Major And Minor Scale Structure
Understanding Major Scale Structure
The major scale is a 7-note scale so it consists of seven notes. The structure of a major scale is relatively even (the consequence of being a diatonic scale); it consists of:
1. A Root note (R)
2. Then a note a whole step above that, called the Major 2nd (M2)
3. A note a whole step above that — the Major 3rd (M3)
4. A note a half step above that — the Perfect 4th (P4)
5. A note a whole step above that — the Perfect 5th (P5)
6. A note a whole step above that — the Major 6th (M6)
7. And a last note a whole step above the 6th, which is the Major 7th (M7);
The distance between the 7th note and the first note of the next octave is a half- step, and the overall structure of the scale (you can also say ‘scale formula’) is:
Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half
W W H W W W H
Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semitone
T T S T T T S
And here’s how it looks on a guitar fretboard:
R — T — M2 — T — M3 — S — P4 — T — P5 — — T — M6 — T — M7 — S — R (Octave)
This is the form of all diatonic scales (only since they’re modes of each other they begin at different points in the structure).
Each scale has a starting note — called the Root note (R), which gives the scale its name. Root note can be any of the 12 notes from the note circle.
If we say: “In the key of A major” (or you can just say “in A”, if it’s a major key), it means we use A note as the root note and then apply from it the major scale structure (T T S T T T S). So “in A” the notes would be:
A — T — B — T — C# — S — D — T — E — T — F# — T — G# — S — A
In the key of C, the notes are:
If you start on the D note you would get the D major scale, if you start on the G, that would be the G major scale, Bb would be Bb major scale, and so on.
Out of all 12 keys, C major key is specific because it contains all of the notes of the chromatic scale minus the sharps and flats: C, D, E, F, G, A, B — which means that on a piano the C major scale is just the white keys. Every other key has one or more black keys (sharps/flats).
It is worth repeating that knowing the scale formula of a scale is very useful because you can start on any note, apply the formula, and you would get all notes of that scale. You don’t have to remember all the note positions of a particular scale on your instrument — if you just know the scale formula and understand its interval structure it is very easy to remember, play and use that scale.
In the case of the major scale this is particularly important because, if you recall, all other scales are derivable from the major scale, and if you know the Major scale structure it is much easier to understand, learn and use other scales, even the non-diatonic ones.
Natural Minor Scale Structure
Second only to the major scale is the natural minor scale, or simply the minor scale for short. No less foundational, it is remarkably different. The minor scale is less common in pop music than the major scale, since it is far harder to create a melody that will stick in someone’s ear with the minor scale than with the major scale.
This scale is useful in very many situations, and it is marked by a pronounced tension that creates musical friction while at the same time sounding rather consonant.
The natural minor scale is, according to many people, a sad, deep, dark sounding scale. It is the dark cousin of the major scale. Though it can be played in ways that make the music move quickly and even brightly, the natural tendency of this scale is in the direction of darkness.
The minor scale is dark, deep, and heavy sounding, and is often described as “sad.” Though the major scale is more common in some forms of music, the minor scale is far from rare, occupying a central place in classical and jazz, among other styles.
The minor scale is a mode of the major scale (the 6th mode). So the minor scale that is the mode of the C major scale:
— is the A minor scale, consisting of the notes A, B, C, D, E, F and G.
The structure of this scale is the same as that of the major scale: whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half, only it is re-oriented so that the 6th note of the major scale is the Root of the corresponding minor scale (In C, that means the root of the minor scale is A; in A major the relative minor scale is F# minor, and so on).
So the structure of the minor scale is the same as the major, only shifted so that it now starts from the 6th note. It’s the same concept as with the pentatonics but is worth going through again.
Now it is:
tone, semitone, tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone.
The minor scale consists of the following notes:
Root, Major 2nd, minor 3rd, Perfect 4th, Perfect 5th, minor 6th, minor 7th
So we have:
R — T — M2 — S — m3 — T — P4 — T — P5 — S — m6 — T — m7 — T — R
Here it is on a guitar fretboard:
The notes in A minor now are: A—T—B—S—C—T—D—T—E—S—F—T—G—T—A
Notice the similarities between this A minor scale and its relative major — C major scale (It’s the same structure only the notes are re-oriented so that now A is the starting note). Because of this, key of A minor is also without sharps or flats. This goes for any mode of the C major key.
Also notice the similarities between this minor scale and minor pentatonic and major and major pentatonic scale. Can you figure out which notes are left out? Refer to the scale comparison chart should you have any trouble with this.
As an exercise you can try to figure out the relative minor scales of the following major keys: G, D, A, E, B, F.
Major and Minor Scale — Understanding the Difference
We have already said that the major and minor scales are modes of one another. They are each diatonic modes and so they are each variations on the same fundamental harmonic structure.
But that doesn’t mean they are the same scale. While they share a structure, they begin at different parts of that structure, which means that the set of intervals that define those scales is radically different. Music is all about the intervals, and if the set of intervals within a scale is different — even though the scales share the same harmonic structure — then the sound of that scale will be different as well.
What was the distance between the 1st and 3rd notes of the major scale is now the distance between the 3rd and 5th notes of the minor scale. That means that, if you play a major scale and a minor scale that are relative to each other (that contain all of the same notes), then the note that was the major 3rd of the major scale is now the perfect 5th of the minor scale. The note that was the perfect fourth of the major scale is now the minor 6th of the minor scale.
The major scale consists of intervals (with respect to its root) that define a happy, bright, typically major-sounding scale, while the minor scale’s intervals (with respect to its root) define a sad, dark, typically minor-sounding scale.
In general, the difference between these scales is quite stark, and it is the difference between darkness and light, between happy, easy play and sad, dark depth. It is easy to hear the difference, and once you do, it will be easy to identify the general difference between major and minor tonalities in the future.
A word on that last thought — There is the difference between the major scale and the natural minor scale, but then there is also the difference between major and minor tonalities in general between any chords or scales of the major and minor families. There are many major chords and many major scales, just as there are many minor chords and many minor scales. Each of them is different from the others, sometimes radically.
The thing that all major scales and chords have in common, however, is their being major scales and chords. While the major scale is the typical, iconic major scale and the natural minor scale is the typical, iconic minor scale, there are other major scales (such as the Lydian mode) and other minor scales (such as the Phrygian mode) that share enough in common with those iconic scales to be in the same major or minor family, both of which belong to one big diatonic family.
Once you have learned to distinguish between the major and minor scales, distinguishing between major and minor tonalities in general is only a step away, and generally comes easily.
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