Learning every musical scale is a daunting and tedious task. Learning the notes; what chords they form; and how they sound are all part of the process. Learning to play those notes in all octaves is another challenge for the producers among us who play instruments.
But what if there was a single scale you could learn that you could then build all the other scales around?
Well, it turns out there is, and chances are you already know of it!
The Major Scale is the most important musical scale to learn and it will help unlock all the other scales out there. This is great news for those who are interested in getting started in music theory. The Major Scale is king in western music theory since every other scale and mode can be described in relation to it.
What is the Major Scale?
Here, we will describe the Major Scale by its:
- scale degrees
Let’s combine the scale degrees with their intervals:
1 -w- 2 -w- 3 -h- 4 -w- 5 -w- 6 -w- 7 -h- 8
w = whole tone h = half tone
We can name the scale degrees as:
- 1 = first
- 2 = major second
- 3 = major third
- 4 = perfect fourth
- 5 = perfect fifth
- 6 = major sixth
- 7 = major seventh
- 8 = octave*
Now that we have our scale degrees of the major scale mapped out, we can alter any one of these notes to get any other scale we need.
Every Musical scale can be written as alterations of the Major Scale
Let’s look at common one note alterations of the Major Scale (aka the Ionian mode)
The Melodic Minor Scale
The Melodic Minor Scale is the Major Scale with a flatted third. This mode can be written as Ionian Minor and is the first mode of the Melodic Minor Scale. It is written as:
1 -w- 2 -h- ♭3 -w- 4 -w- 5 -w- 6 -w- 7 -h- 8
The Lydian Mode
The Lydian Mode is the Major Scale with an augmented fourth. Lydian is the fourth mode of the Major Scale and is written as:
1 -w- 2 -w- 3 -w- ♯4 -h- 5 -w- 6 -w- 7 -h- 8
The Ionian Augmented Mode
The Ionian Augmented mode is the Major Scale with an augmented fifth. Ionian Augmented is the third mode of the Harmonic Minor Scale and is written as:
1 -w- 2 -w- 3 -h- 4 -wh- ♯5 -h- 6 -w- 7 -h- 8
wh = whole tone + half tone
The Harmonic Major Scale
The Harmonic Major Scale is the Major Scale with a minor sixth. We could call it the Ionian ♭6 mode. Ionian♭6 is the first mode of the Harmonic Major Scale and is written as:
1 -w- 2 -w- 3 -h- 4 -w- 5 -h- ♭6 -wh- 7 -h- 8
The Mixolydian Mode
The Mixolydian Mode is the Major Scale with a minor seventh. Mixolydian is the fifth mode of the Major Scale and it is written as:
1 -w- 2 -w- 3 -h- 4 -w- 5 -w- 6 -h- ♭7 -w- 8
The Altered Scale (Super Locrian)
Lastly, and this one is a bit more complicated to wrap our heads around, we could sharpen the 1 of the Major Scale. Writing the ♯1 as 1 (we always want an unaltered 1) would mean that we flatten every other scale degree (everything in relation to the 1). This gives us the Altered Scale (aka Super Locrian). It is the seventh mode of the Melodic Minor Scale and is written as:
1 -h- ♭2 -w- ♭3 -h- ♭4 -w- ♭5 -w- ♭6 -w- ♭7 -w- 8
Let’s take a look at the other MAJOR SCALE MODES.
We’ve already discussed that the Lydian Mode is the Major Scale with an augmented fourth. And that the Mixolydian Mode is the Major Scale with a minor seventh. The first mode, Ionian, has no alterations to the Major Scale. So let’s look at the other 4 modes:
The Dorian Mode
The Dorian Mode: the second mode of the Major Scale:
1 -w- 2 -h- ♭3 -w- 4 -w- 5 -w- 6 -h- ♭7 -w- 8
The Dorian Mode is the Major Scale with flatted third and seventh degrees.
The Phrygian Mode
The Phrygian Mode: the third mode of the Major Scale:
1 -h- ♭2 -w- ♭3 -w- 4 -w- 5 -h- ♭6 -w- ♭7 -w- 8
The Phrygian Mode is the Major Scale with flatted second, third, sixth, and seventh degrees.
The Aeolian Mode
The Aeolian Mode: the sixth mode of the Major Scale:
1 -w- 2 -h- ♭3 -w- 4 -w- 5 -h- ♭6 -w- ♭7 -w- 8
The Aeolian Mode is the Major Scale with flatted third, sixth, and seventh Degrees.
The Locrian Mode
The Locrian Mode: the seventh mode of the Major Scale:
1 -h- ♭2 -w- ♭3 -w- 4 -h- ♭5 -w- ♭6 -w- ♭7 -w- 8
The Locrian Mode is the Major Scale with flatted second, third, fifth, sixth, and seventh degrees.
every musical scale can be related to the Major Scale Regardless of the number of alterations
This is good news for those of us learning music theory. I spent quite some time learning the Major Scale so that I could easily alter its degrees to understand other scales and modes. I recommend getting very familiar with the Major Scale.
It’s easier to remember altered scale degrees than it is to learn series’ of intervals.
So perhaps the Major Scale isn’t the only scale you need to know, but if you develop a solid understanding of its intervals, it makes learning all the other musical scales and modes much easier!
I hope this helps those of us who are getting into music theory. This knowledge truly sped up my learning curve of scales and chords.
As always, thank you for reading and for your support,