Music Theory Is Easy
In this primer I will teach you what major scales are in music. I will also teach you how to build your first chords and major scales.
If you aren’t somewhat familiar with music notation, please review my Learning to Read Music page before continuing on with this one.
I’m going to base this lesson around the piano keyboard – since the piano keyboard makes the theory and chords so easy to visualize.
Lets review the piano keyboard below:
Now this piano shows 17 keys. A real piano has 88. We are going to assume that our little keyboard starts
on “middle C” – Middle C is the note that sits almost directly in the middle of most full sized keyboards.
Our keys are labeld with the name of each note. Look at where our C is, the note all the way at the left
of our abbreviated keyboard. Now, notice the black key adjacent to it on the right. Do you notice how there is a pattern
of two black keys followed by three black keys followed by two black keys again? Well the first white key below any of those groups of two black keys is always a C.
So you can always find the note C by finding the group of two black keys and picking the first white key to left.
Speaking of notes adjacent to each other, when we move from one note on the piano to the very next adjacent note, whether that next note is a white note or black note, it is called a
HALF STEP (also called a minor second). So C to C#/Db is a half step. E to F is also a half step! This
is often a source of confusion for people because E and F are both white keys and we tend to think of half steps as involving a white key and a black key.
But do you see any other notes in-between E and F? No sir. That is a half step. Whenever we move from one note directly to its nearest neighbor, that is a half step.
Are you ready for the first scale? Here goes – start with our “middle” C – which is on the very
left of our abbreviated keyboard. Play all the white keys, C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C. That is the C Major Scale.
Did you notice anything? Did you notice that the space between the notes varies? Some people just say “yeah, we played all the white keys” –
but what about the spaces BETWEEN those white keys? That is the SECRET to understanding how to play in ANY key! Its not how many white keys and black keys or sharps and flats!
Its about INTERVALS – intervals are the spaces between notes.
Now, back to that C Major scale. It has a formula. Forget about white keys. Lets analyze our formula.
We started on C and moved to D – that is TWO half steps, one from C to the black key next to it, and one more from that black key to the white key D. Two half steps equal
one whole step, so we played a whole step from C to D. You can also think of a whole step as having one note in-between, in this case C#/Db in-between C and D.
Back again to our formula, D to E — WHOLE STEP! but what happens next?? E to F — is this a WHOLE step? NO! E to F
is a HALF step because they are directly adjacent to each other.
Continuing on, F to G is a whole step, G to A is a whole step, A to B is a whole step, but B to C??? HALF STEP again!
So here is our formula for building a major scale –
Start on your note of choice (C)
Play up a whole step (D)
Play up a whole step (E)
Play up a half step (F)
Play up a whole step (G)
Play up a whole step (A)
Play up a whole step (B)
Play up a half step (C)
In shorthand, we can say the construction of the major scale is: WWHWWWH (W=wholestep, H=halfstep)
No lets learn another major scale using our new formula
Let’s build a D Major scale. Can you do it?
Lets start on D. We need a whole step, so the next note is E. NOW the first tricky part.
We need another whole step. What is a whole step up from E? Remember a whole stop is equal to two
half steps and a whole step always has one note in-between. Since F is directly adjacent to E it is a half step only
and not the whole step we need. The answer is F# which is the first black key in the group of three black keys.
Now we need a half step, so right after F# comes G. Now another whole step to A, another whole step to
B, another tricky whole step to C# and a half step to D. We did it – a D Major scale!
D E F# G A B C# D
Lets do one more, but this time we are going to make it a little different. Do you notice the
black keys have two names? Sometimes notes have two names and its called Enharmonic Tones. Enharmonic just means “one note with two names”.
Don’t worry about it for now. We’ll come back to it much later in our study.
Do you see the note E? Do you see the note to E’s left called Eb or D#? If you start on E and go down a
half step to that note, we call it Eb. So for now, we are calling it Eb and you don’t need to worry about it being called anything else for now.
We are going to build an Eb Major scale using our formula – WWHWWWH
Start on Eb, go up a whole step to F (remember a whole step is equal to two half steps), go up a whole step to G, go up a HALF step to Ab,
Go up a whole step to Bb, go up a whole step to C, go up a whole step to D, finish with a half step to Eb again.
Eb F G Ab Bb C D Eb
Its Easy one you get the hang of.
Practice spelling out other major scales and you’ll know all twelve in no time! Just remember the formula, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole and Half.
When we talk about the distance between two notes, it is called an interval. Two notes are always called an interval. When we talk of three or more notes played simultaneously we are talking about a chord.
The most simple chord is the TRIAD, or three note chord. The most simple triad goes back to our C Major scale.
If we pick the first, third, and fifth notes of the C Major scale, or C, E, G and then play them together at the same time, we have constructed a C Major Triad.
The same would be true for our D Major Scale, D, F#, and A make up the major triad. For our Eb scale, Eb, G, Bb
Practice spelling your major triads along with your major scales
In the next lesson (not online yet) we will be learning about intervals, additional chords, key signatures, and the cycle of fifths.