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Major Scales (Part 1): Steps and half-steps
By Debbie Ridpath Ohi - 06/04/2007 - 11:06 AM EDT

In the past months, we've discussed some of the fundamentals of music theory, like basic time rhythms, names of the lines and spaces on the treble and bass clef.

The next topic we're going to discuss is the major scale. Knowing about scales is massively useful for a songwriter. There are many different types of scales, but the most commonly used scales are major scales and minor scales.

Chances are good that you already know what a major scale sounds like. Think back to your grade school days, when your music teacher taught you how to sing "doh - ray - me - fah - so - la - ti - doh"? That was a major scale. Julie Andrews sang about the major scale in the Rogers & Hammerstein movie, The Sound Of Music ("Doh, a deer, a female deer....ray, a drop of golden sun...")

When you sing "doh - ray - me - fah - so - la - ti - doh", you're singing an ascending major scale. If you start at the top and sing your way back down ("doh - ti - la - so - fah - me - ray - doh"), you're singing a descending major scale. I know this is pretty obvious, but I just want to make sure we're all familiar with the basic terms.

Every scale is composed of a specific patterns of whole steps and half-steps. Sometimes these are referred to as tones and semi-tones. One whole step is made up of two half-steps.

For guitar players: Think of each line on the fretboard representing a half-step. Try the following exercise...Pick a string, then place your finger on the first fret. Play the string. Move your finger up another fret (a half-step) and play the string again. Repeat this process, moving up the fretboard.

Or you could think of a piano keyboard:

Now imagine that the bottom half has been cut off, so you're left with just the top half of the keyboard:

Imagine that you are playing each note starting from the one on the left, then across until you hit the black note on the far right (i.e. black, white, white, black, white, black, white, white, black). Each note that you play is a half-step higher than the one before.

If you have access to a piano, then you can try actually playing this. Be sure to focus on the top half of the keyboard, else you may not be playing half-steps. Example:

In the example above, playing the C note followed by the D note is a WHOLE step, not a half-step. Why? Because of the black note that is between C and D.

On a guitar, you can play a whole step by moving your finger up two frets instead of just one.

Still confused? Don't worry. For now, just remember that two half-steps make a whole step.

NEXT MONTH: We'll take a look at how steps and half-steps make up a major scale.

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