Easy Music Theory! The Major Scale
Updated: Apr 27, 2022
Hello! Welcome to the second of our Easy Music Theory guitar blogs! This week, it’s time to tackle the Major scale! Last week we covered the chromatic scale, and I mentioned that the scale is the building blocks of western music theory. As the chromatic scale outlines all 12 pitches in western music, we can use it to create essentially any scale that we’d like!
So! Let’s start on the major scale! Scales are all essentially based around a formula. This formula is based on a series of intervals (gaps/frets between notes) that in turn create a scale with it’s own distinct sound. Most scales in western music are based around 7 notes (we’ll cover some exceptions to this rule in the coming weeks), and this is a result of past musicians choosing the notes that sounded best when all put together.
So, how exactly do we create a Major scale? Firstly, we need to know the intervals between each note of the major scale. These intervals go Tone, Tone, Semi-Tone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semi-Tone. Don’t worry if that doesn't make too much sense right now, just remember from last week that each fret on your guitar is a semi-tone, so if you hop over a fret and move to the next one you’ll have a tone! So a tone is just 2 semi-tones instead of one!
Now, when we apply this to the chromatic scale we can build our Major scale. Lets choose a note to start with, this will be the ‘Root’ of our scale, which is just the first note of the scale. As C Major is the easiest scale to understand (you’ll see why in a moment) we’ll start from a C note. Take a look at the graphic below, you’ll see that I’ve drawn the major scale formula on top of the chromatic scale. The circled notes are the notes in our C Major scale!
So, a C Major scale consists of C, D, E, F, G, A, B. This is why it’s the easiest one to understand, it’s just following the alphabet without us having to worry about sharp or flat notes. The diagrams below show some of the C Major scale shapes on the guitar. We can easily move these to play in different ‘keys’ (scale starting on a different root note) by moving the shape around the fretboard! All we need to pay attention to is the root note, and then you can play all 12 major scales using these shapes! Knowing these shapes will be important as the bread and butter of your guitar playing, as it’s important for creating chords, arpeggios and in the end solos! The end goal is to try and break away from boxes and find these notes all across the fretboard, but that’s something we’ll work on in later blogs. For now familiarise yourself with these shapes, maybe trying a new technique (alternate picking is perfect) while doing so!
So, now that we have our C Major scale, it’s time to talk about intervals! Different intervals have a distinct sound, which are essentially what give the Major scale it’s ‘happy’ sound. If we break down the Major scale into the intervals building up from the Root we have:
C to D – Major 2nd
C to E – Major 3rd
C to F – Perfect 4th
C to G – Perfect 5th
C to A – Major 6th
C to B – Major 7th
C to C – Octave
We’ll do some further insight into intervals in the coming weeks, but for now all we need to know is that the Major scale is comprised of these! The Major Scale, and it’s formula of intervals are essentially the baseline for all scales that we build in Western music. This formula is simply written as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. This means that we can easily modify this formula to create brand new scales! As we go through these blogs I’ll refer to this, and bring In those modifications to spell out new scales. For now, all you need to know is that if you see a b before a note in this formula, then that note is lowered by a semitone, if you see a # then it’s raised a semi-tone!
I’ve included a quick exercise below, the tab below alternates between Root and the next interval of the scale. This should help you become familiar with the sound of the major scale intervals!
Now that we’ve become familiar with the intervals of the scale, the last thing we need to look at are the chords of a Major Scale! Chords are just intervals of the scale that we’re in stacked on top of each other and played together. The most common chords – triads (three note chords) – are all built of 3rd intervals. This means that they’re surprisingly easy to create! The graphic below shows how we can create a C Major chord from the major scale. Start at the root of the note, skip one note, and move to the next. Do this one more time and we have the notes C, E and G, otherwise known as a C Major chord!
If we repeat this process for every note, then we can construct all of the chords in the Major scale! You’d be forgiven for thinking that all of the chords in the Major scale are Major chords, however thanks to how the intervals work this isn’t quite the case. Again, I’ll go over why this happens in a later blog, but for now we can just use a handy formula to remember the types of chord in the Major scale. The graphic below shows all the notes and chords in the C Major scale. Underneath I’ve written Major or Minor so we know what type of chord we need to play! The formula: Major, Minor, Minor, Major, Major, Minor, Diminished is the same for all of the Major scales, so if we remember this we can play all of the chords without too much work! The important thing to remember here is Major sounds happy, while Minor sounds sad. These are the types of chord you’ll play most when learning songs. The diminished chord sounds quite unstable (and a little bit evil), and isn’t used very often, but it’s useful to remember that it exists!
I’ve included some chord shapes below so that you can practice all of the chords within the C Major scale, and get used to their sounds. I haven’t included the fingering for these chords this time, as I’m showing the notes instead, but let me know if you’d like me to include that in future! After you’ve done that, why not try putting some together and writing your own chord progression!
Finally, the chord shapes below are easily transferrable across the neck, just like our scale shape! Just remember to pay attention to the root note and you can easily put any chord into a different key! You’ll notice I’ve labelled this one with intervals, that’s just so we know what each fret in that chord shape is in relation to your chord! Don’t worry if this doesn’t make too much sense, we’ll be covering intervals in the coming weeks! Why not try to move the C Major chord progression you create into a different key using these shapes?
So that’s the end of this weeks blog! Hopefully this made sense, there’s a lot of information to try and take in! If there’s one thing to remember from this blog it’ll be the chords of the Major scale, as that will take out a lot of the guess work in learning songs! I’ve glossed over some things to save this becoming information overload, but we’ll cover them step by step in the coming weeks! Thank you for reading, and I’ll see you again next week!