Music Theory Lesson on Scales and Intervals

Karen Frazier
Treble clef and notes

Scales, chords, and intervals form the basis of music. Learning intervals and scales is essential to developing musical skills, and is an important part in the study of any musical instrument.

Key Signatures

In order to understand scales, you must first understand key signatures. Key signatures are named for the note on which the scale starts and ends (the root of the scale). For example, a scale with a key signature of C will have a root of C. Key signatures tell you which notes in the scale you should play sharp or flat. On a music staff, the key signature is noted at the left side of each line of staff, after the clef and before the time signature.

Order of Sharps and Flats

C major and A minor are the only scales that have no sharps or flats. Every other scale has either sharps or flats in the key signature. Sharps raise a note by a half step. They are added to both major and minor key signatures in the following order:

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

Flats lower a note by a half step. They are added to both major and minor key signatures in the following order:

B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭, G♭, C♭

Circle of Fifths

You can determine how many sharps or flats a scale has using the circle of fifths. To use the circle of fifths to determine how many sharps or flats a major key signature has:

  1. Start with C major, which has no sharps or flats.
  2. Count to the fifth note of that scale, which is G.
  3. Add one sharp to that key signature. In other words, the key of G major has one sharp, which is F#.
  4. Now begin with G and count to the fifth note of that scale and add another sharp. The fifth note is the key of D. The key of D major has two sharps, F# and G#.
  5. Continue this way until you have reached the key signature that has 6 sharps, which is the key of F# major.
  6. If you look at the piano keyboard, you'll notice that F# and G♭ are the same note. G♭ major is the key signature that has six flats, which are B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭, G♭, C♭.
  7. Count up to the fifth note of the G♭ major scale. The note is D♭. Subtract one flat from the key signature. Therefore, the key of D♭ major has five flats, which are B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭, G♭.
  8. Continue moving up by fifths, subtracting one flat for each key signature. Eventually you will wind up with the key of F major, which has one flat, B♭.

The circle of fifths works with minor keys, as well. To use the circle of fifths with minor keys, follow the instructions above, but instead of starting with C, start with the key of A, which is the minor scale that has no flats or sharps.

Scales

There are several types of musical scales. The most basic scales are chromatic, major, and minor scales in each key signature.

Half Steps and Whole Steps

keyboard

Scales are made up of half steps and whole steps. You can best visualize the difference between a half step and a whole step by picturing a piano keyboard. On the keyboard, you will notice there are black keys and white keys.

  • It is a half step to go from a black key to an adjacent white key, or from a white key to an adjacent black key.
  • It is a whole step to go from one black key to an adjacent black key, unless there are two white keys in between black keys.
  • It is a whole step to go from one white key to an adjacent white key as long as there is a black key in between.
  • It is a half step to go from one white key to an adjacent white key if there is no black key in between.

Whole steps, also known as whole tones, are basic notes. Half steps or half tones are sharps and flats.

Chromatic Scales

A chromatic scale is a scale in half steps. Chromatic scales start and end on the same note, and include every note in between. A basic chromatic scale is one octave, although you can extend them to as many octaves as you like.

The table below shows examples.

Scale Notes Music Notation
C Chromatic C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C
C chromatic scale
B Flat Chromatic B♭, B, C, D♭, D, E♭, E, F, G♭, G, A♭, A, B♭
B flat chromatic scale

Major Scales

Major scales consist of eight notes in an octave. The scale is named for the note you start and end on. Regardless of the note you start on, major scales use the following combination of half (H) and whole (W) steps:

  • W, W, H, W, W, W, H

Major scales have the same notes on the way up (ascending) as they have on the way down (descending). The table below shows examples of ascending major scales.

Scale Notes Music Notation
C Major C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
C Major Scale
E♭ Major E♭, F, G, A♭, B♭, C, D, E♭
e flat major scale
G Major G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G
G Major Scale

Minor Scales

There are three types of minor scales: natural, harmonic, and melodic. Minor scales are similar to major scales, but the third step is lowered a half step.

