Scales and Keys

Chromatic scales include 12 evenly spaced tones. The major scale whittles those 12 tones down to seven using a specific pattern. The natural minor scale also includes seven notes but uses a slightly different pattern. The scale upon which a song is based is indicated in a key signature. Major and minor keys that have the same key signature as one another are each other’s relative major and relative minor.

We’ll begin our music theory study with some of the most basic building blocks of tonal music – scales and key signatures.

You might think of scales simply as those annoying things some teacher once demanded you practice. But scales and keys are very important topics for a host of reasons that have nothing to do with rote finger exercises. If you understand them, you’ll suddenly find that it’s much easier to figure out why, for example, a D major chord sounds better than a D minor chord in the bridge of the song you’re writing, or why it makes sense to play F sharps rather than F naturals in that solo you’re practicing.

This information is this chapter is very important, but it’s basic, and it’s widely available at any number of good, and free, music theory sites (such as Teoria). We will therefore proceed rather quickly here. If you already know your scales and keys, feel free to skip ahead a chapter.

Chromatic Scales, Half Steps And Whole Steps

In Western music, we mostly use seven-note scales that include one note representing each letter from A through G (with G then looping back around to A). When we practice these scales, they each span an octave, which is the distance between one C and the next-highest C, or one Eb and the next-highest Eb. Here, for example, are the notes of one such scale. The distance between the C on the left and the C on the right is an octave.


Although there are seven notes in most of our familiar scales, Western music uses 12 possible notes to the octave. To appreciate that, count the number of white and black piano keys between one C and the next, or if you’re a guitarist, note the significance of the 12th fret. Our chromatic scale – which includes every key on the piano or fret on the guitar between one C and the next – has 12 notes.


So how do we whittle the 12 notes of the chromatic scale down to our usual seven-note scale? Before we answer, let’s notice two things.

First, C# and Db, for example, are the same key on the piano, or the same fret and string on the guitar. We call any such pair of notes enharmonic equivalents. Often, we’ll use sharps when going up the chromatic scale, and flats when going down. So our descending chromatic scale might look like this:


Second, note that there are no sharp or flat notes between E and F or between B and C – and yes, that’s weird. (Technically, you can write notes like E# or Cb, but E# is enharmonically equivalent to F and Cb is enharmonically equivalent to B.) If you look at the piano, there are no black keys between E and F or between B and C. It will be important to keep this in mind when we’re constructing scales.

The distance between two pitches is called an interval. The smallest interval we typically use is called a half step, which is the distance between any two adjacent notes on the chromatic scale. C to C# is a half step. So are D# to E, F to Gb, and B to C. (Remember, B to C is a half step because there are no notes in between them.) So, in the diagram below, the distance between one box and the next is a half step.


The next largest interval is called a whole step, which simply means two half steps. In the diagram above, the distances between every other box are whole steps. C to D is a whole step, because C to C# makes one half step and C# to D makes two. E to F# is a whole step, because E to F makes one half step and F to F# makes two.

Quick Quiz 1.1 (answers at bottom of page)

Are the following intervals half steps? Answer yes or no for each.

F to G
E to F
A# to B
Ab to B

Quick Quiz 1.2

Are the following intervals half steps or whole steps?

A to B
B to C
Db to Eb
F# to G
G to G#

The Tonic

The tonic is the main note of a scale, the one our ears want the music to resolve to. When we say that a song is “in the key of” C, C is the tonic.

For example, think about the ending of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The last syllable of the song, “brave,” is on the tonic, the note to which we expect the song to resolve. As a result, the ending feels conclusive.

The tonic is, of course, used elsewhere in the song. A useful way to train your ears to recognize the tonic might be to think about where else it appears. For example, the circled notes in this excerpt are all tonics.


Major Scales

We can construct a major scale based around any tonic. Plenty of music in a variety of genres, from classical to rock to pop, is built around major scales. Although a variety of factors (such as the pacing of the song, or what instruments are used, or exactly how the major scale is deployed) can contribute to a song’s mood, songs built around major scales tend to sound happier than songs built around other types of scales.

Major scales follow this pattern:


So, beginning with the 12 available chromatic notes to the octave, let’s construct a C major scale, eliminating the other notes on the way.


So our C major scale is C D E F G A B C. Now let’s try an Eb major scale.


Note that Eb to F and Bb to C are whole steps because E to F and B to C are half steps, not whole steps. Also note that we choose Ab, rather than the enharmonically equivalent G#, as the name of the fourth scale degree, because we should have one note for each letter name.

That’s the basic pattern. Whatever scale we’re constructing, we’ll use one note for each letter name (that is, one A, A# or Ab; one B or Bb; and so on). Also, we won’t use sharps and flats in the same major scale. Constructing scales requires a bit of practice, but as a shortcut, I’ve included the important major and minor scales in Appendix A.

