I. Fundamentals

Major Scales, Scale Degrees, and Key Signatures

Chelsey Hamm and Bryn Hughes

Key Takeaways

  • A major  is an ordered collection of half- and whole-steps with the ascending succession W-W-H-W-W-W-H
  • Major scales are named for their first note, which is also their last note. Be sure to include any accidentals that apply to this note in its name.
  • are syllables notated by with , angled brackets, above them.
  • syllables are another method of naming notes in a major scale. The syllables are Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, and and Ti.
  • Each note of a major scale is also named with . The first note of a major scale is called the tonic; the second note, the supertonic, followed by the mediant, subdominant, dominant, submediant, and leading tone.
  • , consisting of either or , appears at the beginning of a composition, after a clef but before a time signature.
  • The order of sharps in key signatures is F, C, G, D, A, E, and B, while the order of flats is the opposite: B, E, A, D, G, C, F. In sharp key signatures, the last sharp is a half-step below the tonic (the first note of a scale). In flat key signatures, the second-to-last flat is the tonic.
  • The is a convenient visual for remembering major key signatures. All of the major key signatures are placed on a circle, in order of number of accidentals.

A is an ordered collection of half- and whole-steps (see Chapter 5: Half- and Whole-steps; Accidentals; The Black Keys of the Piano to review half- and whole-steps).

Major Scales

A is an ordered collection of half- (abbreviated H) and whole-steps (abbreviated W) in the following ascending succession: W-W-H-W-W-W-H. Listen to Example 1 to hear a major scale, ascending:

An ascending major scale in treble clef, consisting of the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and C
Example 1. An ascending major scale

In Example 1 the whole-steps are labeled with square brackets (and Ws), and the half-steps are labeled with angled brackets (and Hs). A major scale always starts and ends on notes of the same letter name, which should be an apart. In Example 1 the first note is C and the last note is C. Major scales are named for their first and last note. Example 1 depicts a C major scale because its first and last note is a C. Always be sure to include the accidental of the first and last note when you name a scale. Example 2 shows this:

A B-flat major scale is shown consisting of the notes B-flat, C, D, E-flat, F, G, A, and B-flat
Example 2. A B-flat major scale

The first and last note in Example 2 is a B♭. Therefore Example 2 is a B♭ (B-flat) major scale. You must say and write the flat, because B is different from the note B♭. Note that the pattern of half- and whole-steps is the same in every major scale, as shown in Examples 1 and 2.

Scale Degrees, Solfège, and Scale-degree Names

Musicians name the notes of major scales in several different ways. are syllables notated by with , angled brackets, above them. The first note of a scale is \hat{1} and the numbers ascend until the last note of a scale, which is also usually \hat{1} (although some instructors prefer \hat{8}). Example 1 shows a D major scale with its letter names labeled (using ASPN):

A D major scale is shown in Treble clef. ASP Notation, scale degrees, and solfege are labeled.
Example 1. A D major scale

Each scale degree is labeled with an Arabic numeral and a caret in Example 1. syllables are another method of naming notes in a major scale. The syllables Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, and Ti can be applied to the first seven notes of any major scale. The last note is Do, because it is a repetition of the first note. Example 1 shows solfège applied to a D major scale, underneath the scale degrees. Because Do changes depending on what the first note of a major scale is, this method of solfège is called This is in contrast to
a solmization system, in which Do is always the pitch class C. Each note of a major scale is also named with . The first note of a major scale is called the tonic; the second note, the supertonic, followed by the mediant, subdominant, dominant, submediant, leading tone, and tonic:

Scale Degree Number Solfège Scale Degree Name
1 Do Tonic
2 Re Supertonic
3 Mi Mediant
4 Fa Subdominant
5 Sol Dominant
6 La Submediant
7 Ti Leading Tone
1 Do Tonic

Scale Degree Names

Example 2 shows these Scale-degree Names applied to an A♭ major scale, with half- and whole-steps labeled:

Scale-Degree names (tonic, supertonic, mediant, subdominant, dominant, subdominant, leading tone, and tonic) have been applied to an a-flat major scale
Example 2. An A♭ major scale with Scale-Degree Names

Example 2 shows the notes of the A♭ major scale in order. Example 3 shows the notes of the A♭ major scale out of order, with Scale-degree Names:

The notes of the A-flat major scale are rearranged to show how the names of the scale-degrees derived
Example 3. The notes of the A♭ major scale have been rearranged

In Example 3, the numbers and arrows above the staff indicate above and below the tonic. This example shows how the names of the scale degrees derived. The Latin prefix “super” means above, so the supertonic is a generic second above the tonic. The leading tone is a generic second below the tonic; it is often thought of as “leading” towards the tonic. The Latin prefix “sub” means below; therefore, the mediant is a generic third above the tonic, while the submediant is a generic third below the tonic. Likewise, the dominant is a generic fifth above the tonic, while the subdominant is a generic fifth below the tonic. It is a common misconception that the subdominant is so named because it is a generic second below the dominant, but this is not true, as demonstrated in Example 3.

