Major Scale: Definition & Intervals

Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

You hear it in commercials, pop songs, film music, and even ringtones! Learn what the major scale is, why composers like to use it, and even the special formula you can use to make a major scale on any note!

What Is a Scale?

A scale is a group of musical tones that a composer uses to form a melody.

There are many kinds of scales in the world, but almost all of them are based on a frequency ratio called the octave. Sound travels in waves that can be measured by the number of oscillating cycles per second. This measure is called the frequency. Regular frequencies have a musical quality and are called tones. Most tones sound distinctly different from each other, but the tones that form an octave sound almost the same.

If a grown man sings with a child, both the man and the child could be singing the same melody, but the man's voice is significantly lower than the child's. This is the sound of the octave. Octaves have this special quality because of the unique 2:1 ratio of the frequency of the sound waves of its tones. If the child sings a tone with a frequency of 440 cycles per second, the man's lower tone that forms the octave would have a frequency of 220 cycles per second.

Frequencies of the sound vibrations of the notes in the standard tuning system as seen on a piano keyboard. Notice how the notes that form the octave have a similar placement on the keyboard as well.
Piano keyboard with frequency numbers

Because the octave is so unique, it has become a natural dividing point in the sound spectrum to provide parameters for the beginning and end of the scale. Other pitches that fill in the gaps between the octave are chosen from among all the possible tones that lie between the frequencies of the tones in the octave. This choice of frequencies is called a tuning system. The most common standard tuning system used today divides the octave into twelve different pitches.

The twelve notes in the standard tuning system before they repeat at the octave.
Numbered piano keyboard

Musicians could refer to each tone by its frequency number, but that would get rather confusing. Instead, tones in the standard tuning system are given letter names from A - G, with octaves sharing a letter name. These letter names correspond to the white keys on a piano keyboard. The names of the black keys come from the white notes on either side of them and are referred to as 'sharp' or 'flat,' depending on which white note is being used as a reference point.

What Makes a Scale 'Major'?

The major scale is created by using seven of the twelve tones in the standard tuning system, chosen using a precise pattern.

Melodic movement from one note to another is called an interval. If an interval is between adjacent notes, it is called a half step. If the movement skips one note, it is called a whole step. The major scale is created using a pattern of half steps and whole steps that can be illustrated using the white notes of the piano starting on the letter 'C.' Moving from C to D is a whole step, because there is a black note between them. D to E is another whole step, while E to F is a half step. E and F are both white notes like C and D, but the lack of a black note in between makes the distance between them a half step. By continuing to follow the white notes on the keyboard until you get to C again, the pattern emerges as whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half (W-W-H-W-W-W-H). Scales take their names from the first note, so this is called the C major scale.

The half and whole step pattern of the major scale starting on the note C.
Piano keyboard showing C major scale

This interval pattern is what creates the sound of the major scale. No matter what note you start on, this pattern will create a major scale. For example, to create an E-flat major scale, the notes would be E-flat, F, G, A-flat, B-flat, C, D, and back to E-flat.

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