The Major Scale Continued

In the following lesson we are going to learn to spell all of the major scales. Before we go into the details, let me summarize what I’m about to tell you:

1. There are fifteen major scales.

2. Some scales are built (or “spelled”) using sharps, some are built (or “spelled”) using flats.

3. None of the major scales have both sharps or flats. They are built using either sharps or flats, never both.

4. One scale has no sharps or flats. (The C major scale.)

5. Some scales have enharmonic spellings. (Example: There is an F# major scale, and a Gb major scale. They have exactly the same tones in them, but they are all different notes.) (Huh?)

At this point, you have all of the technical understanding you need to build all of the major scales. Now, let’s build all of the major scales. We’ve already built the C major scale and the G major scale. (If you need to review how, read the previous post.) Here they are again:

 

C D E F G A B C

 

G A B C D E F# G

 

Now, let’s build the D major scale. We start with the letter D, and use the pattern W-W-H-W-W-W-H. Since we covered all of the details related to this in previous posts, I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of this, and I’m just going to write the scale out for you. If we follow the pattern, this is what we end up with:

 

D E F# G A B C# D

 

Now, let’s build one more. We’ll build the A major scale. Start from A, and use the pattern W-W-H-W-W-W-H. This is what we end up with:

 

A B C# D E F# G # A

 

Let’s take a look at every scale we’ve built thus far:

 

 

C D E F G A B C

 

G A B C D E F# G

 

D E F# G A B C# D

 

A B C# D E F# G # A

 

If we examine these, a patten starts to emerge. As a matter of fact, a few patterns start to emerge, although some are less obvious than the others. The first patten is the number of sharps in each new scale. The C major scale has no sharps or flats. The G major scale has one sharp. The D major scale has two sharps. The A major scale has three sharps:

 

C major – 0 sharps (or flats!)

 

G major – 1 sharp

 

D major – 2 sharps

 

A major – 3 sharps

 

 

Now, let’s look at another pattern that probably didn’t jump off the page at you. Think about this for a moment. What is the interval between C and G? What about between G and D? And what about D and A? (You’re going to begin to understand why it was so important to precede this stuff with a firm understanding intervals, and to commit them all to memory.) The distance between C and G is a perfect 5th. The distance between G and D is a perfect fifth. The distance between D and A is a perfect 5th. What is happening here? We start with the C major scale, which has no sharps or flats. Then we proceed up a perfect 5th to the G major scale, and find that it has one sharp. Then we proceed up a perfect 5th to the D major scale and find that it has two sharps. So on to the A major scale, which has three sharps.

 

If we go a 5th up from A to E, how many sharps do you suppose we’d have? That’s right: Four. Keeping this in mind, let’s look at all of the sharp scales:

 

C major – 0 sharps (C D E F G A B C)

 

G major – 1 sharp (G A B C D E F# G)

 

D major – 2 sharps (D E F# G A B C# D)

 

A major – 3 sharps (A B C# D E F# G# A)

 

E major – 4 sharps (E F# G# A B C# D# E)

 

B major – 5 sharps (B C# D# E F# G# A# B)

 

F# major – 6 sharps (F# G# A# B C# D# E# F#)

 

C# major – 7 sharps (C# D# E# F# G# A# B# C#)

 

The reason we organize the scales this way is because it’s just easier to remember them this way! Think about it for a moment. What other way would we organize the scales in our mind? We could go alphabetically. Then we’d have C – no sharps, C # – 7 sharps, Cb – 7 flats, D – two sharps, D# – uh, there is no D#…) Memorizing the major scales in the pattern of perfect 5ths, as laid out above, has come to be the most common and sensible way to commit them to memory. Now let’s move on. To make our next point, we’re going to have to harken back to a previous post, because this will involve some double sharps.

 

Why did we have to stop at C#? What if we go a 5th up from C# to the next major scale, which would be G#. If C# has seven sharps, how many sharps would G# have? Well, it would have eight, right? But how is that possible, when the scale only has seven different notes? Without burdening you with the details, it DOES have eight sharps. One of the notes is a double sharp. Here is that scale:

 

G# A# B# C# D# E# Fx G#

 

This would be a G# major scale. It is technically a scale that may be used, but it is not in general use. That double sharp is just a little too cumbersome. What do we do instead? We use the enharmonic spelling! (Oh my god…what?) Instead of building the scale off of G#, we build it off of Ab. SAME TONE! G# and Ab are the same tone, but they are different NOTES. The advantage to using Ab over G# is that we don’t end up with any pesky double sharps or double flats. That, my friends, is one of the reasons we have sharps and flats. (In case you ever wondered.) The scale built off of Ab would be this:

 

Ab Bb C Db Eb F G Ab

 

Since this is a little bit of a complicated concept, I would strongly, strongly suggest going to a musical instrument and playing each of these scales, satisfying yourself that each tone is the same, but that it makes more sense to use the second spelling, based on Ab. To repeat: The Ab and G# major scales contain all of the same tones, and they sound exactly the same to the ear. We tend to use the Ab spelling because the G# spelling requires that we use a double sharp.