Key Signatures

, consisting of either or , appears at the beginning of a composition, after a clef but before a time signature. You can remember this order because it is alphabetical: clef, key, time. Example 4 shows a key signature, after a bass clef but before a time signature:

A bass clef is shown on a staff, followed by a three-flat key signature, and a 4/4 time signature.
Example 4. A key signature goes after a clef, but before a time signature

Major key signatures collect the accidentals in a major scale and place them at the beginning of a composition so that it is easier to keep track of which notes have accidentals applied to them. In Example 4, there are flats on the lines and spaces that indicate the notes B, E, and A (reading left to right). Every B, E, and A in a composition with this key signature, will now be flat, regardless of octave. Example 5 demonstrates this:

There are 2 Bbs in different octaves, Bb2 and Bb3
Example 5. Both Bs are flat, regardless of octave

In Example 5, both of these Bs will be flat, because B♭ is in the key signature. All of the Bs, Es, and As after this key signature will be flat, regardless of their octave. There are flat key signatures and sharp key signatures. The order of the flats and sharps and key signatures is the same, regardless of clef. Example 6 shows the order of sharps and flats in all
four clefs that we have learned:

The order of sharps and flats in treble, bass, alto, and tenor clefs.
Example 6. The order of sharps and flats in treble, bass, alto, and tenor clefs

The order of sharps is always F, C, G, D, A, E, B. This can be remembered with the mnemonic: Fat Cats Go Down Alleys (to) Eat Birds. Notice that sharps are always played on the same lines and spaces, making a somewhat zig-zag pattern, alternating going down and up. In the treble, bass, and alto clefs, this pattern “breaks” after D♯, and then resumes. In tenor clef, there is no break, but F♯ and G♯ appear in the lower octave instead of the upper octave. The order of the flats is the opposite of the order of the sharps: B, E, A, D, G, C, F. This makes the order of flats and sharps palindromes. The order of flats can be remembered with this mnemonic: Birds Eat and Dive Going Crazy Far. The flats always make a perfect zig-zag pattern, alternating going up and down, regardless of clef, as seen in Example 6. There are easy ways to remember which key signature belongs to which major scale. In sharp key signatures, the last sharp is a half-step below the tonic (the first note of a scale). Example 7 shows a few sharp key signatures in different clefs:

A one-sharp key signature in treble clef, a three-sharp key signature in bass clef, and a six-sharp key signature in Alto Clef
Example 7. Three different sharp key signatures in treble, bass, and alto clefs

The first key signature in Example 7 is in treble clef. The
last sharp (in this case the only sharp), F♯, is a half-step below the note G. Therefore, this is the key signature of G major. The second key signature in Example 7 is in bass clef. The last sharp, G♯, is a half-step below the note A. Therefore, this is the key signature of A major. The third key signature in Example 7 is in alto clef. The last sharp, E♯, is a half-step below the note F♯. Therefore, this is the key signature of F♯ major. In flat key signatures, the second-to-last flat is the tonic (the first note of a scale). Example 8 shows a few flat key signatures in different clefs:

A two-flat key signature after a bass clef, a four-flat key signature after a treble clef, and a six-flat key signature after a tenor clef.
Example 8. Three different flat key signatures in bass, treble, and tenor clefs

The first key signature in Example 8 is in bass clef. The second-to-last flat in this key signature is B♭. Therefore, this is the key signature of B♭ major. The second key signature in Example 8 is in treble clef, and its second-to-last flat is A♭. Therefore, this is the key signature of A♭ major. The third key signature in Example 8 is in tenor clef, and its second-to-last flat is G♭. Therefore, this is the key signature of G♭ major. There are two key signatures that have no “tricks” that you will simply have to memorize. These are C major, which has nothing in its key signature (no sharps or flats), and F major, which has one flat (B♭). Example 9 shows these key signatures, the first in treble clef and the second in bass clef:

A treble clef is shown with a blank key signature, and a one-flat key signature is shown after a bass clef.
Example 9. The key of C major (treble clef) and F major (bass clef)