Minor Scale Ascending Notes Descending Notes
Natural W, H, W, W, H, W, W W, W, H, W, W, H, W
Harmonic W, H, W, W, H, 1 1/2 steps, H H, 1 1/2 steps, H, W, W, H, W
Melodic W, H, W, W, W, W, H W, W, H, W, W, H, W

Note that the melodic minor is different on the way down than the way up. Examples are shown in the table below.

Scale A minor E minor
Natural
A minor natural scale

Ascending: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A

Descending: A, G, F, E, D, C, B, A

E natural minor scale

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

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

Harmonic
A minor harmonic scale

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

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

E Harmonic MInor Scale

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

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

Melodic
A Minor Harmonic scale

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

Descending: A, G, F, E, D, C, B, A

E Melodic Minor Scale

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

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

Intervals

An interval is the distance between the root of a major scale (the note it starts on) and another note on the scale.

Major and Perfect Intervals

Major and perfect intervals are naturally occurring intervals within a major scale. Major intervals are the second, third, sixth, and seventh. Perfect intervals are the fourth and fifth.

For example, in the C major scale, intervals are as follows:

Root Note on Scale Interval Number of Half Steps Music Notation
C D Major Second 2 half steps
Major 2nd intrval
E Major Third 4 half steps
Major 3rd Interval
F Perfect Fourth 5 half steps
Perfect 4th Interval
G Perfect Fifth 7 half steps
Perfect 5th Interval
A Major Sixth 9 half steps
Major 6th Interval
B Major Seventh 11 half steps
Major 7th Interval
C Octave 12 half steps
Octave

Minor Intervals

Minor intervals have one half step less between the root and the corresponding note than those in a major interval would. Minor intervals only transform major intervals, not perfect intervals. Therefore, you will only find minor seconds, thirds, sixths, and sevenths.

For example, in the C scale, minor intervals are as follows:

Root Note on Scale Interval Number of Half Steps Music Notation
C D♭ Minor Second 1 half step
Minor 2nd Interval
E♭ Minor Third 3 half steps
Minor 3rd Interval
A Minor Sixth

8 half steps

Minor 6th Interval
B♭ Minor Seventh 10 half steps
Minor 7th Interval

Augmented Intervals

Augmented intervals have one half step more between the root and the corresponding note than those in a perfect interval. Only perfect intervals can be augmented. Therefore, only the fourth and the fifth can be augmented.

For example, in the C scale, augmented intervals are as follows:

Root Note on Scale Interval Number of Half Steps Music Notation
C F# Augmented Fourth 6 half steps
Augmented 4th interval
G# Augmented Fifth 8 half steps
Augmented 5th Interval

Diminished Intervals

A diminished interval has one half step less between the root and the corresponding note in a perfect interval. Perfect and minor intervals can be diminished.

Below are examples of diminished intervals in the C scale.

Root Note on Scale Interval Number of Half Steps Music Notation
C E♭♭ Diminished Minor Third 2 half steps
diminished minor 3rd interval
F♭ Diminished Fourth 4 half steps
Diminished 4th Interval
G♭ Diminished Fifth 6 half steps
Diminished 5th Interval
A♭♭ Diminished Minor Sixth 7 half steps
Diminished Minor 6th Interval
B♭♭ Diminished Minor Seventh 9 half steps
Diminished minor 7th interval

Practice to Learn

To help you study the concepts contained in this scales and intervals lesson, download and print this practice worksheet. The worksheet us made up of questions based on the lesson, and the answers are included with the download, but on a separate page. To print:

  1. Click on the image of the worksheet below to open the PDF file in a new window or tab.
  2. Download and save the file to use later, or print it out right away.
Scales and intervals worksheet thumbnail

A Foundation for Music

Learning scales and intervals lays the foundation for musicianship. As you master how scales and intervals are formed, you can translate this knowledge into any key signature and apply it to any instrument.

Music Theory Lesson on Scales and Intervals