There may be nothing more mundane, in music, than the Major scale. Everyone’s heard of it and everyone knows what it is (at least as much as they can sing do-re-mi). But, there are several facets to the Major scale that often get overlooked by beginner and intermediate guitar students and this article will help you develop a much deeper (and more appreciative) relationship with this common musical formula.
Representation of Nature
The first thing you want to know about the Major scale is that it is directly descended from the fixed laws of nature. Musicians have a name for the first note of the Major scale. We call it the “root” or the “tonic”. This note (whatever the scale happens to be) has much more meaning than a handy name for the scale (for example “C Major”). The “tonic” is a specific resonance (or frequency) that gives birth to a series of other frequencies. All of those “child” frequencies are called harmonics and they are determined by the laws of physics. They also happen to constitute several of the notes within major scale. For example, did you know that if you play a “C” on your guitar that your string will also resonate with a mathematically precise D, E and G? Those notes are IN the C Major Scale! The E and G are of particular importance because along with “C” these three notes create a sacred musical construct – the Major Triad.
Consonance and Dissonance Are Not Subjective
If you hear two voices sing the same pitch, you’ll likely find the outcome pleasing and sonorous… The most common term that has been assigned to describe that pleasing sonority is “Consonance”. The opposite tends to be referred to as “Dissonance”. Consonance and Dissonance are important and helpful characteristics that we can use to craft music for specific emotional contexts. For example, while a horror movie’s tense scenes could be enhanced with dissonant music, the final escape from a haunted house could be enhanced with consonant music. While the effect on consonance and dissonance may have subjective influence, the relationships of certain pitches have objective consonance or dissonance – based on the relationship between pitches (a.k.a. frequencies).
Guitar Scales are Key Agnostic
One of the first tasks in guitar lessons (and any instrument lesson, really) is learning to play the Major scale. But, this is much more efficient on the guitar than many other instruments. This is because the guitar is uniquely designed to ensure that any musical pattern (scales included) can simply be transposed from one key to another by moving it (unchanged) around the fretboard. For example, if I can successfully teach one of my guitar students to play the C Major scale on the guitar then I’ve effectively taught them EVERY Major scale. This is unique to the guitar. The same repeatability will apply to any physical construct on the fretboard… chords, arpeggios, modes, etc.
Modes = Major Scale
Learning the Major Scale isn’t difficult, but it is very important. I provides us with good ear training in addition to good dexterity training. As long as you’re playing a tuned guitar, practicing the Major scale will effectively train your ear to “hear” musical relationships much more precisely. The Guitar allows for the same pitch to be played in multiple locations on the fretboard. This means that guitar players can play the same major scale in multiple locations on the fretboard, too. Generally, the larger community of guitarists and guitar teachers have settled on 5 scale shapes (or scale patterns) that lay out in a predictable pattern across the fretboard. Helpfully, these 5 “shapes” are also equal to the famous “guitar modes” that so many guitarists covet :). The helpful tip here is: learning the 5 shapes will double as learning all the modes!
Tones Always Convey the Same Emotion
Here’s an experiment you should do…
- Play a C Major chord into a looper (or have a friend play it over and over for you).
- Next, play the note D “over” the C Major chord and listen… I like to say this tone sounds “curious” (maybe even “optimistic”).
- Now play a D Major chord and play an E “over” the D Mjor chord and listen…
Do you hear that? This tone has the same “curious/optimistic” personality! What does this mean? Well, it means that the second scale degree (D is the second scale degree in C Major and E is the second scale degree in D Major) conveys the same emotion. In this case, I call it “curious”. You may think of a better word for it, but you’ll find it is a consistent personality in any key.
This does NOT mean that D or E have a static personality. It DOES mean that the second scale degree in the Major scale has a static personality, though. Once you make this discovery and get to know the 7 tone identities in the Major scale, you’ll find it much easier to write or improvise melodies (a.k.a. solos) that convey specific emotions.
That’s it… for now! I hope it’s clear that the major scale offers guitarists a chance to dig deep into what makes music sound and feel the way it does. It is one of the first things I cover in most private guitar lessons, but it’s also something that I’ll revisit again and again as students progress. Practically every important skill in music has roots (no pun intended) in the Major scale. I highly recommend digging as deep as you can. This article suggests 5 important relationships:
- The harmonic series
- Consonance and Dissonance
- Fretboard Patterns
- Guitar Modes
- Tone Identities
Please leave comments about which facets of the Major scale you find most helpful, instructive or interesting! Thanks for reading 🙂