Example 10 shows all of the sharp key signatures in order:

All sharp key signatures are shown in treble, bass, alto, and tenor clefs
Example 10. The key signatures of C, G, D, A, E, B, F♯, and C♯ in all four clefs

Example 10 first shows the key signature of C major (with no sharps or flats), and then the key signatures of C, G, D, A, E, B, F♯, and C♯ in all four clefs.Example 11 shows all of the flat key signatures in order:

All of the flat key signatures, first in treble, bass, alto, and tenor clefs.
Example 11. The key signatures of C, F, B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭, G♭, and C♭ in all four clefs

Example 11 first shows the key signature of C major (with no sharps or flats), and then the key signatures of F, B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭, G♭, and C♭ in all four clefs. There is one other “trick” which might make memorization of the key signatures easier. C major is the key signature with no sharps or flats, C♭ is the key signature with every note flat (7 flats total), and C♯ is the key signature with every note sharp (7 sharps total). Major key signatures are said to be “real” if they are one of the key signatures in Examples 10 or 11. If a double accidental is needed for a key signature (such as a  or ), then a major key signature is said to be “imaginary.” Example 12 shows an F♭ major scale:

An F-flat major scale is shown in treble clef
Example 12. An F♭ major scale in treble clef

This F♭ major scale and its associated key signature are imaginary because there is a B𝄫. Occasionally, you may perform a composition which is in an imaginary key.

The Circle of Fifths

The is a convenient visual. All of the major key signatures are placed on a circle, in order of number of accidentals. Example 13 shows the circle of fifths for major key signatures:

Major key signatures are placed around a circle in order of the number of their accidentals
Example 13. The circle of fifths for major keys

If you start at the top of the circle (12 o’clock), the key signature of C major appears, which has no sharps or flats. If you continue clockwise, sharp key signatures appear, each subsequent key signature adding one more sharp. If you continue from C major counter-clockwise, flat key signatures appear, each subsequent key signature adding one more flat. The bottom three key signatures (at 7, 6, and 5 o’clock) in Example 13 are . For example, B major and C♭ major scales will sound the same because B and C♭ are enharmonic. However, B and C♭ major scales have different key signatures—the former (B) is a five sharp key, while the latter (C♭) is a seven flat key.

Online Resources
Assignments from the Internet
  1. Writing major scales
  2. Writing major scales from tonic and other scale degrees (.pdf)
  3. Writing major scales (.pdf)
  4. Identifying major scales (.pdf)
  5. Adding accidentals to major scales (.pdf)
  6. Writing major key signatures (.pdf)
  7. Writing and identifying major key signatures (.pdf)
  8. Identifying major key signatures (.pdf)
  9. Major keys worksheets for children (.pdf)
  10. Scale degrees in major (.pdf)
  11. Solfege or scale degree writing
  12. Solfege or scale degree writing (.pdf)
  13. Scale degree names (.pdf)
  14. Chromatic scales (print here)
Assignments
  1. Writing Major Scales (.pdf, .mscx). Asks students to write ascending major scales.
  2. Key Signatures: Major (.pdf, .mscx). Asks students to write and identify major key signatures.

Media Attributions

  • Major Scale © Chelsey Hamm is licensed under a Public Domain license
  • B-flat Major Scale © Chelsey Hamm is licensed under a Public Domain license
  • Scale Degrees and Solfege © Bryn Hughes is licensed under a Public Domain license
  • Scale-Degree Names © Chelsey Hamm is licensed under a Public Domain license
  • Scale-Degree Names by Interval © Chelsey Hamm is licensed under a Public Domain license
  • Key Signature © Chelsey Hamm is licensed under a Public Domain license
  • Key Signature Application © Chelsey Hamm is licensed under a Public Domain license
  • Order of Sharps and Flats © Chelsey Hamm is licensed under a Public Domain license
  • Sharp Key Signatures Examples © Chelsey Hamm is licensed under a Public Domain license
  • Flat Key Signature Examples © Chelsey Hamm is licensed under a Public Domain license
  • C and F Major Key Signatures © Chelsey Hamm is licensed under a Public Domain license
  • All Sharp Key Signatures © Chelsey Hamm is licensed under a Public Domain license
  • All Flat Key Signatures © Chelsey Hamm is licensed under a Public Domain license
  • F-flat Major Scale © Chelsey Hamm is licensed under a Public Domain license
  • Circle of Fifths © Bryn Hughes is licensed under a Public Domain license

License

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Open Music Theory by Chelsey Hamm and Bryn Hughes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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