How many Major Scales are there and Why?
One of the most common questions in music theory topics refers to the number of major scales. How many major scales are there, anyway?
The short answer is that there are 12 major scales in music theory.
But knowing that there are 12 major scales only helps a musician so much. So, instead of just telling you that there are 12 major scales and calling it a day, I thought I would tell you about how major scales work so you can build scales without having to memorize each note in each scale.
The Way Major Scales Work
Now, let’s discuss how major scales work and how you can write them out. Each scale is actually a particular pattern of intervals. In music theory, an interval is a difference in pitch between two sounds. As for the major scale pattern, it can work with semitone (half-steps) or tones (whole steps). Semitones and tones are the smallest intervals that you can meet in the music alphabet. If you are not familiar with it yet, then let’s discuss this theory separately.
The half-step or the so-called semitone is the distance from one key to the very next key on the keyboard. This could be black or white. Whether the neighboring key is up, down, white or black, the notes that stand right next to each other are half step away. That’s why they are called half-step or semitone or sometimes even half tone.
The Whole Tones
While tones, also called the whole steps, are the same as 2 half steps. It is the distance between the first two notes in a major scale. In order to get a whole step from the starting or any starting note, you need to skip a key. Thus, the neighboring note is a whole step away.
WWHWWWH = the Major Scale
You already know that the main building blocks of scales are half steps and whole steps. The major scale, in its turn, comes with the following formula “WWHWWWH” which is built with the help of half steps and whole steps. Below you can check the starting on the note C.
- From C to D is a whole step,
- From D to E is a whole step,
- From E to F is a half step,
- From F to G is a whole step,
- From G to A is a whole step,
- From A to B is a whole step,
- From B to C is a half step.
WWHWWWH = Major Scale Pattern
Here you see 7 different notes that are laid out with the WWHWWWH pattern and that’s the major scale. In order to make it work you should start and end with the same note. So, keep this pattern in mind and let’s go on; WWHWWWH = Major Scale Pattern.
WWHWWWH = TTSTTTS.
There is another way to write a Major Scale pattern and it looks like this; the “WWHWWWH” formula is “TTSTTTS”. Here ‘T’ stands for ‘tone’ and ‘S’ means ‘semitone’. We have already discussed that tone and semitone are the same as the whole step and half step. Depending on the country you study in, these terms can vary.
TTSTTTS = Major Scale Pattern (with alternative terms)
In order to study the following formula, you simply need to keep in mind where the two half tones (semitones) go. You can see a semitone between the 3rd and 4th degrees in the major scale pattern, as well as between the 7th and 1st degree. The rest of the notes are all whole steps (tones).
The 12 Major Scales
You can start with any note and use this major scale formula to create any major scale you want. Taking into account the fact that there are 12 different notes, and you can start on any of them, the traditional musical alphabet provides us with 12 major scales. The most important thing to consider is that the pattern of tones and semitones is always preserved. This is what keeps the specific character of the major scale. If you change the pattern you’ll get a totally different scale.
If you want to know what you should do to be sure whether the WWHWWWH formula is the same or not, you should first of all use sharps and flats. Of course, you can start with any note, but it’s important to be familiar with sharps and flats.
For instance, there may be cases when the G major scale requires F be sharpened. This means that the last interval is a half-step and not a whole step. In other words; F sharp to G rather than F to G. In another example you may flatten the note B (in F major) so that you can get a half step between the third and fourth notes. The result must be A to B flat and not A to B natural, which is a whole step.
Below you can see all 12 major scales with appropriate sharps and flats.
Some Major Scales have sharps and some others have Flats. Why?
The answer is simple; in order to avoid too much complex notation some major scales offer sharps and others come with flats. Let’s take an example: A flat major scale for better understanding. You can rewrite the beginning note A flat as G sharp because they spell differently for the same sound meaning that they are enharmonic equivalents.
Enharmonics are notes that have different spellings, but are the same notes on the keyboard. For example, a C sharp and a D flat are the same notes on the keyboard. They are enharmonics of each other.
Enharmonic Equivalent Major Scales
Generally, A flat major is considered with G sharp major but there are many other major scales that you can easily rewrite. Depending on the context they can be spelled with either flats or sharps.
When we say context, we usually mean everything that’s included in the overall key in use, the instruments as well as musicians playing.
F sharp and G flat are considered to be the typical enharmonic equivalent major scales. Although they are spelled differently they still sound the same way.
C sharp and D flat:
We have the same thing in the case of C sharp and D flat. They both are enharmonic equivalent major scales and while they are spelled differently, they sound the same.
You may also meet a less typical case when the major scale of C flat is equivalent to B major.
What’s the point of scales
If you want to practice more effectively as an instrumentalist, then you should go deeper into the theme of the scales. They give you the opportunity to practice definite articulations and techniques quite easily. On the other hand, you get the chance to realize all the nuances that music may ask for from a repertoire.
In fact, many composers use the countless unique opportunities that notes of a scale and intervals between them offer to create character and mood in music. If you want to compose a simple memorable tune, then you can go with fewer notes and simpler intervals. If you want to create something exciting and more outstanding, then change the scale. Write with a note outside the scale and see the result. Is the effect unique, curious or weird?
When you have endless possibilities, you become more creative and choose the sets of notes you prefer most. We can compare this process with painting; when you need to get a portrait instead of a landscape and you have many colors. So, you have many notes in music and your task is to create a piano piece or song. The scale becomes our palette that’s beautifully laid out in front of us.
Frequently Asked Questions about the Major Scale
Can I make a major scale minor and how?
If you want to make a major scale into minor, you just need to lower the third and the sixth by a semitone. For instance, C major includes the notes C, D, E, F, G, A and B and you want to transform it into a minor scale. Lower its third from E to E flat, and its sixth from A to A flat.
In other words, by flattening degrees 3 and 6 you change the C major into C minor.
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Josh is the founder and main author of Songwriter Nation. He has played music for over twenty years and even studied music at university earning a minor in music.