Major and Minor Scales

The major scale

Familiarity with the basic principles will be helpful, even it only helps you to understand why some different genres of dance music may use different time signatures. We need to begin by first examining the building blocks of music, starting with the musical scale. The major scale The major scale consists of a specific pattern of pitches that are named after the first seven letters of the alphabet. These always follow a specific sequence and always begin and end on the same letter to create an octave. For example, the C major scale always begins and ends with a C, and the distance between the two Cs is always one octave. We can relate this to ‘Doh – Ray – Me – Fah – So – Lah – Ti – Doh’ (the final ‘Doh’ being one octave higher than the first). What’s more, each pitch in the octave has its own name and number, the latter of which is referred to as a ‘degree’. Because most aspects of musical theory are based around the distances between notes, it’s important to understand these relationships, which are shown in Table 2.1 for the C major scale. To comprehend the relationship between notes in a scale we need to examine the placement of notes on a typical keyboard and their representation on the musical staff.


The keyboard is made up of five black notes and seven white notes, forming one octave, repeated several times along the length of the instrument. Each key on the keyboard relates to the pitch of that particular key and is equal to one semitone. The black keys raise or lower the pitch by one semitone. If they raise the pitch they are called ‘sharps’ (♯). If they lower the pitch they are called ‘flats‘ (♭), so to the right of C is a raised black note called C♯  and the same note to the left of D is called D♭ . Likewise, the black note to the right of D is called D♯ or E♭ and so on (excluding the notes E and B that do not have sharp notes associated with them and thenotes F and C that do not have flats associated with them). Because the black keys on the keyboard can be either sharps (♯) or flats (♭), depending on the key of the song or melody, they are sometimes referred to as ‘enharmonic equivalents’.

The written musical notation of the octave from C to C on the keyboard is shown in Figure 2.2.

fig 2.2

The figure clearly shows how notes rise in pitch through the octave. Because each note of a particular pitch is equal to one semitone, these can be added together and classed as one tone. Taking the notes C and C#, the two can be added together to produce one tone (one semitoneone + one tone = one tone). Consequently, the notes C, D, F, G and A, which all have associated sharps, are known as whole tones, while the notes E and B, which don’t have sharps, are referred to as semitones. Using this logic, the C major scale shown in Figure 2.3 can also be written:


fig 2.2

This is the pattern of tones and semitones that defines a major scale. If, rather than starting at C, we start at D ending on the D an octave higher, this arrangement changes to:


Although this may not seem significant on paper, it has an impact on the sound because the key has changed from C to D. That is, D is now our root note. The best way to understand this difference is to import or program a melody into a sequencer and then pitch it up by one tone. Although the melody remains the same, the tonality will change because the notes are now playing at different pitches than before. This is shown in Figure 2.4.


In order to pitch the melody up from C to D without changing the tonality, we need to take the sharps into account. So in pitching the melody from C to D, whilst retaining the tone–tone–semitone pattern associated with the major scale, the relevant sharp notes must be introduced. In the key of D, the major scale has two sharps – F♯ and C♯ written as shown in Figure 2.5. Looking back at the keyboard layout shown in Figure 2.1, these correspond to the black notes to the right of F and C.


If the melody is then pitched up from C by five semitones to F, F becomes the root note and the pattern of tones changes to:


Again, this looks fine on paper, but the tonality is no longer the same as in the original melody, where C was the root note. In order to correct this, we need to alter the pitch of B, lowering it by one semitone to B♭ , as shown in Figure 2.6.

Fig 2.6

Where the scale is constructed will depend on whether the black keys are sharps or flats, but in defining the key they will only be one or the other.

Minor scales

Along with the major scale, there are three types of minor scales called the ‘natural’, ‘harmonic’ and ‘melodic’ minor scales. These differ from the major scale and from one another because of the order of the tones and semitones. As a result, each of these minor scales has a unique pattern associated with it.
The natural minor scale has semitones at the scale degrees of 2–3 and 5–6. Thus, they all follow the pattern:



The melodic minor has semitones at the scale degrees of 2–3 and 7–8 when ascending, but reverts back to the natural minor when descending. Thus, they will all follow the pattern of:


fig 2.7 e 2.8

The harmonic minor scale has semitones at the scale degrees of 2–3, 5–6 and 7–8. Thus, they all follow the pattern:

Generally speaking, the harmonic minor scale is used to create basic minor chord structures to harmonize with riffs or melodies that are written using the melodic and natural minor scales. Every major key has a related minor scale and vice versa, but this doesn’t mean that the closest relationship to the key of C major is C minor. Instead, the relationship works on the principle that the most closely related major and minor keys are those that have the most notes in common. The closest related minor scale to C major is A minor, because these two scales have the most notes in common (neither contains any sharps or flats). As a guideline, you can define the closest related minor from a major by building it from the sixth degree of the major scale and the closest related major from a minor scale building from the third degree of the minor scale. The structures of major and minor scales are often referred to as modes. Rather than describing
a melody or song by its key, it’s usual to use its modal term.


Modes are incredibly important to grasp because they determine the emotion the music conveys. Although there are scientific reasons behind this, principally it’s because we subconsciously reference everything we do, hear or see with past events. Indeed, it’s impossible forus to listen to a piece of music without subconsciously referencing it against every other piece we’ve previously heard. This is why we may feel immediately attracted too or feel comfortable with some records but not others. For instance, some dance music is written in the major Ionian mode. Changing this to the minor Aeolian mode would make the mood seem much more serious. This is not only because the Ionian mode sounds less harmonious, but also because we associate the Aeolian pattern of sounds with the serious and sombre sounds of traditional church organ music.


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