Music theory

Theory Masterclass Part 1 – Major Scales

The first in an occasional series of articles on basic music theory.

A scale is a sequence of notes, either ascending (going up) or descending (going down). The most common scale of all is C major, which is made up from white notes only.

Most students would agree that the C Major scale is the “easiest”, because it has no black notes in it, but renowned composer, pianist and teacher Fryderyk Chopin believed that the C Major scale was the hardest because the notes do not lie comfortably under the hand. So, when he taught scales to his students, he started them on the scales with the most black notes because he felt they were more natural under the fingers and hand.

Major scales are always constructed in the same sequence of whole steps (tones) and half steps (semitones), no matter what the scale is:

Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Tone – Semitone (or T T S T T T S for short)

Degrees of the scale

Scales are constructed like the rungs of ladder, moving in consecutive steps. The notes of a scale (e.g. 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.) are known as the degrees of the scale: the 1st note is the 1st degree of the scale. In C Major, the first degree of the scale is C, because this is the first note the scale starts on. Each degree of the scale also has a name, which reflects its position and importance in the scale. The most important note is the one on which the scale starts: this is called the key note (or home note) or tonic. The next most important is the 5th note (G in the scale of C major); this is called the dominant.

In general, when writing about music (for example, in concert programme notes), major scales are capitalised (C Major, B-flat Major) and minor scales are lower-case (c minor, g minor, f-sharp minor).

Minor scales will be discussed in a separate post.

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