Learn the Major Scale

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The major scale is a fundamental building block in western music theory. Read on to learn more

See the previous articles on Music Theory – strongly recommended to read these first!

The Major Scale

The major scale is the most popular scale in western music.

It is recommended to learn the major scale first –  as it feels natural to the ear and is the core of much other music theory.

Learning this scale will enable you to understand:

  • Intervals
  • Chord construction
  • Harmonization
  • And much more

The Structure of the Major Scale

The major scale is contains 7 notes with the following intervals between notes

  • Tone
  • Tone
  • Semi-tone
  • Tone
  • Tone
  • Tone
  • Semi-tone

You should practice this sentence: “Tone Tone Semitone – Tone Tone Tone Semitone”

We know from an earlier article that two notes are

  • a tone apart if they are 2 frets apart on our guitar
  • a semi-tone apart if 1 fret apart

Constructing the C Major Scale


Below is a diagram of the C major scale all played on one string (the A string starting at the 3rd fret)

The Major Scale | 1 string example - Music Theory | Learn Fingerpicking

Let’s examine this note by note

The first note is C.

Move up a tone (2 frets) to get the second note – D

Move up a tone from D to get the third note – E

Move up a semi-tone to get the fourth note – F

And then we move up 2 frets (tone) from F to G

Move up 2 frets (tone) from G to A

Move up 2 frets (tone) from A to B

And 1 fret (semi-tone) from B to C

(We note  that the C major scale has no sharp notes but all 7 regular notes – CDEFGAB)

You can visualize the note intervals like this:

Tones and semitones - The Major Scale | Music Theory | Learn Fingerpicking


It is important at this stage that you understand why for example C and D are a tone apart and why E and F are a semi-tone apart.

Re-read the intro to music theory if the diagram above is causing any confusion.

C Major Scale on Several Strings


Guitarists do not typically play a scale on one string.

Below is a way of playing C Major that involves several strings (but note that our left hand can stay between 2nd and 5th frets). Play it to check it sounds the same.

Fretboard Diagram - The Major Scale | Music Theory | Learn Fingerpicking

D Major Scale

We now construct the D major scale.

Start with a D note and calculate T-T-ST-T-T-T-ST

The D will move up 2 frets (tone) to E

The E will move up 2 frets (tone) to F#

The F# will move up 1 fret (semi-tone) to G

And so on.  

The full scale is D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D

Fretboard Diagram - D Major Scale | Music Theory | Learn Fingerpicking


What’s interesting is that we can take the “shape” we had for our C major scale and “move everything up 2 frets” to get a D major scale.

Thus, learning a scale shape means that we can use it in any key if we begin with the right note.

Moving Major Scales |Learn fingerpicking

We can generate major scale in any key in this way.

For example, we could move our C Major scale up 4 frets to get an E major scale.


  • The major scale has 7 notes
  • The C Major Scale contains no sharp notes – it is C D E F G A B
  • Major scales have the following intervals between notes
    • Tone-Tone-Semitone Tone-Tone-Tone-Semitone

More music theory articles

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