Music Theory for Beginners: Major Scales Illustrated

Music Theory for Beginners: Major Scales Illustrated

If you found Learn Major Scales the Easy Way not easy enough, here’s a piece of good news for you. We will no longer stick to the plain text version. Instead, below is the reinforced version with the circle of fifths explained.

Major Scale

As for major scale, each pitch has the following interval:
Tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone

Let’s take the extensively used C major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B & C) as an example. Look at the diagram at below, where “T” stands for “tone” while “ST” stands for “semitone”.

C major scale

As you can see, in between the white keys, sometimes there is a black key, while sometimes there isn’t. Whenever there is a black key in between, it means that the distance between the two white keys is a (whole) tone. On the contrary, if there isn’t a black key, it means that the two white keys are in the distance of a semitone, i.e. E to F and B to C are semitones.

Now, can you tell me E# and Cb equal to which note? I believe you should have got them right. They are F and B respectively.

Tips: Piano Keyboard vs. Guitar Fretboard

The setting of the piano keyboard is very much similar to that of the guitar fretboard. A half step movement (the distance of a semitone) on the keyboard equals to that of 1 fret on the fretboard. How about a whole step movement? That’s 2 frets.

Guitar Fretboard

Key Signature

In musical notation, a key signature is a set of accidentals, including sharp (#), flat (b) and rarely, natural (♮) symbols placed together on the staff, between the clef and the time signature.

We may look into this with the circle of fifths explained. Again, let’s refer to the diagram at below.

Circle of fifths

In the upper middle, there is C Major, which has no sharps or flats at all. On its right hand side, there are key signatures with sharps.

Key signature with sharps

The right key next to the key of C is that of G, which is a perfect fifth (seven half steps) up from C.

A perfect fifth up from C

For every perfect fifth you move up from C, you add one sharp. So the key of G has one sharp. The key of D (a perfect fifth up from G) has two sharps … and so on.

With regards to the which sharp to be added, go down one half step (semitone) from the key signature. When G is the key signature, which has one sharp, go down one half step to F#, and that is the sharp to be added. When it comes to the key of D, go down a half step from D to C#, and that will be the sharp you add (consecutively after F#).

  • Exercise:
    Try and see if you can figure out what the key signature with 3 sharps is and what are the corresponding sharps you need to add.

Key signature with flats

A perfect fifth down from C

The circle of fifths works in another direction for flats. Starting with the key of C, for every perfect fifth you move down, add a flat. So the key of F (a perfect fifth down from C) has one flat. The key of Bb (a perfect fifth down from F) has two flats, and so on.

To figure out which flat(s) you will be adding, go down a whole step (tone) from the first note of the perfect fifth. Starting at C, therefore, go down a whole step to Bb (Why not B? Because C to B, and vice versa, is a SEMITONE), which is the flat to be added for the key of F.

Key of F

When it comes to the key of Bb, go down a whole step from F to Eb, which is the flat you add (consecutively after Bb). Remember: F to E, and vice versa, is also a semitone.

Keys to memorize the (sequence of the) keys
  • Key signatures with sharps: Go Down And Eat Breakfast
  • Key signatures with flats: Fat Boy Eat All Day

Would like to find out more on how to construct major scales as well as the ways to play ALL major scales on the guitar? Please refer back to Learn Major & Minor Scales the Easy Way (Part 1).