 

So, it turns out that we need flat scales. Let’s just continue going up in 5ths where we left off, only this time we’ll put the enharmonic spelling of each note in parenthesis. (Huh?) Just watch, you’ll see what I mean. We started with C, went a 5th up to G, then a 5th up to D, and so on, stopping at C#, like this:

 

C

 

G

 

D

 

A

 

E

 

B

 

F#

 

C#

 

Then, a fifth up from C# would be G# (which is enharmonic to Ab,) and a 5th up from G# would be D# (which is enharmonic to Eb.) All of the major scales, therefore, would be the following:

 

C – 0 sharps or flats

 

G – 1 sharp

 

D – 2 sharps

 

A – 3 sharps

 

E – 4 sharps

 

B (Cb) – 5 sharps for B, 7 flats for Cb

 

F# (Gb) – 6 sharps for F#, 6 flats for Gb

 

C# (Db) – 7 sharps for C#, 5 flats for Db

 

G# (Ab) – 4 flats for Ab (we don’t use G#)

 

D# (Eb) – 3 flats for Eb (we don’t use D#)

 

A# (Bb) – 2 flats for Bb (we don’t use A#)

 

E# (F) – 1 flat for F (we don’t use E#)

 

B# (C)- We’re back at C. No sharps or flats. We don’t use B#

 

Boy, that seems like a lot of information. It IS a lot of information. A visual tool has been developed over the years to help us remember all of this information. It is called the circle of fifths. Let’s look at the circle of fifths and break all this information down a little bit. The circle of fifths has been developed to help us memorize all the keys, and the number of sharps or flats in each of these keys. If you commit it to memory, you’ll be in good shape. Here it is:

 

circle of fifths3

 

If you start from the top and go clockwise, you have all of the keys that have sharps in them, with one exception, of course, which is C. C is right at the top, center because it is neither a flat nor a sharp key. It’s neutral. Then, if we proceed clockwise we get to G, which has one sharp. (G is a fifth up from C, by the way. That’s why this is called the circle of fifths. If you move around it in clockwise motion, each note is a fifth up from the previous.) Anyway, G has one sharp. The next clockwise note is D, which has two sharps. Continue in this clockwise motion all the way down to C#, which has 7 sharps.

 

You’ll notice that at the bottom, there are points where there are not one but two notes. One is a sharp, and the other a flat. These notes are enharmonic to each other. (B is enharmonic to Cb, F# is enharmonic to Gb, and C# is enharmonic to Db.) We use both the sharp and flat spellings of each of these scales. Why, because they CAN be spelled with sharps or flats without running into double sharps or double flats.

 

Okay, now that we’ve worked our way around clockwise to C#, let’s start again at the top and go counterclockwise to get the flat keys. If we start at the top, of course, we have C again, which has no sharps or flats. Immediately to the left of that is F, which has one flat. Then continue to Bb, which has two flats. Keep going all the way to Cb, which has 7 flats.

 

Not really that bad, is it? If you memorize the circle of fifths, you’ll quickly be able to determine how many sharps of flats are in each key. Now, the next question is: WHICH notes are sharp or flat? Also note, for posterity sake, that none of the major scales have sharps AND flats in them. The either utilize all sharps, or all flats. Sharps and flats are never mixed in the major scale. (They are in some other keys, though!)

 

NOW! Let’s build the major scales, using the circle of fifths as a guide.

 

Start at the top with C. C has no sharps or flats.

 

C D E F G A B C

 

Now go one to the right to G. G has ONE sharp.

 

G A B C D E F# G

 

Now go one more to the right to D. D has TWO sharps.

 

D E F# G A B C# G

 

Now go one more to the right to A. A has THREE sharps.

 

A B C# D E F# G# A

 

Go one more to the right to E. E has FOUR sharps.

 

E F# G# A B C# D# E

 

Go one more to the right to B. B has FIVE sharps.

 

B C# D# E F# G# A# B

 

Go one more the the right to F#. F# has six sharps.

 

F# G# A# B C# D# E# F# (Keep in mind that we only count the note F# once!)

 

Go one more to the right to C#. C# has seven sharps. (Every note is sharp. This one is easy to memorize because it’s just like the C major scale, but you add a sharp before every note.)

 

C# D# E# F# G# A# B# C#

 

Now let’s do the flat keys.

 

Start at the top with C. C has no sharps or flats.

 

C D E F G A B C

 

Go one to the left to F. F has one flat.

 

F G A Bb C D E F

 

Go one more to the left to Bb. Bb has two flats.

 

Bb C D Eb F G A Bb

 

Go one more to the left to Eb. Eb has three flats.

 

Eb F G A Bb C D Eb

 

Go one more to the left to Ab. Ab has four flats.

 

Ab

 

So let’s move on to our next lesson, where we will finalize this part of the major scale by finding out which notes are sharp or flat in every key. After we have done this, we will know how to spell every major scale.

 

 

-John Classick is a professional upright and electric bass player who teaches music lessons from his home in Los Angeles.