Major Scales and Major Keys

Have you ever wondered how they decided which sharps and flats make up a key?

Would you be surprised to know that the order of sharps and the order of flats in a key signature is always the same?

What is a scale?

There are many different kinds of scales. First there is the “Chromatic” scale, containing 12 divisions of the octave, from which all other western scales are derived.

chromatic scale

When we speak of a Major scale, we are talking about a “Diatonic” scale, which is a 7 note scale (plus the octave). The notes of a Major Diatonic scale are chosen from a specific pattern

Major Scale

So in the key of C, we have

C Major

So where do the other Major scales and Major keys come from?

We start with a different note on the chromatic scale, and follow the same pattern:

whole – whole – half – whole – whole – whole – half

Here we have a G Major scale.

G Major

Let’s map out all the Major scales. ***This will make a lot more sense if you go through the process of filling out the Major Keys Worksheet for yourself before looking at the answers.***

Major Keys Worksheet.pdf

The worksheet has a 2 octave chromatic scale across the top, with note names. Down the left hand side, are all 12 Major Scale names.

  • Fill in the note names for each Major scale under each orange dot.
  • Note how all the dots are separated by the w – w – h – w – w – w – h pattern.
  • If a note can go by 2 “Enharmonic” names, you can write both names down.

Check your answers.
Major Keys Enharmonic.pdf

The rules for a scale are that each note name must be used once and only once.

  • Go back through and circle the correct Enharmonic note name.
  • Now count the circled sharps and flats and list them out to the right.

Check your answers.
Major Keys Sharps and Flats.pdf

Here’s where the magic happens.

***Again, this will make a lot more sense if you actually go through the process of filling out the Major Keys Worksheet for yourself before looking at the answers.***

  • Sort the scales by the number of sharps and flats. e.g.
Keys Sharps / Flats In Order
6#
5#
4#
3#
2#
1#
0
1b
2b
3b
4b
5b
6b
  • Now write out the sharp names on each line above.
  • Can you put the sharps in the same order? Hint: Start with the 1# line, then the 2# line, etc.
  • Write out the flat names on each line above
  • Can you put the flats in the same order? Hint: Start with the 1b line, then the 2b line, etc.

Check your answers.
Major Keys Sorted.pdf

Pull out any piece of sheet music, and notice that the sharps and flats in the key signature are always in this same order.

Clarification: People occasionally use the term “Scale” and the term “Key” somewhat interchangeably.

  • A “Key” is a “Set” of notes as we have defined above.
  • A “Scale” is usually an ascending or descending “Sequence” of notes in a “Key”, often starting on the 1st degree or “Tonic”.

Relative minor

Every Major scale has a Relative minor scale. The Relative minor is a Natural minor as opposed to Harmonic minor or Melodic minor. A Major Scale and it’s Relative minor Scale have the same key signature, they just start on a different note.

The Relative minor scale is defined as starting on the 6th degree of the major scale (aka Aeolian mode). Since scales repeat an octave higher and an octave lower, in practice it is sometimes easier to think about going down 3 half steps instead of going up 6 degrees.

minor Scale

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