Saturday, 9 March 2013

Confession #8 - Learn the Major Scale! (Warm-Up! - Exercise #2)

The major scale pattern is the single most important bit of music theory you will ever learn.  It is the foundation upon which everything else is built.  So it is critical for your development as a musician that you learn this pattern.

If you've seen The Sound of Music, or even if you haven't, then you are familiar with the sound of:


This is the sound of the major scale pattern.


In Confession #5 - Use a Metronome!, I talked about how the piano is an excellent tool for learning music theory, and showed a picture of the C major scale on the piano keyboard:

The first C is the root note of the scale (the one on the left).  The second C is called the octave (the one on the right).  If the frequency of the first C is 200Hz (Hz or Hertz means cycles per second), then the frequency of the second C is 400Hz, exactly twice is fast (see Confession #3 - Set-up your Guitar! for more on the octave).  So when you play the octave of any particular note, the frequency of the sound vibration is twice as fast.

The octave of any particular root note has a fundamental sameness as the root note. This is why it is given the same name.  It's pitch may be higher, but it has the same quality as its root note.  Thus, we will only find unique notes between a root note and its octave.

For reasons that are unknown to me, it was decided long ago that the octave should be divided up into 12 notes (well... actually, there are reasons in physics for this).  Start at the first C and count all the keys up to and including the B.  You'll find 12 notes.

For further reasons that are also unknown to me, it was decided long ago that we would ignore 5 of these 12 notes, leaving 7 notes to form the major scale. I don't think physics is to blame for this.

Notice that some of the notes of the scale have a black key between them, and others do not.  This pattern of white and black keys makes up the major scale pattern, which in the key of C is:


Whole Steps and Half Steps

Since we want to be able to play in all musical keys and not just the key of C, we need a way to describe the major scale pattern that will allow us to find it in other keys.  We do this by describing that major scale as a series of whole steps and half steps like this:


...where W means a whole step and H means a half-step.  

On the Piano

On the piano, a W means move up two keys (regardless of colour) and H means move up one key (regardless of colour).  If you start on the first C on the keyboard above, and apply this pattern, you will hit all the white keys and finish on the octave, like this:

C -W- D -W- E -H- F -W- -W- -W- -H- C

On the Guitar

On the guitar W means move up two frets and H means move up one fret.  So, on the guitar fretboard, the pattern looks like this:

If we tuned our 6th string to a C, then starting with the open string (i.e. the root), this pattern would give us the C major scale.  Of course, our 6th string is actually tuned to an E, so playing this pattern actually gives us the E major scale:  E - F# - G# - A - B - C# - D# - E.

Tip: Applying scale patterns to open strings helps us visualize the pattern better then staying in one position and changing strings as we move up the sale.  Use this technique when learning new scales.

Now in practice, we rarely play a entire scale on just one string (but it can be quite effective - The Cure's "Just Like Heaven" uses a descending scale pattern on the 2nd string for one of its lead lines), so we need to learn a major scale pattern that allows us to stay in one position.

Warm Up Exercise #2 - Major Scale in One Position

Here is a one octave major scale pattern that starts on the third string and finishes on the first string.  The numbers 1 to 4 indicate which finger should be used for each note in the scale (where 1 is your index finger and 4 is your pinky).  If you play this pattern in 5th position (i.e. starting at the 5th fret), then you'll get the C major scale.

I like to use this pattern as part of my warm-up exercises.  I play it ascending and descending like this:

Warm-Up! - Exercise #2 - C Major Scale
(Click to Enlarge)

As mentioned in Confession #6 - Warm-up!, warm-up exercises get boring in a hurry, so move this pattern up and down the neck to keep things interesting.  For example, if you start the pattern in 7th position, then you'll be playing the D major scale.  Try to get to the point where you can play the scale ascending and descending in 5th position, and then seamlessly switch to playing it in 7th position without stopping.

Next Week's Confession - Keep Your Calluses Up!

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