differences in the 3rd, 6th and 7th.

If it was a Major Scale the 3rd note would be a C# but we are playing a C. This note is 1 fret or 1 piano key lower than the C#. We call this a Flat 3rd or ♭3. The same is true of the 6th and 7th.

So now we can start to see where the notes are different and what gives each scale its own flavour and voice. A Natural Minor has a ♭3, ♭6 and ♭7. Of particular interest is the ♭3, this is what makes a scale or chord sound minor. More of that in the future!

So, we can see that comparing notes to the Major Scale gives us all a language that helps us communicate with fellow musicians so we all know what we are talking about. Yes, in music theory, there are some very weird names and terms used, but I try to avoid them as much as I can. The purists amongst you may disagree with me on this. To you I can only apologize. But music theory is meant to be for everyone and should be as easy to understand and apply as possible.

I hope you made it to the end of article and found it helpful. Lots more theory articles to come and hopefully they will be easier to follow. Setting the scene is always quite dull, bear with it!

-Duncan Richardson - MU Columnist

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