Let’s look at how to build major scales on the piano. Once we learn the pattern for building a major scale, we can use this pattern starting on any note to build a major scale.
What Is a Scale?
Scales are groups of eight notes, played in alphabetical order, starting and ending on the same note (if a scale starts on a C, it will end on another C). They’re groups of notes used to write songs.
Types of Scales
Scales are built using patterns of half and whole-steps. There are different types of scales, depending on the pattern of half and whole-steps used. Major scales are often used for happier and more upbeat songs, while minor scales are often used for more melancholy or reflective songs.
The starting note of the scale is called the “keynote”. This is the note the scale is named after (C is the keynote for a C major scale). The notes in the C major scale are the notes used to write songs in the “key of C”.
Before we look at how to build major scales on the piano, we first need to understand something called a tetrachord. Don’t let the word “tetrachord” intimidate you! A tetrachord is just a pattern of whole and half steps, and we’ll use it to build a major scale (a half-step is the distance from one note to the very next, and a whole-step is two half-steps.)
The pattern for a tetrachord is:
Whole-step – Whole-step – Half-step
That wasn’t so bad, was it? The word makes it sound complicated, but it really isn’t.
How Does a Tetrachord Help Me Build Major Scales?
To build major scales on the piano, we can start on any note (this will become our keynote), and build a major scale by playing: a tetrachord, a whole-step, and another tetrachord. Using that pattern, we can build any major scale!
The pattern for building a major scale is:
Tetrachord + Whole-step + Tetrachord
If “W” represents a whole-step, and “H” represents a half-step, then the pattern looks like this:
W – W – H – W – W – W – H
Can you see how that pattern is tetrachord, whole-step, tetrachord? This is the pattern we can use to build major scales on the piano!
Let’s Build a Major Scale
Now let’s look at how to build a major scale, starting on a C.
We would start on C and play the note one whole-step up, which is D. Then we play one whole-step up from that, which is E. Next we play one half-step up, and we’re on F. Another whole-step up is G. And another whole-step up is A. One more whole-step up, and we’re on B. One more half-step up, and we’re back to a C.
That completes our C major scale, and matches our definition: a group of eight notes, played alphabetically, starting and ending on the same note.
These are the notes of the C major scale, used to write songs in the key of C major.
What I love about the piano is that once you learn a pattern, you can apply it over and over again using different notes! You don’t have to memorize every major scale (there are twelve unique scales). All you need to do is memorize the pattern of tetrachord, whole-step, tetrachord (or W-W-H-W-W-W-H), and you can build any major scale!
How to Build an F Major Scale on the Piano
Let’s take another look at this, starting on a different note. Let’s use F as our keynote, and build an F major scale, using our pattern of W – W – H – W – W – W – H:
First we play F as our keynote, then we play the note one whole-step up, which is a G. Next we’d play another whole-step up, which is A. One half-step up from A is a black key. But what should we call it?
This is where we need to rely on our definition of a major scale. Since the notes of a major scale must progress in alphabetical order, this note must be some sort of B (since we just played an A). But what kind of B? Now we need to use our knowledge of sharps and flats! If you remember, sharp signs (♯) indicate a note one half-step up. Flat signs (♭) indicate a note one half-step down. Since this black key must be some sort of B, and since it’s one half-step down from B, we will call it “B♭”. Now we can continue our pattern!
Use This Pattern to Build Any Major Scale
We can use this pattern of W – W – H – W – W – W – H, and build any major scale off any note on the piano!
You can learn how the scales are related in this post that explains the circle of fifths. You’ll find some scales use flats to keep the notes in alphabetical order, and some will use sharps. Since the notes must progress in alphabetical order, the labels are chosen accordingly.
Major Scales List
Here’s a list of all the major scales:
C D E F G A B C
C♯ D♯ E♯ F♯ G♯ A♯ B♯ C♯
D♭ E♭ F G♭ A♭ B♭ C D♭
D E F♯ G A B C♯ D
E♭ F G A♭ B♭ C D E ♭
E F♯ G♯ A B C♯ D♯ E
F G A B♭ C D E F
F♯ G♯ A♯ B C♯ D♯ E♯ F♯
G♭ A♭ B♭ C♭ D♭ E♭ F G♭
G A B C D E F♯ G
A♭ B♭ C D♭ E♭ F G A♭
A B C♯ D E F♯ G♯ A
B♭ C D E♭ F G A B♭
B C♯ D♯ E F♯ G♯ A♯ B
C♭ D♭ E♭ F♭ G♭ A♭ B♭ C♭
Make it Happen
The most common major scales on the piano are C, G, D, A & E so focus on learning those first. You can practice building a major scale off each of those notes, using the major scale pattern. Once you’re comfortable building major scales, you’ll be ready for something really fun — major chords!
Now you know how to build C and F major scales, and you can use that knowledge to build any major scale! Using patterns to understand the relationships between the notes of the piano makes the piano come to life!