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Welcome to Music Theory for the Songwriter!!

Theory Lesson 1: Scales

I don't know how much you know so bear with me as I'm going to start from the beginning.....using my own words, in my understanding of things.

In these lessons I use the # sign to mean sharp...and the small letter b to mean flat.

If you start from C, and play all the notes up to the next C, you'll be playing 8 notes which are called an octave. 'Oct' meaning 8. (c,d,e,f,g,a,b,c)

When every note within one octave is played in is a 'scale'. (although more than one octave can be in the scale... c,d,e,f,g,a,b,c,d,e,f,g,a,b,c) A scale usually goes up in order...then back down in order. (c,d,e,f,g,a,b, c, b,a,g,f,e,d,c)

There are different types of scales. First let's look at the Chromatic scale. It goes up a half step at a time, and then back down a half step at a time. Going up this scale, we use sharps but going down this scale we use flats. Sharps raise a note by a half step. Flats lower a note by a half step. So if you want to raise a 'c' by a half step it would become a c#. But if you want to lower a D by a half step it would become a Db. Notice that C# and Db are the same note in sound. It's name depends on whether you lowered a D or raised a C. If you want to lower a 'c' by a half step it becomes a 'cb' (c flat). If you lower a c# by a half step it becomes a 'c'.

On a guitar every fret is a half step each. (a whole step is 2 frets...2 half steps make a whole step) On a keyboard a half step is the very next key...whether it is black or white...two keys whether black or white make one whole step.

The chromatic scale ascending: c, c#, d, d#, e, f, f#, g, g#, a, a#, b, c (from c to c (an octave) is 12 half steps....12 half steps in an octave)

The Chromatic scale descending: c, b, bb(B flat), a, ab, g, gb, f, e, eb, d, db, c

Scales that go up a whole step at a time (from c to d) are called whole tone scales.(there may be other names for this one though). Diatonic scales use each letter name only once. (there can't be both C and C# in a Diatonic scale....but there can be a C and a Db). Play C# then Db and see that they are the same sound.

On a keyboard all the black keys are flat keys or sharp keys.

You may have noticed that there are some notes that have two names then...depending on which direction you went. F# is the same as Gb....they are two names for the same sound....they are both halfway between F and G. This is called 'enharmonic'.

Two examples are: F (F#/Gb) G and C (C#/Db) D

F# and Gb are enharmonic notes. C# and Db are enharmonic notes.

Then there are scales which are a mixture of whole and half steps. The Major scales and the minor scales are the most common. The first note in a scale is the name of that scale. If a scale starts with is the scale of is also the 'key' of C. The first note in a scale is also called the 'tonic' note...and the 'first degree' of the scale. The scale of C in degree numbers would be:

c d e f g a b c
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1

So the note c is the first degree...the note d is the second degree...etc.

The easiest key to learn from (on a keyboard anyway) is the key of C. (the Major scale of C) There is a definate pattern there and it has no sharps or flats. When you play that scale, you won't need to play any flats or sharps. On a keyboard this would be only the white keys.

So the key of C goes: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C I don't know what that is like on the guitar.....but play them and see if you can tell that the half steps go like this:

W, W, H, W, W, W, H     (H = Half step  and   W = Whole step)

From C to D is a   Whole step 
From D to E is a   Whole step 
from E to F is a   Half  step 
from F to G is a   Whole step 
from G to A is a   Whole step 
from A to B is a   Whole step 
from B to C is a   Half  step 

It is very helpful to memorize this W and H step pattern. This pattern is the same for any Major key. So if you want to find the right notes for the key of D Major, use the W W H W W W H pattern:

Start at D 
a W from D  is E 
a W from E  is F# 
a H from F# is G 
a W from G  is A 
a W from A  is B 
a W from B  is C#
a H from C# is D 

So the scale for the key of D is: D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D. The Key of D has two sharps...F and C are played sharp.


For your homework find the scales for the keys G, F and Bb. To check your answers, click here.

Just remember that every note in the scale must be a different letter name. (Diatonic)
One way to help remember the difference between Diatonic half steps and Chromatic half steps:

C and C# are Chromatic half steps....Common letter names.
C for Chromatic & C for Common.

C and Db are Diatonic half steps...Different letter names.
D for Diatonic & D for Different.

Email me with any questions on this lesson. (Please refer to this lesson)

Theory Lessons

Theory Lesson 2: Key Signatures
Theory Lesson 3: Intervals
Theory Lesson 4: Chord Formation
Theory Lesson 5: Modes

Other Theory Links

Jason's Theory Page
(more to come)

Back: to the TakeCourage homepage.

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