A scale, or key, is a group of specific notes. There are major scales, minor scales, pentatonic scales, and many more fun groupings of notes to play with. Most pieces tend to stay within one or two keys (many classical pieces even include an informative title with the key, like Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor), and all scales can be broken down into the measurements of whole steps and half steps.
A major scale has the following formula of steps: whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half. So starting on C, a major scale would be C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. That’s all the white keys, actually: quite convenient, but hardly the case for most any other major scale. For instance, a major scale starting on G, would yield the following notes: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G. Try building a major scale off of D, and you should wind up with two sharps. Check your results with the diagram below. Each scale, regardless of its starting pitch, should hold a similar pleasant sound.
Minor keys have a slightly different series of steps and there are three basic types of minor scales: natural, harmonic and melodic. For now, we’ll stick with the natural form, which has the following sequence of steps: whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole. Starting from A, a natural minor scale would be A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A. To form an E natural minor scale, you should have the notes E, F#, G, A, B, C, D, E. Try them out on the keyboard and check your work with the figure below. Also note the sound quality of the minor scale and how it sounds “darker” than a major scale.
Major: whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half
Natural Minor: whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole
Eventually, your goal should be comfortably knowing most major and minor scales, and having the facility to build them off of any starting note. This is a big undertaking, so for now try building and playing the following scales:
D Major (hint: 2 sharps)
A Major (hint: 3 sharps)
E Minor (hint: 1 sharp)
B Minor (hint: 2 sharps)
Also take note of the difference between major and minor scales. They sound completely dissimilar and this is primarily because of the 3rd scale degree. For instance, in the key of C major, the third scale degree is an E. In C minor, that E goes down a half step to Eb, and this drastically changes the “attitude” of the sound. Additionally, the 7th scale degree also greatly influences the mood of a key. In the example below, note the differences between major and minor scales both starting on C.
Every major scale has a relative minor, which is a minor scale with all of the same notes as the major scale. Although both scales contain the same notes, they each have different starting pitches, and therefore end up having completely different step patterns and sounds. The relative minor is always three half steps down from the root of the major scale, which means the relative minor of C major is A minor, the relative minor of F major is D minor, and so forth. As an example, check out the following relative major and minor scales: