Music Theory For The Dropouts #4 – Major & Minor Scales

Cassi Falk  /  Scales and Keys  /  UPDATED Jan 16, 2023

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The relationship between the major and minor scales is one of the most important relationships in music.  Once you understand it, everything is going to open up for you.  

Since we’re talking about different scales, let’s take a look at the major scale formula and how the order of note pitches defines the major sound.  So, walking up the C major scale ordering, you have these notes:  C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C.  But if you take a look at the spacing between these notes, you’ll learn even more about what makes a major scale sound like a major scale.  You can break down any scale by looking at the difference between whole steps and half steps.  The jump from C-D is called a whole step, because there’s a key in between the two notes.  

If you keep moving up the scale, you’ll see the notes D-E also have a black key in between, aka another whole step.  But in the space between E-F there is no black key.  That means it is only a half step jump from E-F.  Moving on, the notes from F-G, G-A, and A-B are all whole step jumps.  When you get to the B-C jump again, you’ll notice that you have another half step as there is no black key between the notes.  So, the entire major scale formula of whole steps and half steps looks like this:  Whole Step, Whole Step, Half Step, Whole Step, Whole Step, Whole Step, Half Step.  

This ordering can be applied to any key to make a major scale.  Want to test it out?  Try using this same formula to make scales starting on G and F.  Remember, you need to always be using this formula if you want to make that major sound.  So you’ve got to add in the sharps and flats as needed to fit the formula.  In the case of G major, you’ll need to raise the 7th note of the scale, making it an F#.  And in the case of F major you’ll need to lower the 4th note, making it a Bb. 

So how does all this of this apply to the minor scale?  Well, the natural minor scale is actually made up of the exact same notes as the major scale, just starting at a different point in the sequence.  Go back to the G major scale, for instance.  Remember that the G major scale has one sharp in it, F#?  That’s very important for determining G major’s relative minor key.  To find that minor key, all you have to do is count up six notes in the major scale, landing on E.  Now, remembering the unifying key signature with F#, play from notes E to its high octave E.  This is the natural minor scale.  

Even though it contains the same notes as G major, it now sounds much more sad, and all you’ve done is change the order of the whole steps and half steps!  The new order to make a minor scale is this:  Whole Step, Half Step, Whole Step, Whole Step, Half Step, Whole Step, Whole Step.  

Simple as that, you have two entirely different scales to work with, using the same key signature.  So next time you’re practicing your major scale, remember that you’re only 6 notes away from a whole different sounding scale!  

Ready for your next lesson? You can learn all about Chords in Lesson 5 of our series!

Missed any previous lessons?

You can find Lesson 3 on music symbols here.

And Lesson 2 on the Grand Staff here.

And Lesson 1 on rhythm here.

Cassi Falk is trained as an Elementary and Intermediate Specialist through the Royal Conservatory Teacher Certification Program. She loves the feeling of accomplishment after a good practice session and seeing students discover music. Learn more about Cassi here.

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