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Understanding Major Scales And Key Signatures

Run time: 4m 51s  |  Release Date: June 18th, 2012

In this video lesson we are going to discuss the construction of a Major scale. But before we start, if you are unfamiliar with any of these terms please take the time to review the content in the previous videos.

A scale is a group of notes arranged in a definite pattern of whole steps and half steps. All of the notes in a scale relate back to one common tone called the key note. The key note of a D Major scale, for instance, is the note D. This simply means that all of the notes in the D Major scale together as a whole are in the key of D Major.

As previously mentioned, a scale is constructed of a particular pattern of whole steps and half steps. The arrangement of steps which constructs a Major scale is as follows: whole step - whole step - half step  - whole step - whole step - whole step - half step. By knowing this progression of steps you will be able to construct a Major scale from any given note Fortunately, there is any easy way to remember this. If we break this pattern up into what’s called tetrachords, instead of seeing it as one long progression of steps we are able to look at it as two smaller ones separated by a whole step. Whole step, whole step, half step - Whole step - Whole step, whole step, half step.

Let’s take what we’ve just learned and try to put together a C Major scale. Remember from the last video lesson that B and C and E and F are the only two sets of natural notes which are separated by a half step. Starting on C and following the correct order of whole steps and half steps a C Major scale would look like this: C, whole step to D, whole step to E, half step to F, whole step to G, whole step to A, whole step to B, half step to C. As you can see, the C Major scale is made up entirely of natural notes. It is in fact the only Major scale which does not require the use of a single sharp or flat. Every other Major scale will contain at least one accidental. However, if we stick to the correct pattern of whole steps and half steps they will not be hard to figure out.

Let’s take the G Major scale for example. Starting on G and going up one whole step will take you to the note A. Once on A the next note that is a whole step away is B. We know that B and C are half steps apart. Therefore, if we continue to follow the correct pattern of steps the next note should be C. A whole step from C is D. A whole step from D is E. The next note needs to be a whole step from E. Knowing that E and F are half steps apart, a whole step from E would then be F-sharp. Finally, a half step from F-sharp is G. As you can see, the only accidental used in the construction of a G Major scale is F-sharp.

Now to make this easier, if we were to place a sharp symbol this line F at the beginning of the staff before the time signature, this implies that every note that would normally be F is now F-sharp whether there is a sharp sign next to the note or not. This is called the key signature. F-sharp being the only accidental in the G major scale is the key signature of the key of G major. Whenever you see a sharp placed on this line of a staff with a treble, or this line of a staff with a bass clef, you will know that you are playing within the key of G.

The easiest way to memoize each key signature is just by memorizing each key signature. Here’s a list of each key signature which contains only sharp. In order to understand the key in which each key signature is representing take the last accidental in the key signature and go up one half step. For instance, one half step above C-sharp is D. F-sharp, C-sharp is the therefore the key signature to D Major. Likewise, one half step above A-sharp is B. Therefore, F-sharp, C-sharp, G-sharp, D-sharp, A-sharp is the key signature of B Major.

Aside from key signatures with only sharps, there are a number of Major scales whose key signatures are only flats. With the order of flats, the key in which the key signature is representing is always the second to last accidental. The second to last accidental is B-flat, E-flat, A-flat is E-flat. Therefore B-flat, E-flat, A-flat is the key signature of E-flat. The only exception to this rule is the key of F Major. The key signature of F Major, B-flat, does not follow these guidelines.

In the next video lesson we are going to take what we’ve just learned about Major scales and use that to start building basic chords. But before you move on, don’t forget to check out for free helpful practice sheets and more in-depth explanations of everything discussed in this video.

Watch Next:

13a - Modes (Ionian).png

Modes can be defined as a group of different scales with their own unique pattern of whole steps and half steps and overall tonal characteristics. In this video series we are going to discuss the seven modes of modern music. We will learn how each mode can be derived from the notes of a Major scale. Additionally, we will go over the unique order of steps which constructs each mode, and see how their arrangement compares with the notes of the more common Major and minor scales.
But before we start all of that, let's quickly talk a little bit about the origin of the modern modes. The seven modes which will be discussed in this video series are the Ionian mode, the Dorian mode, the Phrygian mode, the Lydian mode, the Mixolydian mode, the Aeolian mode, and the Locrian mode.