Why Scales are Important, and How To Build a Major Scale

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Scales are something that I like to work on with all of my students. They can sometimes seem like a drag, though, so I wanted to talk about why exactly I find them so useful.

In today’s video, I also wanted to look at how to build a major scale. Every single key on the piano (all 12, if you include the black keys), when plugged into a formula, is the start of a scale. So you can have C major scale, Db major scale, D major scale, and so on.

Each of these scales has a unique pattern of black keys and white keys. We’ll take a look at how to figure that out – it isn’t super difficult, but it’s pretty useful to know. Even if you still end up Googling the notes of a major scale, it’s important to know how that came to be.

Let’s get started!

Why Are Scales Important?

So first: Why are scales important? To me there are a couple good reasons.

Firstly, it unlocks all the information about each individual key on the piano. Most of us are pretty comfortable in the key of C, for example, since it has no sharps or flats. So if we see a piece with a blank key signature, or if we start jamming with a friend who is in the key of C, we rejoice. It’s easy!

But then you get a song with five sharps, or your band plays in Eb instead of the standard tuning of E. How well do you know the key of Eb major (only 3 flats!) or B major (5 sharps)? When you play a piece with 5 sharps, are you constantly forgetting which ones to sharp, or are you comfortable navigating the key of B?

This is why scales are important. You can unlock the secrets of each key when you know them well. Then they become like old, familiar friends. Seeing five sharps becomes less scary because your fingers already know what that means.

The second reason scales are important is because they’re a straight-forward way to build finger coordination. Yes, of course you can build finger coordination through playing songs. But since the scale pattern is pretty easy to get going, it doesn’t require as much work as learning a whole new song.

And as you get more dextrous, you can keep making them more difficult. You can increase their speed. You can do multiple octaves. You can play them hands together.

Scales are also great to try with the metronome, especially if you have a tough time playing along with a metronome. The rhythm of scales is simple – just a straight beat, either in quarter notes, eighth notes, or 16th notes. Scales are basically the simplest things you could think of to try and match to a metronome beat.

I sometimes refer to scales as music broccoli, because they’re so good for you, but sometimes you get these picky eaters. I think metaphorical and actual broccoli is amazing, but not everyone does. Even if you find scales dull or boring, sometimes just altering the way you think about them is enough to make them more fun – if you can see the value in them, playing scales is much easier to swallow.

How to build a major scale – the formula

Okay, so now we’re going to switch gears to the music theory side of things.

All major scales share the same formula. This is where music and math start to meet in the middle.

The formula is a specific pattern of whole tones and semitones.

Understanding whole tones and semitones

Semitones are the smallest distance between two notes. So C to C# would be a semitone. E to F would also be a semitone, because there’s nothing that comes between them.

Whole tones are two semitones. This is when we go from C to D, or E to F#.

How to build a Major Scale

So here I’ve got a basic C major scale, which we’ll use as an example. I’m going to give every note in this scale a number – numbers 1 through 8 (I did this in the video, but the notes aren’t numbered in the examples below).

So now let’s take a look at the formula that you can use to figure out any major scale. You’ll notice there’s a pattern of WT’s (whole tones) and ST’s (semitones).

The easiest way for me to remember the formula for major scales is to remember where the two semitones go – between the 3rd and 4th note, and between the 7th and 8th note.

Now let’s take a look. Doing a quick glance through the scale, I can easily see that yes, C to D is a whole tone, D to E is a whole tone, and then E to F is our first semitone (notes 3 and 4). Carrying through to the end, F to G to A to B are all whole tones, and then at the end we’ve got another semitone, B to C.

Major scales: Summary

So a major scale will always have the same pattern of tones and semitones, and the semitones will always be between notes 3 and 4, and 7 and 8.

If you want to figure out some more scales on your own, just follow the same process – write out all the notes of the scale, give each note a number, mark where the semitones will go, and then start correcting with the necessary flats and sharps. That’s it!

Conclusion

Even if you just spend eternity Googling the various scales, it’s really helpful to know why they are the way they are, to understand the math behind it all.

Thanks for watching, and I’ll catch you next time!

xo,
Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.