A Musical Tidbit




Scales are the building blocks of music. There are thousands of different scales (sometimes called modes) and each one has its own peculiarities and functions. Having grown up on what we call "Western" music (music that had its origins in the European countries), the major and the minor scales are the ones most recognizable to our American ears. But the blues scale, the dorian scale and the mixolydian scale are also use extensively in our music (especially jazz) whether or not we know anything about them! This month's tidbit will look at the chromatic, major and minor scales and show you how to create these scales. We will save some of the others for next month.

The sound files may not show up in all browsers! If you don't have the sound files, play the example on your instrument or a piano or keyboard.



Major scales are based on a particular formula of whole steps and half steps.

  • (Click here if you don't know what whole steps and half steps are).

The first note of the scale is called the root of the scale and the major scale formula is: start on the root, move up a whole step, another whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step (which takes you to the root one octave higher). But you don't necessarily need to know that in order to play the scales; the formula just explains how we get to the key signatures.

  • (Click here for more information on how the formulas work and something about the mathematics & science of it all!)

To figure out how to play a major scale in a certain key, all you really need is the following information:

1) All scales begin and end on the name of the key (the root). For example: the C scale begins on C, goes alphabetically up to the next C and back down. (C is the root of the scale)

C major scale up and down


2) Key signature: The key of C has no sharps (#) and no flats (b). For all other scales you, must add the correct sharps or flats. (Major scales never have both sharps and flats in the key signature.)

Looking at the chart below, we can see that:

  • The key of F has Bb, so the scale is: F G A Bb C D E F (and back down)
  • The key of G has F#, so the scale is: G A B C D E F# G (and back down)


Key Signature Chart for Major Scales

key signature chart

Here is the Bb major scale. Click on the play bar below to hear a Bb major scale.

Bb concert scale

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Concert Pitch & Transposition 

Often you will hear a conductor speak of the "concert pitch" or request that the group play a concert F scale. Click here for info on transposing from concert pitch - all band members should know how to do this...

Click here if you would like to see the Bb concert scale transposed & written for Bb, Eb, F, or bass clef instruments.


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Natural Minor Scales

Once you know how to do major scales, minor scales are easy! -- except for the fact that there are three different forms. Let's start with the basic form, the natural minor scale.


We know that the C major scale looks like this:

C major scale

All major scales have a relative minor. The major and minor scales are related because they share the same key signature. To find the minor scale that has the same key signature as a particular major scale, count up to the 6th scale step (in C major: C, D, E, F, G, A). Now, use the same key signature, but start on the A instead of the C. So, the a natural minor scale (which is related to the C major) looks like this:

a natural minor scale


SIMPLE?!? Yep!  So...

  • the minor scale related to the key of F major, is dm (dm is an abbreviation for d minor - we usually use a lower case letter for minors).
  • The minor related to G is em, etc. See the key signature chart below - it has the minor keys, too.

The whole step / half step formula for a natural minor scale is: R, W, H, W, W, H, W, W

Here is the g natural minor scale. Click on the play bar below to hear the scale in concert pitch.

Concert g natural minor scale

Click here if you would like to see the concert g natural minor scale transposed & written for Bb, Eb, F, or bass clef instruments.

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Harmonic Minor Scales

Now, about the other two minor forms... Aside from the natural minor scale, there are also harmonic minor scales and melodic minor scales.

The harmonic minor takes the natural minor and simply raises the 7th scale step:

A B C D E F G# A -- A G# F E D C B A

IMPORTANT!!!!! This DOES NOT change the key signature! The key signature is not G#; we still say no sharps, no flats. As soon as you say harmonic minor, everyone knows you are adding that sharp. (See key signature chart)

The whole step / half step formula for a natural minor scale is: R, W, H, W, W, H, 1 1/2, H


Here is a g harmonic minor scale. Click on the play bar to hear a g harmonic minor scale.
Concert g harmonic minor scale

Click here if you would like to see the concert g harmonic minor scale transposed & written for Bb, Eb, F, or bass clef instruments.

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Melodic Minor Scales

Melodic minor is more complex. You raise the 6th & 7th scale steps on the way up and cancel them on the way down (just play a natural minor scale on the way down).

A B C D E F# G# A -- A G F E D C B A   -- weird, eh?

Again, the key signature is still no sharps, no flats.

By the way: If you have to raise a flat, it becomes a natural (Bb becomes a B natural). If you have to raise a sharp, it becomes a double sharp [A WHAT!??!]  (F# becomes Fx which is an F raised twice or a G!)

