Even though a person may play well and know their way around an instrument, theory may still be something left on the back burner.

Many people have read a few “beginner” type music theory articles and perhaps found themselves a little alienated or even confused by some of the material.

So it’s nice to start simple and build up to things a bit, just like in a good song.

Why Theory?

A lot of people who play a musical instrument freely admit there is always something to work on to improve the enjoyment of their musical expression.

Learning even a bit of music theory can open a few gates in your personal development as a musician.  Things like;

  • songwriting
  • learning a new song
  • comping
  • playing well with others
  • what to play with others to enhance the song

How to Start

The major scale is the simplest and most fundamental place to start explaining some theory as many musical concepts actually use the major scale as a jumping off position in which other concepts can be based upon and constructed from.

So, taking a look at the construction of the major scale may be instructional for many of the non-theory conspirators out there.

The C Major Scale

A piano keyboard is a good visual way of seeing the scale.

A Further look at the C Major Scale

The C major scale consists of seven notes and then it repeats again starting on C as indicated above.

Notice that the C major scale uses only the white keys of the keyboard (highlighted in green).

There are no sharps or flats in the C major scale, making it a great key to learn in.

Looking at the above keyboard, you may notice there is no black key situated between the E and the F notes, or the B and C notes.

These represent half steps.  The distance between the other notes is a whole step because there is a larger distance between the notes because of the black key between them.

So, this leads us to what amounts to a formula or at least a consistent pattern that is applicable to a major scale in any key.

Notice the spacing between each note of this scale; for example, starting on C you can count 1, 2, and 3 notes until you hit the next note of the scale (don’t forget to count the black keys).

W= Whole step between notes (there is a black key between notes)

H= Half step between notes (no black key)

Major Scale Formula

You can try this in any major key and there will always be this distinct pattern of space between the notes (Whole—Whole—Half--Whole—Whole—Whole—Half). Just memorize it.

On the guitar fretboard for example, the E - F notes and the B - C notes are also directly beside each other with no fret space in between them.

This means sound-wise that there is no tone that could be sounded in between the half steps, while for a whole step there is an unsounded tone in between the two notes.

The C Major Scale Guitar

Notice again the half step between the E-F and B-C.

Here are the notes on a staff line starting on C.

Please note that major scales in keys other than C will incorporate the use of flats or sharps in order to maintain the whole and half step pattern.  Subsequently, the notes with half steps between them will also change in accordance with the key.

In order to demonstrate that this is not a life threatening issue to our theory adventure, let’s take a look at the D major scale and compare it to the C.  You will see that the pattern or formula holds true and how.

Remember, this is a consistent formula that will never change for a major scale in any key.

Completely Irrelevant Time-Out Question

If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one around, is there a sound?  Answer: Only if you make a musical instrument out of it and play the D major scale.

D Major Scale (demonstrating use of the formula)

Notice that in order to maintain the formula we had to incorporate the use of some black keys (sharps) as shown (F# and C#).

Why the Formula Works

  • The distance between the D and the E must be a whole step
  • The distance between the E and the F must also be a whole step, so we had to make the F sharp in order to create the whole step.
  • This makes the distance between F# and the G a half step which it must be in order to maintain the pattern.
  • We continue with three whole steps and finally the distance between the C# and the D must be a half step so we include another sharp for the C.


Now, every time you are searching for that special note you will have another tool at your disposal to find it and make it sound right.

I hope you were able to pick up a little information, and remember this major scale can be a jumping off point so it may be fun to explore some other concepts.

About the author: Robert Weeks is a jazz music enthusiast and guitar player from British Columbia, Canada.

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