Building a Major Scale and Ode to 12

Music Theory Major Scale
  • The Major Scale is our most important FIRST building block in understanding music theory and how some scales/chords/modes are connected.
  • The Major Scale contains 7 notes which are derived from the 12 notes that make up our musical alphabet.
  • Since there are 12 notes in our musical alphabet, we can therefore build 12 major scales.
  • A ‘formula’ is used to determine which 7 notes are selected out of the 12 available to construct a Major Scale

The 12 Chromatic Notes in our Musical Alphabet

To build a Major Scale we first have to understand how the selection process of the 7 notes works, which make up a major scale. First, there are 12 notes in our musical alphabet. Not 5, not 7, like some of my beginning guitar students think when questioned, but 12.

ANY kind of music you know (in our western hemisphere) is derived from those 12 notes… acoustic songs, heavy metal, avantgarde jazz, 3 chord pop songs… all are created by the 12. As with our written alphabet, where we re-use the same 26 letters over and over again, thereby arranging them in different configurations, the same is true for the 12 musical notes. We re-use them, dup them, and arrange them in all sorts of setups and groups to get the kind of sound we want. So there you have it. Know which notes to use .. where and when .. and you can play anything. That’s where Knowledge macht frei. Pardon the bit of German lingo here. If you didn’t know I was German, you do now!

Before we can actually build our first Major Scale, let’s lay out the 12 notes first. It’s pretty simple. 7 of the 12 notes have the same name as the first 7 notes of the written alphabet: A, B, C, D, E, F and G.. That’s 7 of the 12 out of the way and easy to remember. The remaining 5 notes sit in between those 7:

between A and B we have A#.
Between C and D we have C#.
Between D and E we have D#.
Between F and G we have F#.
Between G and A we have G#.

To summarize: To A, B, C, D, E, F, G we also added: A#, C#, D#, F# and G#. That gives us a total of 12 notes – our Grand Master Scale of 12. Also known as The Chromatic Scale. Strung together it looks like this:

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

TIP: Between E/F and B/C, there is no other note. They are only 1/2 step (or 1 Guitar Fret) away from each other. That’s just the way it is!

We can start the cycle of 12 on ANY note, but since we are guitarists, I prefer to start on the E note (instead of A) and then cycle through all 12 until I arrive again at another E note.

E F F# G G# A A# B C C# D D# back to .. E.

I call those 12 notes ‘Constants’. In other words, they always follow the same pattern, they don’t change and they MUST be learned in that order. F will always follow E, G will always follow F#, C# will always be before D etc.etc. Drill those 12 notes into your brain. Memorize them. It’s really important.

Pick up your guitar and, starting on the low E string, play those 12 notes one fret at a time, saying them aloud. Do the same on your A string (starting on the A note this time, followed by A#, B, C. etc) as well as the remaining 4 strings. You can now identify EVERY note on your guitar if you count it out this way. Eventually you’ll know what note you are playing by just putting a finger on a given fret. It’ll take a bit of time and practice. The most important strings to use for this, however, are the low E and the A string.

Finally.. THE MAJOR SCALE

After this rather lengthy introduction of the 12 note master scale let’s build this very important Major Scale. I trust that by now you have the 12 notes memorized and can rattle them of like your social security number.

The Major Scale, in my opinion, is the next most important item or building block in understanding music theory and your instrument, the Guitar. The Major Scale contains 7 notes! Out of the 12. Which 7 is the question? We don’t just pick any 7… but THE 7.

Well… enter a very cool formula. For starters, you can begin building a major scale on ANY of the 12 notes. You can decide to use C as your starting note (for a C major scale) or E (for an E major scale). Again, being a guitarist, I like to build my first major scale on the G note, making this a G Major Scale. The G note is conveniently located on the 3rd fret of the low E string. Why I like the G note for this will become apparent when we begin to map out all this scale can do across our guitar fingerboard. For now, let’s just say that I am very fond of the G Major scale and so are my students, once they grasp the whole concept.

Groovy.. so we have our first note… G. Now what! Enter the formula I mentioned earlier. What would life be without formulas.. and music is no exception. With G being our starting note, we now count out a succession of ‘steps’ to create the G Major Scale. This is also the point where you MUST know the 12 notes as outlined above. Okay… some guitarists just do this ‘visually’ on their guitar necks but I much prefer if my students (and you as well) count this out in your head. Along with using the guitar neck of course.

Formula to build a major scale:

whole-step, whole-step, half-step,
whole-step, whole-step, whole-step, half-step.

Tip: a ‘whole-step’ = 2 frets on the guitar – a ‘half-step’ = 1 fret on the guitar.

Let’s break this down: the starting note is G (3rd fret on the low E string). The next note added comes from the first ‘whole-step’ of the formula. We’ll shift up 2 frets, land on fret 5 of the low E string (A note). So there… 2 notes already done, 5 more to go!

We now add another whole-step (from A to B), a half-step (B to C), another whole-step (C to D), whole-step (D to E), whole-step (E to F#) and last but not least, the final half-Step (F# to G). If you did this right, you should have arrived at the 15th fret on the low E String. Which is another G note, an Octave higher than the G note you started out with.

And there it is: The G Major Scale: G A B C D E F# back to G

Mind you.. this is only ONE of the 12 Major Scales you can build this way. Pick a starting note, use the steps formula from above and you can build a D, C, E, F# or any of the 12 major scales available. That’s how a ‘Key’ is made (not the one to open a door..). With the Major Scale you just put together, you can create a whole chain of music events. All the modes, chords that go together rather well, tonalities, intelligent soloing and more.

I can’t over-emphasize JUST HOW important this first piece in the music puzzle is. A lot of music stuff takes off from there. I’ll get into some of it in subsequent articles but for now.. if you are a beginning guitarist and you want to start off with the right tools than this is one piece you gotta know. Right out of the gate!

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