The original title for this blog was going to be ‘scales’ but I soon realised that focusing on just one scale was enough for one blog. Exploring the C major scale is not only a good introduction to theory, it’s a great way to learn the layout of the fingerboard. In this tutorial we’ll look at the notes, the degrees of the scale, the intervals, and the tones & semitones. By the end of the tutorial you’ll understand the structure of the C major scale and be able to apply this formula to create other major scales.
The C major scale can be regarded on different levels.
The most fundamental level is to look at the notes which make up the scale. These are:
C D E F G A B C
Look at the diagram below and notice how the scale begins and ends on C, and spans one octave, or 8 notes. I’ve written the note names under the notes so if you don’t read the notation you can still see how the scale starts on C and rises in steps until in reaches the C an octave higher.
Degrees of the Scale
The 1st note (C) is called the 1st degree, or the tonic. The other notes make up the degrees of the scale in ascending order. They are indicated with a roman numeral and also have names:
Put another way:
C is the 1st degree of the C major scale
D is the 2nd degree of the C major scale
E is the 3rd degree of the C major scale
F is the 4th degree of the C major scale
G is the 5th degree of the C major scale
A is the 6th degree of the C major scale
B is the 7th degree of the C major scale
An interval is the distance between 2 notes. At this stage we are just going to look at the intervals of the notes in the C major scale relative to the tonic note C. The numbers in the above table help us to determine the intervals relative to the tonic. For example: the distance from C to D is a 2nd, the distance from C to G is a 5th, and the distance from C to B is a 7th. While the intervals sound a lot like the degrees, they are more complex critters. An interval can be major, minor, perfect, augmented or diminished. Intervals can also be considered within the scale: for example the distance from E to G in a minor 3rd. In this blog, however, I’m just going to focus on the major and perfect intervals in relationship to the tonic note C.
I haven’t included the perfect unison, or C (I) to C (I), in the chart in order not to confuse it with the perfect octave. See below for more on the perfect unison.
Why are the 1st, 4th, 5th & 8th perfect?
Hint: what are the most common chords you play when playing a song in C major? Answer: C, F & G.
Many moons ago composers decided the chords that could be built on the I, IV & V notes of the scale were the most consonant, and therefore the most perfect way to harmonise a melody. Think of chords as blocks of sound and melodies as lines. For now we’re focusing on lines of sound using the most fundamental (and unimaginative!) melodic idea – the C major scale. We’ll look at chord construction and harmonising the scale in future blogs.
In the diagram below use the tab to locate the notes on the fingerboard. Either say, or sing, the notes out loud as you play them. Play the scale both ascending (going up) and descending (going down).
One way to practise the scale is to break it down and learn the notes on each string. Use the diagram below as a guide. Repeat the individual bars until you are confident with the position of the notes on each string.
Now, try playing the intervals. All the intervals relate to the tonic note C. The 1st interval is the perfect unison – C to C, not to be confused with the perfect 8th (see below).
Learning the intervals will help to develop your ear. One way of recognising the intervals is to relate them to the start of a song, or tune. Here are some examples:
- Perfect unison – London’s Burning
- Major 2nd – Frere Jacques
- Major 3rd – Kumbaya
- Perfect 4th – Old Lang Syne
- Perfect 5th – Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star
- Major 6th – My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean
- Major 7th – Bali Hai from South Pacific (1st and 3rd note)
- Perfect Octave – Somewhere Over the Rainbow
If you don’t like any these songs you can find plenty of other suggestions on the internet.
Alternative Ways of Playing the C Major Scale
Using the re-entrant G string
If you don’t use high g tuning then skip this part. If you do use re-entrant tuning then try playing the C major scale on strings 3 and 4. Maybe it’s my guitar brain but this really messes with my head! The pitch is ascending but the position on the fingerboard is descending…aargh! My musical world is inverted. This is one of the crazy things I love about the ukulele and why I am a huge fan of re-entrant tuning.
If that hasn’t messed with your head quite enough how about C major played in campanella style…
C Major on One String
C major can also be played in a linear fashion on one string. This is a particularly good way to learn the notes, and their relationship to each other, in the higher positions. Use the tab to locate the notes on the fingerboard.
Notice how some of the notes are 1 fret apart while others are 2 frets apart. The notes which are only 1 fret apart are E and F (frets 4 & 5), and B and C (frets 11 & 12). I’ll explain why shortly…
First of all look at the table below: the top line in dark green shows the fret number. The 2nd line shows the notes. The 3rd line shows the intervals relative to both the frets and notes. The 4th line shows the extra notes (sharps and flats) which are not in the C major scale (you don’t need to worry about this for now). The bottom line shows the semitones. The curved lines beneath the table indicate the tones and semitone. Semitones are explained below.
By looking at the table we can see that the fret numbers and the intervals, with the exception of the major 2nd, don’t correspond. Why is this? The answer is found in bottom line of the table which shows the semitones.
In western music a semitone is the shortest distance between 2 notes. The happy news is that each fret on the ukulele represents 1 semitone. This is why the bottom line of the table in lime and cantaloupe, corresponds to the top line in green. Please note: I’ve only included the semitones relevant to the notes in the C major scale. For example: 2nd fret = 2 semitones; 4th fret = 4 semitones; 5th fret = 7 semitones and so on.
The number of semitones in the each interval determines its character. For example: a major 3rd consists of 4 semitones while a minor 3rd consists of 3 semitones.
A tone is 2 semitones. Therefore, the distance from C to D, which is 2 semitones, is called a tone. The distance from D to E is also a tone. The distance from E to F, however, is a semitone. In the table above the tones are coloured lime and the semitones cantaloupe. The curved lines underneath the table highlights the tones and semitones.
An important thing to remember is that the distance from E to F is a semitone and the distance from B to C is a semitone.
Thus, the C major scale is constructed:
Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Tone – Semitone
The really good news is that this is the formula for all the major scales. The placement of the tones and semitones within the scale determine its character as major.
Let’s put the major scale formula to the test by constructing the G major scale.
Open G is the 4th string of the ukulele. The C major linear scale map will enable us to determine the positions of the notes on the fingerboard. Use the tab to see the positions of the notes.
Notice how in the G major scale the 7th note F has to be raised a semitone to F# in order to adhere to the major scale formula. Hence the key signature of G major is F#.
Here’s the table for the G major scale:
Although we have focused on the C major scale you can apply the T T S T T T S formula to each of the open strings to create the major scales of G, E and A. The table below represents the fingerboard of the ukulele and shows the notes, the intervals, and the fret numbers for each of the 4 open strings.
I hope this blog has been useful! Please let me know if anything needs clarifying.