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Major Keys and Scales

Module by: Catherine Schmidt-Jones. E-mail the author

Summary: A scale is a list of all the notes in a key. Major scales all follow the same interval pattern.

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The simple nursery rhymes and folk songs we learn as children, the cheerful pop and rock we dance to, the uplifting sounds of a symphony: most music in a major key has a bright sound that people describe as cheerful, inspiring, exciting, or just plain fun. We often find ourselves wanting to dance or sing along. (PUT audio examples here) Major keys have this effect because they use only some of the many notes available. The notes that a major key does use tend to build "bright"-sounding major chords that give a strong feeling of having a tonal center, a note or chord that feels like "home" in that key. A scale is basically a list of the notes that are in the key; if you play one octave of a scale, you are playing all the notes in that octave that are found in that key.

Tonal Center

A scale starts with the note that names the key. This note is the tonal center of that key, the note where music in that key feels "at rest". It is also called the tonic, and it's the "do" in "do-re-mi". For example, music in the key of A major almost always ends on an A major chord, the chord which most strongly features the note A. It often also begins on that chord, returns to that chord often, and features a melody and a bass line that also return to the note A often enough that an audience will know where the tonal center of the music is, even if they don't realize that they know it.

Example 1

Listen to these examples in the key of A major. Can you hear that they do not feel "done" until the final A is played? (PUT audio examples here)

Major Scales

To find the rest of the notes in a major key, start at the tonic and go up following this pattern: whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step. This will take you to the tonic one octave highter than where you began, and includes all the notes in the key in that octave.

Example 2

These major scales all follow the same pattern of whole steps and half steps. They have different sets of notes because the pattern starts on different notes.

Figure 1
Figure 1 (2a.gif)

Exercise 1

Write an F major and a G major scale, beginning on the note shown.

Figure 2
Figure 2 (2K.gif)


Figure 3
Figure 3 (2b.gif)

Exercise 2

Write an A flat major scale and a B major scale.

Figure 4
Figure 4 (2L.gif)


Figure 5
Figure 5 (2c.gif)

Exercise 3

Write an F sharp major scale and a G flat major scale.

Figure 6
Figure 6 (2m.gif)


Figure 7
Figure 7 (2d.gif)

Notice that although they look completely different, the scales of F sharp major and G flat major sound exactly the same when played, on a piano as shown here, or on any other instrument.

Figure 8
Figure 8 (2o.gif)

So, should a piece of music be written in F# major or in Gb major? Some instrumentalists may find the sharp key easier to read; some may prefer to read in a flat key. In the end, the person who is writing it down chooses.

Exercise 4

Write an A major scale and a B flat major scale in bass clef.

Figure 9
Figure 9 (2n.gif)


Figure 10
Figure 10 (2h.gif)

Music in Different Keys

What difference does key make? Since the major scales all follow the same pattern, they all sound very much alike. Here is a familiar folk tune written in C major and in E flat major.

Figure 11: The same tune looks very different written in two different major keys.
Figure 11(a) (2e.gif)
Figure 11(b) (2f.gif)

Listen to this tune in C major and in E flat major. The music may look quite different, but the only difference when you listen is that one sounds higher than the other. So why bother with different keys at all? A piece of music may be easier to play in one key than another; or you may want to sing it higher or lower.

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