How to form a major scale

For piano players, the C major scale is the easiest major scale because it starts on C and consists of all the white notes up to the next C. So, the notes of the C major scale are: C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C  (this looks as if the scale has 8 notes, but since the C is played twice, the scale consists of 7 different notes).

Let’s now look at the intervals between its consisting notes:

  • From C to D: whole tone (W)
  • From D to E: whole tone (W)
  • From E to F: half tone (H)
  • From F to G: whole tone (W)
  • From G to A: whole tone (W)
  • From A to B: whole tone (W)
  • From B to C: half tone (H)

So the intervals between the consecutive notes of the C major scale are:

W W H W W W H  (see figure)

intervals in major scale

Since all major scales sound the same way, this structure is valid for all major scales. That means that the only difference between all major scales is their root (starting note). So we can use this structure to find out all the other major scales. Let me illustrate this with some examples:

The D major scale

Let’s apply our ‘formula’ (W W H W W W H) to find the scale of D major.

  • From D, a whole tone (W) up to E
  • From E, a whole tone (W) up to F#
  • From F#, a half tone (H) up to G
  • From G, a whole tone (W) up to A
  • From A, a whole tone(W) up to B
  • From B, a whole tone (W) up to C#
  • From C#, a half tone (H) up to D

So, the notes of the D major scale are: D  E  F#  G  A  B  C#  D

Now, why did I call the 3rd and 7th notes F# and C# and not Gb and Db? Well, this is because we have to apply one of the following 2 rules (you can choose which rule to apply, since one rule implies automatically the other):

  • Don’t use the same letter for 2 consecutive notes
  • Don’t leave a ‘gap’ between 2 consecutive notes

Let me explain those rules:

Don’t use the same letter for 2 consecutive notes: Imagine that in the D major scale, I would have used Gb instead of F#. The first 4 notes of the scale would then have been: D  E  Gb  G …

In this case, the letter G is used twice (even if the first has a flat sign), so this is against our first rule.

In the same way, you can show that you have to use C# instead of Db.

Don’t leave a gap between 2 consecutive notes: Again, imagine I would have used Gb instead of F# in the D major scale, so: D  E  Gb  G …

Now, between E and Gb, there’s a ‘gap’ because we miss the letter F. We have therefore to use the letters in the order as they appear on the white keys of the piano keyboard.

The F major scale

When we apply our formula to find the F major scale, we get:

  • From F, a whole tone up to G
  • From G, a whole tone up to A
  • From A, a half tone up to Bb
  • From Bb, a whole tone up to C
  • From C, a whole tone up to D
  • From D, a whole tone up to E
  • From E, a half tone up to F

Did you notice that the scale of F major has a flat note (the Bb), not a sharp? It cannot be an A# (just apply one of the rules mentioned above and you will see that the 3rd note in the scale of F major is a Bb, not an A#).

So, the scale of F major is:  F  G  A  Bb  C  D  E  F

The other major scales

With our formula (WWHWWWH), you can now find out yourself the other major scales. Since there are 12 different notes, that means that there are also 12 major scales.

When you do the scales in the order as listed below, you will see that each time you will get one more sharp in the scale. Starting from the C major scale (0 sharps), move on to the G major scale (1 sharp), then the D major scale (2 sharps, as you have already seen before), etcetera, till you reach the scale of F# (6 sharps). And don’t forget to apply one of the 2 rules (don’t repeat letters & don’t leave gaps). At the end of this lesson you will find the right solutions.

Order for the major scales with sharps:

C major (0 sharps)

G major (1 sharp)

D major (2 sharps)

A major (3 sharps)

E major (4 sharps)

B major (5 sharps)

F# major (6 sharps)

Notice that in the list above, we go up a 5th in every step. So, starting with C major, every time you go up a 5th, the major scale gets one more sharp.

When done, then go to the list of major scales with flats.

Starting with C, every time you go a 5th down, you will get one more flat in the scale. So the list for the major scales with flats is:

C major (0 flats)

F major (1 flat)

Bb major (2 flats)

Eb major (3 flats)

Ab major (4 flats)

Db major (5 flats)

Gb major (6 flats)

Btw, instead of saying a 5th down, I could also have said a 4th up, this is explained in the lesson characteristics of intervals.

You might have noticed that the two lists have together 14 items. That’s strange, because there are only 12 different notes, so also 12 different major scales. Well, as you can see, the C is repeated, so this eliminates already 1 item. When you look well at both lists, you can also see that the last item in list 1 is exactly the same as the last item in list 2: F# and Gb are enharmonic equivalent notes. So they are exactly the same note, only written differently. When you found the right notes for both major scales, you will see that they consist of exactly the same notes, but written as their enharmonic equivalents.

All the major scales (solutions)

It’s time to check if you found the right major scales, so first the table with the major scales with sharps:

Root

(first note)

Notes of the major scale
C C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C
G G   A   B   C   D   E   F#   G
D D   E   F#   G   A   B   C#   D
A A   B   C#   D   E   F#   G#   A
E E   F#   G#   A   B   C#   D#   E
B B   C#   D#   E   F#   G#   A#   B
F# F#   G#   A#   B   C#   D#   E#   F#

And now the table with the major scales with flats:

Root

(first note)

Notes of the major scale
C C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C
F F   G   A   Bb   C   D   E   F
Bb Bb   C   D   Eb   F   G   A   Bb
Eb Eb   F   G   Ab   Bb   C   D   Eb
Ab Ab   Bb   C   Db   Eb   F   G   Ab
Db Db   Eb   F   Gb   Ab   Bb   C   Db
Gb Gb   Ab   Bb   Cb   Db   Eb   F   Gb

 

Compare the F# major scale from the first table with the Gb major scale from the second table: both scales are exactly the same, the notes are only written differently.

Note also the E#, which is enharmonic equivalent with F, and the Cb, the enharmonic equivalent of B.

Other enharmonic equivalent scales

You might have asked yourself: “Why are the Gb and F# scales listed as enharmonic equivalent scales and not for example Db and C#, or Ab and G#? Why are only the ‘flat scales’ listed?”

You will understand this better with the circle of fifths, but the short answer is: “Of course, you can make the C# major scale, the G# major scale and so on, but they have so many sharps (even double sharp notes), that they become difficult to handle.” What would you prefer? The Ab major scale with 4 flats, or the G# major scale with 8 sharps? I think the choice is not so difficult…

 

It’s of very big importance to know well your major scales. It will help you with all the other music theory if you can quickly come up with the right scale in all the 12 different keys. For that purpose, it’s important to practice a lot. The exercise below is an excellent way to practice your major scales.

Place the notes of a major scale on the piano

 

I hope that you learned a lot in this lesson about major scales and that the exercise helped you to quickly master the scales in all 12 keys.

Please tell us what you think of this lesson and the exercise by leaving a comment below.

 

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Martin Cohen
 

Martin Cohen is a science and piano teacher. He is also a jazz musician and composer.

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