Put simply, a musical scale is a series of notes in a specific, consecutive order that you can play on the piano or keyboard. Major and minor scales are the two most common types, and they have the following attributes:

  • They’re eight notes long.

  • The top and bottom notes are an octave apart, so they have the same name.

  • The series follows a stepwise pattern up and down, and the name of each note in the scale follows the alphabet up and down.

Each scale gets its own wacky-sounding name, like C major. A scale derives its name from the following two things:

  • The scale’s bottom note, or the tonic. For example, a C major scale starts on C.

  • The stepwise pattern used to create the scale. Music has two kinds of steps — half steps and whole steps — which are the building blocks of scales.

The “major” part of C major means the third note of the scale is a major third above the tonic.

To review for a second, look at your keyboard. As you know by now, some white keys have a black key in between and some don’t. On a piano keyboard

  • Two keys side by side (whether black or white) are one half step apart.

  • Two keys separated by one other key (black or white) are a whole step apart.

  • Two half steps equal one whole step.

When you measure half steps up or down, you help define the black keys as sharps and flats. For example, find any D on your keyboard. Move one half step higher and play the black key to the right, D sharp. Now play one half step lower than D, or D flat.

Knowing these basic facts about scales, you can build any scale starting on any root note simply by applying the correct scale pattern (or combination of whole and half steps).