The whole step / half step formula for a natural minor scale going up is: R, W, H, W, W, W, W, H
going down is: R, W, W, H, W, W, H, W

Here is the g melodic minor scale. Click on the play bar to hear the g melodic minor scale.
Concert g melodic minor scale

Click here if you would like to see the concert g melodic minor scale transposed & written for Bb, Eb, F, or bass clef instruments.


A Word to the Wise:


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Key Signature Chart

Here is a key signature chart for major, minors, dorian & mixolydian scales (we will look at dorian & mixolydian next month!).

key signature chart

Click here to go to a page with a key signature chart that will print out quickly.

The key signatures relate to each other in an interesting manner.  Go to the Circle of Fifths page for more info.

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The Chromatic Scale

piano keyboard f-e two octaves

We are going to use the piano keyboard diagram to help us understand and learn the chromatic scale. First, let's briefly get a sense of how the piano keyboard is laid out. Notice:

  • There are black & white keys. Did you know that you wouldn't have to have two different colors or have some keys raised a bit?? It is possible to build a piano with all white keys. It would look like the diagram below:
chromatic keyboard, but no black keys!
And how would we ever find our way around?????


  • So, one of the functions of the black keys is to help us find our way around the keyboard. The black keys are laid out in groups of twos and threes.
  • The white key just to the left of the group of two is a C (look on the keyboard below)
Keyboard showing one octave C-C
  • If you know that, I bet you can name all the rest of the keys. Try it. Start on the C to the left, say the letter names up the musical alphabet and see if you land on the next C. If not, look at the next diagram to see what went wrong.
Keyboard showing chromatic scale
  • Look at the diagram above and notice how the sharps and flats are laid out. A sharp is defined as the note that is one half step higher then the note you are starting on. A half step on the piano is the very next key. So, C# is the very next key to the right after the C and it happens to be a black key.
  • Logically enough, flats are defined as the note that is one half step lower than the note you are starting on. So, Db is the next key to the left of D.
  • Did you notice that C# and Db are the same key??? All notes have more than one name. The formal word for this concept is enharmonic tones. C# and Db are enharmonic tones (they sound the same, but have different names).
  • Where is E#??? Where is Fb??? What is a double sharp??? What is a double flat??? If these questions interest you, click here.

Sooo... What does all this have to do with the Chromatic Scale???

A chromatic scale is a scale containing 12 equal divisions of the octave. Put another way, it is every key on the piano within one octave. (An octave is from C to C, or F# to F#, or A to A, or...) So a chromatic scale starting on C is:

C C# D D# E  F F# G G# A A# B C

(then come down & use the flat names)

C B Bb A Ab G Gb F E Eb D Db C 

Put your finger on the piano keys below and say the names of the notes in a C chromatic scale.  

Keyboard showing chromatic scale

Here is a C chromatic scale, one octave. Click the play bar to hear a C chromatic scale, one octave.

Chromatic c-c

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Now, take that information to your instrument...


Look at the piano keyboard while you play each note of the chromatic scale on your instrument. There may be a few notes that you need to look up, but notice most of them you already know - What is an A# you ask?? Why, it is a Bb and you probably do know that fingering! (Click here for a larger sized keyboard that you can print out to work with and to keep in your band folder for reference)

Play up and down a few times. Keep looking at the keyboard so your eyes learn to visualize the keyboard and so your brain learns the note names -- it will help you memorize faster.

OK, so you know what a chromatic scale is; now the hard part is memorizing it on your instrument. If you had a long poem to memorize, would you recite it all the way through over and over again? Of course not; you would break it into small chunks and memorize one verse at a time.

Do the same with the chromatic scale. It is easy to memorize a few notes, so do from C to F.

C C# D D# E  F    F E Eb D Db C

After you have played that over about 15 times I'll bet you can do it from memory. Easy, eh?? (Say the note names to yourself, and look at the keyboard while you work on it.)

Now learn from F to A. Then from A to C. Now you are ready to put it together!

Want the BAD NEWS? Great, you can play it from memory today. But guess what? When you pick up your instrument tomorrow, you will probably have forgotten it. Sigh... But the GOOD NEWS is that it won't take you as long to relearn it!

By the way... When someone asks you to play a chromatic scale, it doesn't have to start on a C. You could play a G chromatic, or a Bb chromatic, or an F chromatic, or any other that you wish! Just make sure you go one or two octaves, whatever is specified. (Don't play from C to C# - that is more than an octave!)


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Here is a link to a web site that shows how the chromatic scale and other scales work on a guitar, banjo or ukulele fret board: http://www.ezfolk.com/guitar/Tutorials/Music_Theory/Chromatic_Scale/chromatic_scale.html

running notes gif
the next tidbit is on other kinds of scales - check it out

pointing finger

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