The Major Scale – What It Is And Why It’s Important
The major scale is one of the primary tonalities in western music……as such, it’s a really important musical tool which everyone should understand, and it’s components should be part of every musicians vocabulary.
In essence the major scale is a very simple thing: it is a sequence of tones and semitones in the ascending order from the root:
Root – Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Tone – Semitone
C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C
and these notes continue to repeat above and below the one octave contained above. For example, when you hit the C at the top, you begin the pattern again as if it was the C at the bottom, and like before D comes next but one octave higher. Conversely, if descending, when you hit the C at the bottom you go back to the top, and the pattern extends so your next note below C is B.
This scale can then be analysed and approached in a variety of ways, using concepts I have previously discussed in my blog lesson about intervals.
Learning The Basic Sound Of The Major Scale
First, get your instrument (be it bass, guitar, piano, any instrument with pitches will do) and play one octave of the major scale. If you’re stuck on recognising the notes as written, and relating that to where they are on the fingerboard, I’ve previously written a relatively handy reference sheet on reading notation which you can download here.
Just match up the notes you need from the major scale reference sheet and slowly, with the notation reference sheet, find them on the fingerboard and play them up and down. If you’re struggling with recognising the notes, say them out loud as you play each one, as this will help reinforce what they are called and where they are.
You should find that it’s a very familiar sound; one which we all become accustomed to hearing from a very young age. Most nursery rhymes from your childhood, many Christmas carols and all sorts of adverts from TV and radio are all constructed using this scale. Try noodling round and playing a few, you’ll see what I mean.
Breaking Down The Major Scale
So, if a major scale consists of 7 different notes (C, D, E, F, G, A, B), how can we break this down into smaller chunks of information which are easier to deal with? The two most common ways, as shown on the PDF, are to break it down into 3 and 4 note groups. 3 notes are called a triad, 4 notes are called arpeggios or chords, depending on whether you break them up and play one note at a time (arpeggio) or all 4 notes at once (chord).
Regardless of whether they are triads or arpeggios, there are still only 7 notes of the major scale to build them from, and as triads contain less notes we will start there.
As you can see in the PDF, the triad is constructed by missing out the 2nd and 4th notes of the scale so we only play 1, 3 and 5. This can then be extended by using the same principle of playing every other note, starting on any of the possible notes of the scale, so you have 7 triads going up (see lines 4 and 5 on the PDF sheet), and these can also obviously be played coming back down as well. Another thing to remember is that as bass players we will mostly be playing these broken up, 1 note at a time, triads can and should be practiced by playing all 3 notes at the same time, too. This can be quite challenging on bass because of the size of the instrument, but it is very achievable with the right guidance. If you have trouble with it on bass, try it on a piano or guitar.
However, if we look and analyse the types of triad in the major scale, we can see that there are actually only 3 types of triad: Major, Minor, and Diminished. Simple. So it stands to reason in my mind that firstly, especially for guitarists and bassists, we should work out every possible way of playing these 3 triads. I would suggest working out shapes on the fingerboard starting them on each finger of your left hand, using 1 finger per fret, and seeing how each one feels. These three types of triad can then be played based on the order of tones and semitones from the top of the page. So I would think of this exercise something like this in C Major:
C Major Triad – Move Up a Tone
D Minor Triad – Move Up a Tone
E Minor Triad – Move Up a Semitone
F Major Triad – Move Up a Tone
G Major Triad – Move Up a Tone
A Minor Triad – Move Up a Tone
B Diminished Triad – Move Up a Semitone
You can then also play this backwards for the descending version back to the root. This is a great technical exercise, but also a great musical exercise if you transpose this through all 12 keys. I’ll be writing a lesson on that in the next few weeks, but in the meantime, there is a good article on the construction of the major scale which is helpful with transposition here.
Extending Triads Into Arpeggios
Now we have become more familiar with triads, they can be extended by adding the 7th (continue missing out every other note of the scale, in this case the 6th). If you look at the last 2 lines of the PDF sheet, you can see that there are only 4 different arpeggio shapes contained in a major scale, so it is still a relatively small amount of information. These arpeggios should again be worked out in a variety of different fingerboard shapes, starting on different fingers of the left hand. The 4 different arpeggios you need to know are:
Minor 7th Flat 5 (or Half Diminished)
This then gives us a similar order to the triads:
C Major 7 Arpeggio – Move Up a Tone
D Minor 7 Arpeggio – Move Up a Tone
E Minor 7 Arpeggio – Move Up a Semitone
F Major 7 Arpeggio – Move Up a Tone
G Dominant 7 Arpeggio – Move Up a Tone
A Minor 7 Arpeggio – Move Up a Tone
B Minor 7 Flat 5 Arpeggio – Move Up a Semitone
Again, all the learning principles from the triad work stands for this. The approach to learning it is exactly the same, but you have one extra note added on to each triad. I don’t think I need to say it all again, so I’ll leave it for you to work out by yourself. However, as always, if anyone does have any questions, feel free to get in touch via the contact page of this site.
Why Do I Need To Know This?
Whatever type of music you listen to, from classical to metal and everything in between, you will hear this stuff all the time. You may not recognise it, but it’s there. If you do a little work on familiarising yourself with the major scale, you can then expand this knowledge to enable you to understand what is happening musically in an piece of music you like, and then use and manipulate that same information to copy that music or create your own. It’s all about understanding what you are hearing. This is just the start, and the principles we’ve used here can be applied to many other scales and chords which are commonly used in particular genres. That comes later, but you have to lay the foundations first.