Meet the major scale

The C major scale is the foundation that the rest of western music theory sits on. If you master it, you get a bunch of cool chords and scales for free, along with a window into a huge swath of our musical culture.

How to form the scale

Imagine an ice cube tray with twelve slots, one for each note in the western tuning system, labeled like so:

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

To make the C major scale, you just remove all the ice cubes with # in their names, like so:

C [ ] D [ ] E F [ ] G [ ] A [ ] B

Here’s a graphic representation of the C major scale. Scale tones are in red, the notes you skip are gray.The scale is extremely easy to play on the piano: just play the white keys from C to C. Here’s a video series talking about the music you can make by treating the piano as a color-coded instrument:

Here’s the C major scale in standard music notation. The curvy lines show notes with a skip between them, and the angled ones show notes that are adjacent on the piano:

Here’s how you’d program the C major scale into Auto-tune, which clearly visualizes the notes you leave out:

Where did the naming convention come from?

Given that C major is “home base” in the western tonal system, it’s weird that it starts on C and not A. Why this departure from the alphabet? I have no idea. I put this question up on Quora; maybe someone there will have some insight.

Also, what’s up with all the sharps and flats? Why not just use the first twelve letters of the alphabet for the twelve pitches? Maybe it’s just too many things to remember – we don’t do well trying to hold more than eight or nine distinct pieces of information in short-term memory. The sharps and flats system is annoying but it does reflect the fact that you can form other scales by starting with C major and raising or lowering (sharping or flatting) certain pitches.

Some music theory geekery

You can play the C major scale by going around the circle of fifths from F to B:

F  C  G  D  A  E  B

Try playing the scale this way, it’s fun.

The notes you leave out of the C major scale form the G flat major and E flat minor pentatonic scales. Try playing only on the black keys on the piano to hear these scales.

Harmonizing the scale

When you play certain notes from the major scale simultaneously, you get a lot of interesting chords. The pattern that generates the most commonly used chords in C major is very simple. You can form a C major chord by starting on C and playing every other note in the scale:

C  E  G  B etc...

You can form chords from any note in the scale the same way. Just pick one and go up the scale, skipping every other note. When you do this for all seven notes in C major, you get a group of seven chords that sound really good together.

C:    C  E  G (I)
Dm:   D  F  A (ii)
Em:   E  G  B (iii)
F:    F  A  C (IV)
G:    G  B  D (V)
Am:   A  C  E (vi)
Bdim: B  D  F (vii)

These seven chords are called the diatonic chords to C major. (The name comes from Greek.) The diatonic chords are good to know. You can play them in any order and any combination, and the C major scale sounds terrific over all of them.

The roman numerals next to each chord refer to the scale degree the chord is based on. G is the V chord in C major because G is the fifth note in the C major scale. These numbers can be a good shorthand. You’ll see references to chord progressions like I-IV-V, which means, in C, play C, F, G. Another common progression is I-vi-ii-V — that’s C, Am, Dm, G.

The first note in each chord is called the root. The next one is the third (makes sense, you skipped the second.) After that is the fifth. If you add another note to each one, you get seventh chords.

Cmaj7: C E G B
Dm7:   D F A C
Em7:   E G B D
Fmaj7: F A C E
G7:    G B D F
Am7:   A C E G
Bm7b5: B D F A

Adding still another note to each chord makes more complex-sounding ninth chords. Adding yet another note makes eleventh chords, and yet another makes thirteenth chords. After the thirteenth, you’re back on the root again.

A very common rock and pop songwriting technique is to use all of the diatonic chords except for the I chord. By combining Dm, Em, F, G7 and Am, you can get a dark, moody and ambiguous sound that’s still tied together by the familiar major scale. You get enough angst to have an edge, without scaring away mainstream audiences.

Playing C major on the guitar

Major scales are surprisingly annoying to play on guitar. They’re much harder to play than the pentatonic or blues scales. Here are some good fingerings for C major — click through to see them bigger:

The first row shows the open position, so named because it uses open strings. The second row shows a closed-position fingering that fits conveniently between the seventh and tenth frets. Use your index finger on the seventh fret, your middle on the eighth, your ring on the ninth and your pinkie on the tenth. This is a nice fingering because you can slide it up and down the neck to easily form any other major scale.

The bottom row shows arpeggios of all the chords diatonic to C major. This exercise is a challenge, so take it slowly, and try to get it to sound musical and rhythmic. Play it backwards too. Mastering your arpeggios can inspire tons of melodic ideas, and will make your solos much richer and more structured.

See this web site for more major scale guitar fingerings. There are a lot of them, and they can make you crazy. My advice is to really master the ones above first. Then learning the rest of them will be less daunting.

Modes

Not only does the C major scale contain seven awesome chords, but it also includes six other scales. This is a complex topic that gets a post of its own, but the basic idea is simple. By playing the scale starting and ending on notes other than C, you get an assortment of exciting new sounds.

  • If you play C major from D to D, you get a scale called D Dorian. This is a minor scale that goes well with the Dm7 chord. It’s great for funk and sixties jazz.
  • If you play C major from G to G, you get a scale called G Mixolydian, which fits well over G7. This is a crucial scale for rock and roll.
  • If you play C major from A to A, you get A natural minor. This is the basis of the key of A minor, the relative minor key to C major.

Major scale in action

Most of the European-descended nursery rhymes use the major scale: “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and so on. Tons of pop and folk songs, hymns, theme songs and jingles use it too, everything from “Amazing Grace” to “Good King Wenceslas” to “Imagine.”

In classical music, the major scale is traditionally used for bright, happy moods: think of “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” or the William Tell Overture. The scale can be tragic or majestic, too, if played slowly enough. My favorite example is Beethoven’s string quartet in A minor, opus 132, 3rd movement. This is one of the most depressing pieces of music I can think of, and it’s all major.

The major scale can be bland and vanilla-sounding, but it’s all in the execution. Björk’s beautiful “Anchor Song” sounds crunchy and dissonant, but it’s entirely in the major scale. She just chooses surprising combinations of notes, arranged in rhythmically surprising ways. (Unfortunately, the sound and image in this video aren’t lined up well.)

Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” talks through the diatonic chords in the major scale in its first verse: “It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift.” Those major-scale chords might be well-worn cliches, but we’re nowhere near exhausting their possibilities.

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