The pattern for a major scale can easily be seen on any piano, by finding a “c” note, and playing all the white keys up to the next “c”. The pattern is of course the same for other instruments, it’s just very easy to understand visually when looking at a piano keyboard.
Even if you know relatively little about music, finding “c” is easy. Look at any keyboard and you will notice that there are groupings of two and three black keys. The white key too the left of any of the pairings of two black keys is a “c”. The one commonly referred to as “middle c” is roughly in the middle of the piano.
From one “C” to the next higher or lower “C” is a musical octave. It is called an octave because it is comprised of 8 notes. The eighth note is the last note of one octave and the first note of the next, which is why only 7 letter names are used. A "C major scale" uses the notes C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C, in order. Sometimes the referring to the notes in a scale like this is called the spelling of the scale.
You will notice that when you hit “D”, the second note in a c major scale, that there is a black note in between the white keys. That note is sometimes called “C sharp” and other times called “D flat”. It is one half step up from "C", and from that black not in between it is another half step to "D". Skipping a tone like that is called a whole step. From "D" to "E" is also a whole step.
The first three notes in any major scale are all one whole step from each other.
----- "C" (whole step) "D" (Whole Step) "E"-----
There is no black key in between "E" and "F", which makes the interval there a half step.
----- "C" (whole step) "D" (Whole Step) "E" (half step ) "F" -----
Then we have a whole step between "F" and "G", another one between "G" and "A", and another one between "A" and "B". Finally from "B" to "C" we have another half step.
The pattern for a major scale, which can be built from any key, is:
1. (whole step)
2. (whole step)
3. (half step)
4. (whole step)
5. (whole step)
6. (whole step)
7. (half step)
You just repeat the pattern to continue up to the next octave, or play back down in reverse.
The same pattern is used from different starting points to create other major keys, which will have flats or sharps in them to preserve the same pattern of intervals between the notes.
For instance, the key of "G major" starts on "G", and is played from "G" to another "G" an octave above or below, with one sharp. The sharped note is "F", it is the first black key in the grouping of three black keys. If you were to spell the scale it would be "G-A-B-C-D-E- F sharp – G". If you were to look at the patterns of half steps and whole steps involved you would see that it is also built the same way. (whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step)
Likewise, "F major" has one flat, which is "B flat". It is the last of the three black notes. It would be played "F-G-A- B flat – C- D- E- F".
If you have access to a piano or keyboard and are just learning, try to plunk out these different scales now. I will discuss the easiest fingering for those scales in my next post. If you are new to music, please don't be intimidated by the idea of playing scales- it's really all based on a pattern that is so simple a child that knows their alphabet and how to count could easily understand it and can be very useful to understanding how music can be written and played. If you have a more studied background, keep reading, we will continue to discuss more and more in depth material about playing, writing, and performing music.