The Major Scale

This article starts us into our mini series on Music Theory in popular music. Today we will be taking a look at the Major scale and its function within music. Along with chords, scales are the most important musical component pertaining to song construction. The majority of popular songs stay in one key signature, and once you have established the underlying scale of the key you are in you will find it much easier to construct melodies and harmonies that compliment each other.

The major scale, along with the minor scale, is the most important scale used in Western music. The major scale makes up most of the more upbeat, happier sounding melodies we find in popular music, while the minor scale is known for its darker, more melancholy feel.

The major scale is a diatonic scale, meaning it has 7 different notes between the root (or starting) note and the octave, which is the same note as the root at double the frequency. For example, the frequency of the middle “A” note on the piano is 440 Hz, so the octave or the next “A” on the piano is 880 Hz. In this way, scales are repeating because we can choose to keep playing the notes of the scale past the octave. There are 7 letters in the musical alphabet and each one is used for each of these notes. Let’s show this in the key of C major (the easiest key to use when explaining music theory). The notes in the key of C major are: C D E F G A B C. These are the same notes in the scale of C major.  Think of the “key” as more of a macro term and the scale as how the key is applied.  For instance, we might briefly modulate using a few notes outside of the scale, but can still be in the key of C major.

Lets take a closer look at the C major scale on this keyboard illustration.

As you can see, there are 12 steps, or semitones between the starting C and the octave C on this keyboard. The major scale is made from the specific step relationships between the starting and ending notes in the scale, or from root C to octave C in this case. The steps are as follows:

Root note (C), whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step to octave note (C).

According to the scale of C major, there is a whole step between C and D because you must step over the C# in order to get there, whereas it is only a half step between E and F because there is no note in between to step over. These relationships always stay constant in order to maintain the scale. Because of this, a major scale is the same in any key, whether you’re in the key of C or G#.

Hopefully this will help you to start crafting songs in a major key. In the near future we will go over the finer points of minor scales, building chords around melodies developed by the underlying scale of the song and chord substitutions.