The Major Scale for Beginners
The Musical Ear & Cultural Mind
Music comes from the heart and the soul. We are born with it and we add to it, all our lives. When we love, our heart sings. When we lose, we sing the blues. The major scale has been one of western culture’s base elements for a thousand years.
You may not realize it but I’m pretty sure you already know a lot about the major scale… Read More
Music from the beginning…
Since the beginning, humans have been collectively deciding, what music we like and then getting together and creating it. We discover what music we like and then we play it, we sing it, we listen to it, and we seek it out.
Music has progressed because humans have progressed. When we spent every waking moment trying to find something to eat, while not getting eaten, our music choices were limited. When people were all nomadic, we created instruments we could carry.
As people settled down, our music choices became broader while our instruments continue to evolve and grow more intricate. As we take the time for quiet contemplation, our music choices grow more complex.
Music is for life…
I’ve been a life-long, student of music. My family played and sang music together, for fun. I studied music in school and college and continue to seek out new music. I’ve been “teaching” music for the majority of my life.
I believe music education is about finding ways to talk about music. It gives us a way to clarify what we know. We can share complex or intimate ideas and feelings, we have about music.
However, when we begin exploring the major scale I would say, “you already know it.” It’s in your DNA and is part of our human/cultural consciousness.” We can be as serious as we want here but I like to think we are also here, having some fun…
Major scale examples; everybody sing!
Here are some songs you may know or have heard that are solid examples of the major scale in our music culture:
- “Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little…”
- “I’ve been working on the rail road, all the live long day…”, and that favorite of sports songs…
- “Take me out to the ball game, take me out to the crowd…”
Like I said, you already know a lot about this… You and I have been listening to the major scale, all our lives.
Some Music History
Before musical notes we had “neumes” for writing music down. Neumes, generally showed the singer of Gregorian Chants which direction the melody was moving, up or down.
Singers from about 650 CE to about 1000 CE used neumes and began working with “modes”. These are not exactly the modes of the major scale that players use today but these early church modes did develop into the major and minor scales, as we know them.
At this time, monks and monastaries were the educational center of society. Music was an important part of religious ceremonies and monks wanted to keep a written record of the music. There was still a strong “person to person” aspect in learning music, based on the limitation of the music writing system available.
So, along comes the Benedictine monk, Guido D’Arezzo, (Guido of Arezzo, 990-1050) and sees the need for improvement in music writing. He pulled together what was available for music recording and began to improve and develop a musical staff with definite notes pitches and enhanced rhythmic notation. This made the sharing and teaching of melodies easier and more efficient.
Solfege Syllables and Illustrations
Guido D’Arezzo also developed Solfege, which is a set of syllables that correspond to the pattern of tones and semitones of the major scale. This grew from, C-D-E-F-G-A to the complete major scale, C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C.
The syllables used for solfege are do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do.
These syllables also have corresponding hand signs. The following signs also give clues to how notes of the scale interact with each other.
Hand Sign Illustrations
I will mention that the hand signs help to show how voices move in choral singing. More about that at another time. Getting comfortable with the syllables and the signs, is a great educational tool for understanding the major scale and voice leading.
Sing a Long with the C Major Scale
You probably already know how to sing the major scale. For the sake of unity and simplicity, we can start on the note, “C”. Let’s all sing together: Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do…
I find it helpful at times to think of the major scale in numbers.
1-2-3-4-5-6-7-1 = do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do
Now would be a good time to sing the scale, a few times. Try the syllables, try the signs with the syllables. Try singing the syllables then the numbers, then add the signs…
When matching your voice to a note, it’s important to listen to the note before you start singing! Let’s sing that again.
Whole steps & half steps
You can chose whatever note you like to start the scale on and it will be the same “distance” between each note. This is called, “moveable do”.
People recognize notes as a semitone or a whole tone apart. (Actually we hear a lot more than that but that’s beyond this article…)
You recognize the major scale as a pattern of whole steps and half steps. (Whole tones and semitones) On the guitar a whole step is two frets and a half step is one fret. Again, each fret equals one half step…
The pattern is:
- Whole step, whole step, half step, (w, w, ^)
- whole step, whole step, whole step, half step (w, w, w, ^)
You may want to say that a few times… w, w, ^, w, w, w, ^…
Also notice that do is at the beginning and the end. (Or the bottom and the top) These notes are an octave apart. They are basically the same note but double (or half) the frequency for each octave. The note A can be 440 hertz (hz.) or 880 hz. or 220 hz. You can hear they are at different levels of tone and frequency but you can also hear that they are somewhat the same.
At times like this, I have found it’s better to just accept rather than question why. We learn music by doing it and after we do it for a while we start to understand. If you love it, like I do, the search for more understanding never really ends…
Major scale practice and ear training
As I’ve said I think you already know quite a bit about the major scale. So let us see how this works in the every day world for us as singers and songwriters.
If we sing “Mary Had A Little Lamb” with solfege it sounds like this:
Mi re do re mi mi mi, (Mary had a little lamb,)
re re re, mi fa sol… (little lamb, little lamb…)
Mi re do re mi mi mi, (Mary had a little lamb,)
mi re re mi re do… (whose fleece was white as snow…)
Now add the signs…
So you can get more familiar with the major scale by using the signs and singing the scale. You can also start finding the basic songs you learned as a child and figuring out the solfege and singing/signing them .
Start with do re mi. Then just keep adding notes. Before long you will be singing songs that you thought were only in your memory.
Leave a comment to let me know how it’s going. If you get stuck on something leave a note and I will help you as best I can.
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Start singing and getting to know the major scale!
About Willy Kelly:
I have been teaching guitar and music for over 30 years. I have a Master of Music Education degree and have taught privately and in public schools. I have decades of experience performing, touring, recording, and producing music.
I live on the coast of Maine with my beautiful wife, our Standard Poodle, “Coco”, and our three cats, Mac, Finn, and Annabelle.
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