Building major scales

The sound of a scale is determined by the particular pattern of intervals that makes up that scale. Major and minor scales are the most common types of scales used in many kinds of music, but there are many other types of scales as well.

Major scales contain seven notes (before the scale starts over an octave higher) and consist of a particular pattern of half steps (two adjacent notes) and whole steps (notes that are two half steps apart).

This specific pattern of whole steps and half steps is what defines any major scale, regardless of starting note:

Whole - Whole - Half - Whole - Whole - Whole - Half

You can use the Tonic buttons to shift (or transpose) the scale to a different tonic. Notice that the pattern of whole and half steps (shown by the circles on the piano keys) never changes.

(Note: People who aren't familiar with a piano keyboard are sometimes confused that adjacent notes aren't necessarily differently colored keys. For example, the distance between E and F (and also B and C) is a half step, even though they're both white notes):

The "spelling" of notes

As you change tonics, notice that notes are sometimes written with flats and sometimes with sharps. There are a few simple rules that explain the right spelling for every note in a major scale:

Starting on a black key

Since each black key can have two names (e.g. D♭ or C♯), how did we choose which one to use as a tonic? For these lessons, we chose the one that has the fewest flats or sharps. For example:

D♭ major has five flats:

but C♯ major has seven sharps:

so we show only D♭ as an option.

Did you notice...?

As this example shows, sharps and flats can sometimes refer to "white keys" as well. Some scales (like the C♯ major scale shown above) use note spellings like E♯ and B♯ that might seem strange; why don't we just call these F and C?

The answer comes back to the rules about spelling. Since each letter name is used exactly once in each major scale, some scales require these sorts of uncommon note spellings. In C♯ major, the "slots" for E and B require both to have sharps (in order to maintain the pattern of whole steps and half steps), while the slots for the letter names F and C are raised as well, to F♯ and C♯.

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