Quick Quiz 1.3

Name the notes of the following major scales:

Bb major
D major
E major

Natural Minor Scales

Typically (although not always, as we’ll see), pop songs are built around major scales or minor scales. In contrast with major, songs using minor scales will tend to sound darker and sadder, although there are also many pop songs built around minor scales that manage to sound happy or at least ambiguous rather than overtly dark or sad. (In Chapter 7, we’ll discuss the emotional complexities of pop songs built around minor scales.)

There are several types of minor scales, but the important one in pop music is natural minor, for which we use the following pattern.

W     H     W     W     H     W     W

So let’s construct a G natural minor scale.


Now let’s try again, but for B minor.


Another way of approaching a natural minor scale is to take a major scale and lower its third, sixth and seventh notes by one half step each. For example, here’s our F major scale.

F     G     A     Bb    C     D     E     F

To get our F natural minor scale, we’ll lower the third, sixth and seventh notes (A, D and E).

F     G     Ab    Bb    C     Db    Eb    F

Let’s try the same with D major.

Major: D     E     F#    G     A     B     C#    D
Minor: D     E     F      G     A     Bb    C     D

Quick Quiz 1.4

Name the notes of the following natural minor scales:

Bb natural minor
D natural minor
E natural minor


As we’ll see, songs in minor often include notes that aren’t in natural minor scales. Regardless, our key signature – the shorthand at the beginning of a piece of notated music that tells us what key we’re in – will always be based on our major scale (if we’re in major) or our natural minor scale (if we’re in minor).

So let’s return to our B natural minor scale.


Our key signature will indicate two sharps: F# and C#.


Note that F# appears first on the staff, then C#. Regardless of the order in which they appear in a scale, our sharps will always appear in key signatures in the following order:

F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B#

Music theory instructors frequently teach this order with the mnemonic “Father Charles goes down and ends battle.”

For flats, the order is reversed.

Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, Fb

To remember that, we can simply reverse the mnemonic, which gives us, “Battle ends and down goes Charles’ father.” Morbid!

We noted above that the G natural minor scale was G A Bb C D Eb F G. Our key signature for G minor, then, includes two flats, Bb and Eb.


Key signatures also correspond to major scales. For example, the A major scale is A B C# D E F# G# A, so our key signature will include three sharps.


Here’s our key signature for Bb major (Bb C D Eb F G A Bb), which includes two flats. (Bb comes at the beginning and the end, but we only count it once.)


Relative Major / Relative Minor

Notice that our key signature for Bb major is the same as our key signature for G minor.


The fact that two different keys can have the same key signature is tricky. If we’re looking at a piece of music with two flats, we’ll want to hunt for context clues to determine whether it’s in G minor or Bb major. The first and last notes of the piece of music you’re looking at might provide clues.

The fact that two different keys can have the same key signature raises an important point, though. If we remove the first “W” and “H” from the pattern for the natural minor scale (W H W W H W W) and place them at the end of the pattern, we have the same pattern as we used for the major scale (W W H W W W H).


This means that every natural minor scale has a corresponding major scale, and vice versa. The B natural minor scale, for example, has two sharps, and so does D major.


We say, then, that B minor is the relative minor of D major, and D major is the relative major of B minor. That is, to say that one key is another’s relative major or relative minor means that the two keys have the same key signature.

Let’s say we’re in the key of Eb major. To determine our relative minor, we’ll go back two scale degrees.


The relative minor of Eb major, then, is C minor.

Knowing your relative majors and relative minors will come in handy later. Here’s a quick chart to help you remember.

Flats/sharps Major Minor
6 flats Gb major Eb minor
5 flats Db major Bb minor
4 flats Ab major F minor
3 flats Eb major C minor
2 flats Bb major G minor
1 flat F major D minor
0 flats/sharps C major A minor
1 sharp G major E minor
2 sharps D major B minor
3 sharps A major F# minor
4 sharps E major C# minor
5 sharps B major G# minor
6 sharps F# major D# minor

Additional Resources: Teoria,

Next Chapter: Intervals

Quick Quiz Answers

F to G: No, because F# is between F and G.
E to F: Yes, because there is no note between E and F.
A# to B: Yes.
Ab to B: No, because there are two notes between Ab and B: A and A#/Bb.

A to B = whole step
B to C = half step
Db to Eb = whole step
F# to G = half step
G to G# = half step

Bb major = Bb C D Eb F G A Bb (Bb to C is a whole step because there’s only a half step between B and C)
D major = D E F# G A B C# D
E major = E F# G# A B C# D# E


Bb natural minor = Bb C Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb
D natural minor = D E F G A Bb C D
E natural minor = E F# G A B C D E