What is a Major Scale? How do you make a Major Scale? What is a Minor Scale? How do they relate?

Musicians know the importance of memorizing scale positions on their instruments in order to facilitate playing, but what about knowing how they are constructed? Here’s the kicker: all major and minor scales are built off the SAME formula! If you know how to construct a scale from scratch, it’s less about memorizing positions as much as it is placing the scale skeleton over a certain note. Whatever you learn in one key (or scale) will continue to apply to others. You should still memorize scales, but if you’re backed into a corner and can’t remember a key, you can always take it back to basics and look at whole steps and half steps. What do I mean by that? Take a look below!

The Major Scale

The major scale is defined by the distance between the 7 notes and the octave. The formula of “whole whole half, whole whole whole half” or wwhwwwh in between each note creates the scale. Beginning with C major scale for the sake of ease, since it contains no sharps and flats, it would look like:

C Major Scale

From observing this, we can conclude that there are naturally half steps (with no sharps and flats identified) between:

EF and BC

The Minor Scale

The minor scale is defined by the distance between the 7 notes and the octave as well. The formula of “whole half, whole whole half whole whole” or whwwhww in between each note creates the scale. Beginning with a minor scale, since it contains no sharps and flats, it would look like:

Relatives

Since C Major and A minor both contain no sharps and flats, they are called relative keys to each other. A minor is the relative minor of C major, and C major is the relative major of a minor. This means that the note choice is the same, but how you use the notes to determine the harmonic palate will express which is harmony is more appropriate.

Also; A is the 6th scale degree in C major – the 6th diatonic major scale degree will always be the relative minor (sharps and flats included). Similarly, C is the 3rd scale degree in A minor. The 3rd diatonic minor scale degree will always be the relative major.

What’s the takeaway?

Memorize:
Major - wwhwwwh
Minor - whwwhww
Natural Half steps - EF and BC

Here is a link to the PDF version of the explanation above

https://drive.google.com/file/d/15uaxOo1KoMR2JmbS-4VS3U737IApesnE/view?usp=sharing

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@ianbassett Are there any rules of thumb or tricks for identifying whole or half steps across strings? This spreadsheet helps but wanted to know if there were any other ways.

There are, but they aren’t exactly intuitive. The thing to remember is that the guitar is tuned in 4ths as you ascend with the exception of between strings 3 and 2 (G and B) it is tuned to a major third. If you’re keeping track of where you are in a scale, a whole step (W) is a certain distance across strings tuned in 4ths (pinky to index finger in a 4 finger setup) and a half step is a certain distance across across strings tuned in 4ths (pinky to index finger again, but a stretch not just 4 finger setup). Unfortunately, with the G and the B string you’ll have to adjust that setup up by one fret.

If you can keep track of where you are in the scale by simply counting, you can figure out what the next note should be on the next string.

So it’s doable, but not intuitive. This is the disadvantage of a guitar in comparision to a piano, where the note looks like the note and is only played in one spot, and the sharps and flats generally look a certain way (exceptions around natural half steps). But the advantage is from a shape perspective, your shapes stay the same when you play guitar, so it’s easy to see how the relationships stay the same. I actually have a way of getting notes across the strings in a much more detailed explanation, but I’ll save it for another post!

This is helpful. I did not know this. Also, I usually cannot track where I am in the scale as I am improvising but that’s likely just a function of not burning it into my memory enough. Look forward to the more detailed post.