Playing the Piano: The Major and Minor Musical Scales

The two scales you use most frequently when you play the piano — and the most famous scales in Western music — are the major and the minor scales. You can make a major and a minor scale starting with any note on the piano. The difference between these two scales is the pattern of whole- and half-steps that you use to build them.

Understanding major scales

Every major scale is built the same way. The ascending step pattern used by all major scales on the planet is: Whole-Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Whole-Half.

For example, you can form a C major scale by starting on C and applying this pattern. Play any C, and then play the pattern of whole-steps and half-steps all the way to the next C. Starting with C, the layout of the white keys follows the scale pattern exactly, so you play the entire C major scale on white keys only.

Stick with the white keys to play the C major scale.
Stick with the white keys to play the C major scale.

Pass your thumb under and cross over your thumb in the appropriate spots in order to successfully play up and down the scale.

When playing most scales up and down, it’s important to realize that the scale pattern is exactly reversed on the way down. All you have to do is remember which keys you played going up and then play the same ones in reverse order going down.

Now for something slightly different: Start on G and apply the major scale pattern. When you get to the sixth step, notice that a whole-step up from E requires playing a black key, F-sharp:

Make use of F-sharp for a G major scale.
Make use of F-sharp for a G major scale.

The tonic note and scale pattern determine which notes are sharps and which are flats. G major uses one sharp. How about a major scale that uses one flat? If you start on F and apply the pattern to build yourself the F major scale, you use B-flat and a new fingering pattern.

The F major scale uses B-flat.
The F major scale uses B-flat.

In the F major scale, the fourth note is called B-flat, not A-sharp because the third note of the scale is A.

“Joy to the World” opens with a complete descending C major scale and continues with an ascending pattern from the fifth degree of the scale (or fifth note) up to the eighth to end the phrase.

A joyful melody made from a major scale.
A joyful melody made from a major scale.

Exploring minor variations

Minor scales are no less important or any smaller in size than major scales. Like major scales, minor scales have eight notes with the top and bottom (tonic) notes having the same name. But minor scales have their own, unique scale patterns.

Natural minor scales

The ascending pattern of a natural minor scale is Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Half-Whole-Whole. It may look similar to the major scale pattern, but this slight rearrangement of half- and whole-steps makes all the difference in the world. Compare the C major scale, followed immediately by the C minor scale:

Major and minor C scales.
Major and minor C scales.

Harmonic minor scales

The harmonic minor scale differs from the natural minor scale by only one half-step, but in making that slight change, you achieve a scale with a whole new sound. The complete pattern for an ascending harmonic minor scale is: Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Half-1½ -Half

For example, to play the A harmonic minor scale, follow these steps:

  1. Start out playing the A natural minor scale.

  2. When you get to the seventh note, G, raise it one half-step to G-sharp.

    This change makes the distance from the sixth to the seventh scale degree one and a half steps and gives the harmonic minor scale its unique sound.

Melodic minor scales

Another variation on the minor scale is the melodic minor scale, which is notable (forgive the pun) because it has a different pattern depending on whether you’re going up the scale or coming down. That’s right — a chameleon-like scale that ascends one way and descends another. This flexibility is useful when you want the scale to sound, you guessed it, melodic.

The sixth and seventh degrees of the scale are raised a half-step ascending and are lowered a half-step descending. You probably recognized that the descending scale is identical to the natural minor scale, so only the ascending pattern is really new: Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Whole-Whole-Half.

The A melodic minor scale.
The A melodic minor scale.
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