The C Major Scale

Listen to this series of eight notes:

C major scale

This is a scale of C major. (A “scale” is any defined series of musical notes.) 

In the C major scale, both the first and the last notes are Cs- but how do we know what the in-between notes are?

On the piano, a C major scale uses all the white notes (so it doesn’t have any sharps or flats), but on other instruments, we don’t have “white” notes, so how do we know which notes to use?

In fact, what we need to know is the distance between each of the notes in the scale. The distance between any two notes of the scale which are next to each other will be either a tone (whole note) or a semitone (half note). 

All major scales are built from same pattern of tones and semitones.

Tones and Semitones in the Major Scale

Let’s look at the C major scale again, and see what the pattern of tones and semitones is.

The distance between each pair of notes is written below the stave: T for tones (whole steps) and S for semitones (half steps):

tones and semitones in C major scale

The pattern in the C major scale is T-T-S-T-T-T-S. 

In fact, all major scales follow the same pattern of tones and semitones, so try to remember it!

T – T – S – T – T – T – S

G, D and F Major Scales

In ABRSM Grade One music theory, you need to know about four major scales: C, G, D and F major.

In Trinity Grade One music theory, you need to know about three major scales: C, G and F major.

Here’s a picture of the piano keyboard, to help you remember the layout of notes:

piano keyboard

G Major Scale

Let’s look at G major next. We’ll construct the scale using the T-T-S-T-T-T-S pattern that we’ve just learnt.

We’ll start by putting the first G on the stave. We’re using the treble clef, but it works just the same way in the bass clef.

G major scale

The next note we need, as you can see from the pattern above, is a tone higher than G. The note which is a tone higher than G is A, (because we can squeeze a G sharp/A flat between them). So A is our next note:

G major scale

The third note is, again, a tone up. From A, the next tone up is B, (we can squeeze A sharp/B flat in between them).

G major scale

Next we meet our first semitone – C. (There is nothing we can squeeze in between B and C).

G major scale

Hopefully by now you’ve got the idea, so here are the rest of the notes of the G major scale:

G major scale

G major has one sharp – F sharp. You might be wondering why we choose F sharp and not G flat, since they are the same note on the piano.

When we write a scale, we use each letter of the alphabet once only, except for the first and last notes which must have the same letter.

G major must start and end on G, so we’ve already used up that letter. We haven’t used F though, so we need to use that, and make F sharp.

D Major Scale [ABRSM grade 1, Trinity grade 3]

Let’s look at D major next:

D major scale

The scale of D major has two sharps – F sharp and C sharp. These make the semitone steps in the scale, from F# to G and from C# to D.

F Major Scale

The last scale we need to look at for the grade one music theory exam is F major:

F major scale

The F major scale doesn’t have any sharps, but it has one flat – B flat. This makes the first semitone step in the scale, from A to Bb. 

Remember, we can’t use A sharp instead of B flat, because we’ve already got an A in the scale.

Ascending and Descending Scales

Scales can be written going up or going down.

Scales which go up are called “ascending”, and scales which go down are “descending”.

When we write a descending scale, the pattern of tones and semitones is reversed, so instead of being T-T-S-T-T-T-S, it is S-T-T-T-S-T-T.

F major scale descending

Here’s an example of the F major descending scale, using the bass clef.

You don’t need to remember the order of tones and semitones back-to-front, just write the scales backwards, starting on the right side of the stave instead of the left.

Degrees of the Scale

The first and last notes in any scale are called the “tonic”, “keynote” or “doh”.

The other notes can be referred to by number.

For example, in C major, the second note in the scale is D, so we can say that D is the 2nd degree of the scale of C major.

We always use the ascending scale to work out the degrees of a scale.

Every scale has seven degrees, because there are seven different notes.

The last note of the scale is another tonic note.

Here’s a summary of the degrees of the scales of C, D, G and F major:

 Tonic (1st)2nd3rd4th5th6th7thTonic 

Each degree of the scale has the same name, no matter whether it is played high or low.

For example, all of these Gs are the tonic note in the scale/key of G major. (They are also all the 5th degree of the scale in C major, and so on).

We can say that these tonics are in different registers.

tonics in different registers

Major Scales Exercises

Point your mouse at the questions (tap on mobile devices) to reveal the answers.

1. How many semitone (half) steps are there in one octave of a major scale? 
2. What is the pattern of tones (whole steps) and semitones (half steps) in ascending major scales? 

3. Name the degree of the scale (e.g. 2nd, 3rd, 4th) of the notes marked *.

Hover over the * sign to reveal the answers! (Tap on mobiles).

a. The key is F major

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degrees of scale exercise 1

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b. The key is G major

degrees of scale exercise 2