How to Build Major Scales on the Piano

Major Scales

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.

Keynotes

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”.

Tetrachords

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!

major scales piano charts printable pdf

Major Scales Printable

This 23-page PDF will help you learn and visualize the notes for different major scales, laying the perfect foundation for learning the piano with chords!

Let’s Build a Major Scale

Now let’s look at how to build a major scale, starting on a C.

c major scale piano

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:

f major scale piano

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!

After B♭, we move up one whole-step to C, then one whole-step to D, then one whole-step to E, then one half-step back to our keynote F. We’ve completed another major scale!

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 major
C D E F G A B C

C♯ major
C♯ D♯ E♯ F♯ G♯ A♯ B♯ C♯

D♭ major
D♭ E♭ F G♭ A♭ B♭ C D♭

D major
D E F♯ G A B C♯ D

E♭ major
E♭ F G A♭ B♭ C D E ♭

E major
E F♯ G♯ A B C♯ D♯ E

F major
F G A B♭ C D E F

F♯ major
F♯ G♯ A♯ B C♯ D♯ E♯ F♯

G♭ major
G♭ A♭ B♭ C♭ D♭ E♭ F G♭

G major
G A B C D E F♯ G

A♭ major
A♭ B♭ C D♭ E♭ F G A♭

A major
A B C♯ D E F♯ G♯ A

B♭ major
B♭ C D E♭ F G A B♭

B major
B C♯ D♯ E F♯ G♯ A♯ B

C♭ major
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!

Conclusion

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!

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34 Comments

  1. Gregory

    What is the formula for blues scales and chords

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      Hi, yes a blues scale compared to a major scale will have these differences: we need to remove the 2nd and 6th notes of the major scale, flat the 3rd and 7th notes, and add a flatted 5th. So while a C major scale will be: C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C, a C Blues scale will be: C – E flat – F – G flat – G – B flat – C. If we want to play a 12-bar blues chord progression in C major, we can play a C major chord for four measures (four beats per measure), an F major chord for two measures, a C major chord for two measures, a G7 chord for one measure, an F major chord for one measure, and a C major chord for two measures, and then we can use the blues scale notes to improvise over the chord progression.

  2. Carlos

    Hi Julie,
    You are marvelous. I can build the chords but I have difficulties coming back remembering the notes. Is there a formula to reverse the chord?

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      I’m glad the content is helpful! Yes, it can be confusing remembering the individual notes of a chord, so it can be helpful to think of the chord in terms of its intervals. You can learn more about piano intervals here: https://www.julieswihart.com/your-ultimate-guide-to-piano-intervals/
      For example, the intervals for a major chord are: P1 – M3 – P5 (based on the abbreviations used in the post on intervals). The intervals for a minor chord are P1 – m3 – P5. Once the intervals for the different chord types become more familiar, it gets easier to recognize and build the chords in different keys. I hope that helps! I do have an intervals printable that shows the intervals and notes for different chord types, if you’re interested. You can find that on my shop page: https://www.julieswihart.com/shop/
      It’s the printable titled “Piano Intervals Printable”. Thank you!

  3. Steve

    Julie,
    Just started learning to play in June, but I just learned something new today about major scales! I knew the formula you listed, except for letters I just used numbers, (2-2-1-2-2-2-1). I learned that major scales have to go in alphabetical order. Thank you for this little tip!

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      You’re welcome, I’m glad it’s helpful!

  4. Terry

    Thank you so much for this wonderful explanation. I took piano lessons when I was young for a short while but have started again after retirement when I have some time for practice. This has helped me so much. Look forward to more info.

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      I’m so glad to hear that! I send out weekly emails to my subscribers walking them through the fundamentals for learning the piano with chords, but if you’d like a jump-start on the content from the email series, you can read through the numbered posts at this link: https://www.julieswihart.com/learn-piano/
      Thank you!

  5. Shag Haitaitai

    I have searched and searched, several times, but cannot find the Pdf on “The Circle of Fifths”. Perhaps my adblocker is hiding it.

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      Hi, I sent you an email so you can check there. Thanks!

  6. Michael Serio

    I love how you make learning about the piano practical, straight-forward and simple to understand; you’re connecting the notes (dots) in my musical realm. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      I’m so glad to hear that, thank you!

  7. Marlaine

    That is a brilliant explanation! Thank you so much

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      You’re welcome, I’m glad it’s helpful!

  8. Tom Gibson

    Hi Julie. I am enjoying your blog. I must confess I don’t play piano, I play guitar but the theory is solid for chord construction, inversions and easy to follow. We’ll done you

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      I’m so glad to know you’re benefiting as a guitar player!

  9. Jason Peacock

    I have played piano on and off for 40 years and I’ve had no end of lessons. At no point has the subject of tetrachords been mentioned to build scales. This is incredibly helpful and easy to understand. Thank you!!

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      I’m so glad it’s helpful!

  10. Eddy

    I just found your blog and I’m loving it. This is excellent! I was forced into lessons when I was 6, but somehow I missed all of these fundamental building blocks. Thank you for helping to unlock music for me. Many blessings to you and your family.

    Thank you!

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      You’re welcome, I’m so glad to know this is helping unlock music for you!

  11. Liv

    I just starting how to play the piano and I have gone through so many teachers trying to find one that works for me. Your the Best ! Great explanation! Thank you so much 😊

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      I’m so glad you’re enjoying learning! Thank you for the kind words!

  12. Hemanth

    Very useful information thank you Julie 🙂

    Reply
  13. Marie-Ange Wood

    Thank you very much Julie for the information as it is well explained and it all makes sense to me now 🙂

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      You’re very welcome Marie-Ange!

  14. Andrea Rechtfertig

    I have to say, that was the best explanation I have ever had!
    You’re a great teacher. Thank you!
    I hope to find a lesson from you about the minor scales as well.

    Reply
  15. Savio

    Thanks Julie will be starting with Chords I’m enjoying this hopefully someday soon will be able to play independently and worship songs too.

    Reply
  16. Sharon

    I’m excited to begin this journey with you! Much love from Central PA! Your blog is truly a gift. I thank Jesus for you.

    Reply
    • Julie

      Thank you so much for this encouraging message Sharon!

  17. Connie

    You make it very easy to understand. I never had piano theory so I am learning from your blog.

    Reply
    • Julie

      Thank you so much! I’m glad you’re enjoying it!

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