The Major Scale: What it is, and how to play it on guitar and piano

What is the major scale?

The major scale is an integral part of music. It’s one of the first concepts students learn about in music theory, and for good reason.

Almost all music is built around scales, and the major scale is one of the most, if not the most common.

Simply put, the major scale is a specific pattern of notes that results in a certain sound. A major scale can be played from any starting point on a keyboard or guitar and have the same relative sound.

In other words, regardless of what note the scale starts on, the relative pattern from the first note onwards will always be the same.

The major scale pattern

So, what is this pattern?

To understand this, you must have a basic understanding of musical intervals, namely whole and half steps (semitones and tones).

To play any major scale you must first have a starting point. This root note, often referred to as the tonic, is the starting point for the major scale pattern.

From the tonic, the pattern is as follows:

Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half

This represents one octave of the scale; you can keep going as far as the keyboard or fretboard allows.

If that didn’t entirely click, don’t worry. We’ll look at some specific examples for more clarity.

How to Play the Major Scale on Piano

For the first example let’s start on C, since C Major is the simplest scale in music. We’ll look at it on a piano first, since steps are far easier to visualize with a keyboard than with a fretboard.

A C Major scale on piano
A C Major scale on piano

As you can see, this C Major scale follows the Major scale pattern.

  • C is the tonic, or starting point of the scale.
  • From C to D is a whole step.
  • From D to E is a whole step.
  • From E to F is a half step.
  • From F to G is a whole step.
  • From G to A is a whole step.
  • From A to B is a whole step.
  • From B to C is a half step, bringing the scale full-circle.

This pattern applies to any and all major scales. If you’re not quite convinced, let’s look at a scale in another key, A Major.

An A Major scale on piano
An A Major scale on piano

Unlike C Major, the A Major scale uses some black keys, which in this instance are called sharps.

Regardless, it still follows the exact same pattern:

  • A is the tonic.
  • From A to B is a whole step.
  • From B to C# is a whole step.
  • From C# to D is a half step.
  • From D to E is a whole step.
  • From E to F# is a whole step.
  • From F# to G# is a whole step.
  • From G# to A is a half step, bringing the scale full-circle.

Regardless of which major scale you’re trying to play, all you need to do is figure out your starting note and follow the pattern.

Eventually this pattern won’t be necessary, as you’ll be able to “sound out” any scale. At some point, you’ll likely get to the point where you’ve memorized all of the major scales and won’t even need to do this.

How to Play the Major Scale on Guitar

On guitar, playing major scales can be a bit trickier. Since the fretboard isn’t arranged in a linear manner, there is far more variability in major scales.

For the guitarist, it may be more beneficial to think of major scales in terms of frets and strings rather than whole and half steps.

There are five distinct “positions” that each follow a different pattern and they’re interlinked, meaning you can slide up and down the fretboard to play within a different position within the same iteration of a scale.

We recommend checking out Applied Guitar Theory’s article on the subject for a deeper understanding on the matter.

Playing major scales based on key signature

Following the pattern of whole and half steps isn’t the only way to figure out which notes you should play in a major scale. It’s also easy to ascertain which notes are in a specific major scale by looking at its key signature.

Every scale consists of a series of consecutive-lettered notes (G loops around to A, so is considered consecutive), but an accidental (sharp or flat) is applied to some of these.

The key signature is the set of sharps or flats that’s applied to the scale.

That probably sounds complicated, but it’s far simpler than it seems. We recommend reading our guide to key signature and the circle of fifths for a full explanation, but here’s a quick run-through:

A Major Key signature
The key signature for A Major shows that F, C, and G are all raised a half-step

If you remember, when we followed the scale pattern for an A Major scale earlier we ended up using three black keys: C#, F#, and G#. All of the rest of the notes were natural (white keys in this instance).

A Major’s key signature reflects this fact. If you read the staff, you can see that a sharp is placed on F, C, and G.

In other words, you need to play F, C, and G sharp, or raise them a half step. If a note isn’t specified in the key signature, it’s implied that the note should be played without alteration (natural).

You can figure out the key signature for a specific key using the circle of fifths, but if you’re unfamiliar with this concept it’s just as easy to type “X Major Key Signature” into Google.

Why should you learn major scales?

Regardless of what instrument you play, major scales are a fundamental component of a lot of songs.

If you can easily play a major scale, you can use it to solo over chords (or without them) on any instrument. Scales are much more dynamic than chords, allowing greater variety in your music.

You should learn strive to learn all of the major scales, since this will equip you with the ability to play along with any song or musician, regardless of what key it’s written in. That is, as long as it’s major.

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