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Theory & Business

How to Build Major and Minor Scales

Take a deep dive into some music fundamentals.

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By Kadee Henderson

Scales, chords, key signatures: we’ve all heard these terms in our music studies. They are essential for understanding the foundation of music and how it works. Composers must understand these concepts in order to create their masterpieces, and performing/teaching musicians must understand these concepts in order to learn their repertoire and instruct the next generation of musicians. Learning every concept can be overwhelming. In this article, we’re starting with the basics. We’re going to take a deep dive into scales.

Major Scales

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As you may recall, a scale is a grouping of notes that makes a key. Each major and minor scale includes eight notes (though only seven different tones). The major scale must contain the following pattern of whole and half steps:

Whole-Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Whole-Half

For example, consider the C Major scale: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. A whole step exists between C and D; there’s another whole step between D and E; the first half step is between E and F; followed by another series of whole steps until the final half step between B and C.

This explains why each major scale is built the way it is – with sharps or flats on particular notes. Scales generally contain one or the other; you likely won’t see a scale containing both sharps and flats. These sharps and flats help the notes conform to this pattern.

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Natural Minor Scales

Each natural minor scale is also built by similar “rules.”

The natural minor scale must contain the following pattern of whole and half steps:

Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Half-Whole-Whole

For example, consider the C minor scale: C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb-C. A whole step exists between C and D; followed by a half step between D and Eb; then a whole step between Eb and F, and another whole step between F and G; then the second half step between G and Ab; followed by two more whole steps to complete the scale.

Harmonic and Melodic Minor Scales

Note: harmonic minor will raise the seventh scale degree by a half step; melodic minor will raise the sixth and seventh scale degrees by a half step each while ascending, but lower them both by a half step while descending.

The rule for harmonic minor can be written this way:

Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Half-Whole+Half-Half

The rule for melodic minor can be written this way:

(Ascending) Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Whole-Whole-Half
(Descending) Whole-Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Half-Whole

Scale Degrees And Their Functions

Now that we know how to find the correct tones for each major and minor scale, there are two ways to refer to these tones: by number (often referred to as “scale degree”) and by name. We will use our previous examples of C major and C minor for assistance. 

Each major and minor scale uses the same scale degrees and names:

Scale DegreeName
First (C)Tonic
Second (D)Supertonic
Third (E or E-flat)Mediant
Fourth (F)Subdominant
Fifth (G)Dominant
Sixth (A or A-flat)Submediant or superdominant
Seventh (B or B-flat)Leading Tone
Eighth (C)Tonic

When understanding tone names, it’s important to remember that “super” and “sub” are Latin prefixes. Super means “above” or “beyond,” and sub means “under” or “below” (like how the word “submarine” literally means below the sea).

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The tonic is often referred to as the “root.” Young students may refer to it as “the home note.” “Supertonic” is over the tonic. The “mediant” note is mid point between tonic and dominant. The “subdominant” is one scale degree below the dominant. The “superdominant” is one scale degree beyond the dominant. The leading tone “leads” you back to the tonic. 

These names are often used to refer to chords and chord progressions, so knowing each of these names (and reviewing them as often as needed) will only benefit you in understanding the music you are playing. In our next article, we will dive into chord qualities and how chords are built off of these scale degrees.

The video below reiterates the principles discussed in this article. You may find it helpful.

About the Author: Kadee Henderson is a classically trained award-winning pianist and works as a private studio teacher and collaborative pianist. She appreciates connecting with colleagues and learning helpful tips and tricks from each other. Follow her on Instagram at @pianogirl361 and subscribe to her newsletter.

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