Music Theory Basics: The Major Scale

Music theory is what ties everything together, it makes sense of chords and scales and anything else you are likely to learn about as a guitarist. No matter where you are at with your playing, if you want to realise your full potential as a musician, it is important to know about this stuff. This series of posts should provide you with the basics, and will allow you to further unlock your potential.

There are 12 notes in music. They are as follows:

C  C#  D  D#  E  F  F#  G  G#  A  A# B

You will notice that every note is followed by a sharp (symbolised with a #) except for E and B. A simple way to remember this is that all notes have a sharp except B and E which spells BE! Another thing that you should realise is that every sharp note can also be called a flat which uses a ‘b’ as the symbol. For example C# is also Db. The reason for this will become clear soon, so written with flats instead of sharps the 12 notes are as follows

C  Db  D  Eb  F  Gb  G  Ab  A  Bb  B

This might seem confusing at first, but it will become more clear as we move on.

Every note is an increase in pitch from the last (more detail on this later). After you get to the B note, the next note goes back to C, but this C is a higher pitch. This is known as an octave. This might be a bit confusing, why if there are 12 notes between C and the next C is it called an octave? Well this is because if you remove the sharps/flats the next C is the 8th note. We will come back to this too. First lets get to a visualisation of where the notes are on the guitar neck:

    1         3         5         7         9              12

You will notice that this diagram only covers up to the 12th fret, this is because there are only 12 notes, so after the 12th fret the pattern just repeats an octave higher. To hear an octave practise playing any of the strings open, and then playing the same string at the 12 fret. The note is the same, but the pitch is higher.

So you will see that every fret represents an increase in pitch. This increase is called an interval. The interval or increase between two notes say C to C# is called a semitone, the interval between 3 notes, say C to D is called a whole tone—which you can think of as two semitones put together. So the fretboard of the guitar is divided at intervals of a semitone. If you play every fret on the E string moving up, you are moving up in semitones, if you just play the open string followed by the 2nd, 4th, 6th, 8th, 10th, and 12th frets you are moving up in whole tones (or just tones for short).

All of the 12 notes laid out as I have written them above represent what is known as the chromatic scale. If you play every fret moving up the string, you are playing the chromatic scale. However, if we were to take this series of notes and remove the sharps (or flats), what we are left with is the C major scale.

C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C

You’ll notice the 8th note is another C, which is the octave that I mentioned earlier. When we look at these notes in relation to each other, we will notice that they are at specific intervals. For instance the distance between C and D is a whole tone, as is the distance between D and E, the distance between E and F, however is only a semitone, F to G is a tone, G to A is a tone, A to B is a tone, and B to C is a semitone. With that in mind we can actually map the major scale in terms of the intervals, which will allow us to find the major scale from any starting point. So, if we represent a whole tone with the letter T, and a semitone with the letter S, the major scale can be mapped in terms of intervals as:

T  T  S  T  T  T  S

This might become clearer if I show you how to use this map to find a different major scale. Lets say we want to find the D major scale. We look at the order of notes as listed above, and find where D is. To find the next note we know that we have to move up a whole tone, which takes us to E, then again we need to move up a tone from E, which gets us to F#, after that we are moving up a semitone,which gives us G, then a tone which gives us A, another tone which gives us B, and another tone which gives us C#, and finally a semitone which gets us back to D. So we can work out the D major scale by looking at the intervals of the C major scale:

D  E  F#  G  A  B  C#  D

Notice that D major has some sharps two in fact. C major is the only major scale to not have any. Now lets look at why sometimes sharps are called flats. Lets use the same pattern of intervals to find the D# scale…

D#  F  G  G#  A#  C  D  D#

If you look, this scale has 2 G’s and 2 D’s! This is considered bad form! So we have to remember if we start our scale on a sharp, we want to be writing it as flats rather than sharps. Why? Because if we write the notes as their flat counterparts we get a nice neat scale with no duplicate letters:

Eb  F  G  Ab  Bb  C  D  Eb

So essentially there is no D sharp scale, its called E flat. The same applies for any scale, if you’re starting on a sharp, you need to translate it into flats! If you are starting on any of the notes from the C major scale, you use sharps.

Hopefully this hasn’t boggled your mind too much. The easiest way to get what this lesson has been all about would be to find all 12 major scales using the pattern of intervals that I have showed you. Go through the notes and write down all twelve major scales. I shall see you in the next lesson.

Things to remember:

  • There are 12 notes, once you get to the 12th note the pattern repeats an octave higher in pitch.
  • The distance between each note is an interval of a semitone, a whole tone represents an increase in two notes.
  • The pattern of intervals in a major scale is: T, T, S, T, T, T, S —you can use this to find any major scale
  • If you looking for a scale starting with a note that is not in the C major scale you need to use flats instead of sharps.