I have written extensively about major scales and the importance of them on this site already. From that end, there’s no need to reexplain what’s already been explained. The purpose of this lesson is to demonstrate how the major scales is in a sense the ‘master scale’.
If you’re not sure what a major scale is. Read the lesson on major scales. Also, this lesson is a sort of follow on from the following lessons:
Major Scales And Keys
One of the most obvious reasons why major scales are so important is that they determine the notes in any given key. What are the notes in the key of D? The same notes that are in the D major scale? Which scale do we use to figure out the notes in the key of B? The B major scale.
By knowing which notes are in different major scales, we know which notes are in different keys.
Using your knowledge of intervals and the fretboard, you can theoretically figure out the notes of any scale, provided that you know the interval sequence that makes up that scale. It can be a good exercise to try to ‘figure out’ the notes of a few scales. However, once you understand the general concept of scales, you can go about learning them using scale diagrams and notation/tablature.
Since major scales tell us which notes are in every key, knowing the notes of every major scale is especially important. It may seem like a difficult task, but there are only 12 scales/keys (not including enharmonically equivalent scales). As I mentioned, you don’t need to figure them out yourself. The lesson, how well do you know major scales has notation/tablature for each of the 12 major scales, in the open position. It also includes tips on memorising the scales and the importance of them.
Another useful resource is the scales page of this website, where you will find links to individual scales, including major scales.
Using Major Scales To Build Other Scales
Another reason why major scales are so important is that we can use them to build other scales. Yes, we can use sequences of intervals to build scales, but quite often we identify with scales based on scale tones, relative to the major scale. I’ll explain further.
The major scale contains 7 notes. Often we start with the root note and finish with the root note, so it can seem like there are 8 notes, but of course there are only 7. If we give each note of the scale a number, in order, we get this:
1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 -7
Hardly exciting, is it? But these seven scale tones become the reference point for identifying with other scales. Let’s take the natural minor scale, for example.
We can look at the natural minor scale in terms of scale tones, relative to the major scale:
1 – 2 – b3 – 4 – 5 – b6 – b7
What that means is that the natural minor scale contains the 1st note (1), 2nd note (2), 3rd note down a semitone (b3), 4th note (4), 5th note (5), 6th note down a semitone (b6) and 7th note down a semitone (b7) of the major scale.
The A major scale (for example) contains the following 7 notes:
- 1 – A
- 2 – B
- 3 – C#
- 4 – D
- 5 – E
- 6 – F#
- 7 – G#
Therefor, the A natural minor scale contains:
- A (1)
- B (2)
- C (b3)
- D (4)
- E (5)
- F (b6)
- G (b7)
When we are looking at scale tones, seeing the symbol ‘b’ (flat) instructs us to lower the scale tone by one semitone. The symbol ‘#’ (sharp) instructs us to raise the scale tone by one semitone.
When we apply a ‘flat’ to a note that is already a ‘sharp’, it effectively cancels out the sharp and makes it a natural note. The same thing happens the other way around. That’s why the 3rd note (‘C#’) of our example becomes ‘C’, as the b3 of the natural minor scale.
Let’s do another example.
The C major scale contains the following notes:
- 1 – C
- 2 – D
- 3 – E
- 4 – F
- 5 – G
- 6 – A
- 7 – B
The C natural minor scale (1 – 2 – b3 – 4 – 5- b6 – b7) therefor contains the following:
- C (1)
- D (2)
- Eb (b3)
- F (4)
- G (5)
- Ab (b6)
- Bb (b7)
Of course, we can look at any scale in this way. The major pentatonic scale for example contains the following:
1 – 2 – 3 – 5 – 6
The interesting thing about this scale is that it only contains five notes, yet we can still look at each note relative to major scale tones.
The D major scale contains the following notes:
- D (1)
- E (2)
- F# (3)
- G (4)
- A (5)
- B (6)
- C# (7)
Therefor, the D major pentatonic scale is made up of the following notes:
- D (1)
- E (2)
- F# (3)
- A (5)
- B (6)
Why Scale Tones Are Better
As I mentioned, we can still look at each scale as a unique sequence of intervals. The reason why using scale tones relative to the major scale is a superior approach, is that it tells us more about the characteristics and function of scales. We’re not going to dive too deeply into the the practical uses of scales in this lesson, but as a quick example, knowing that a scale contains a ‘b3’, tells us that it is probably a minor scale. By understanding scales based on scale tones, we gain a greater insight into the qualities and uses of that scale.
Hopefully you now understand how major scales can be used to build other scales. At the very least, you should understand why the major scale is the master scale, and getting to know it in twelve keys is one of the most beneficial things you can do!
- Basic Intervals – This lesson explores basic intervals on the guitar (tones and semitones). You need to know these to play scales effectively.
- The Musical Alphabet And The Fretboard – Another requirement of knowing scales is knowing the fretboard and being familiar with the musical alphabet.
- Using Intervals To Build Scales – Using intervals is the first step in understanding scales.
- How To Read Scale Diagrams – Once you understand how scales work, you can move onto learning them through scale diagrams.
- Major Scales Explained – A comprehensive lesson on major scales with links to individual keys.
- How Well Do You Know Major Scales – This lesson is a good reference for major scales in all 12 keys.
- Scales Page – Once you think you know what scales are all about, and want to learn as many as you can, check out the scales page of this site!