Music Lab Home | James Boyk Home | Book & articles by James Boyk

Naming the notes of musical scales (October 12, 2000)
by James Boyk

I give two rules here that let you play a "major scale" starting on any note on the piano keyboard, and let you name the notes correctly, given the name of the starting note. (A major scale is the kind explored in the song, "Doe, a Deer.")

Rule 1:  The intervals in an ascending major scale, in order, are 1, 1, 1/2, 1, 1, 1, 1/2.

An "ascending" scale is one that moves from left to right on the keyboard. A "descending" major scale is the same set of notes but in the opposite order.

An "interval" is the distance between two notes. Major-scale intervals are either "half-steps" (1/2) or "whole steps" (1). A half-step is the interval between any two immediately adjacent notes, whether white key to black, or white to white. A whole step is two half-steps. Thus, C to D (see next paragraph for how to locate these keys) is a whole step, because there's a black key in between. From C to the black key is 1/2; from the black key to D, another 1/2. The interval E to F, by contrast, is a half-step, because no other keys intervene.

(To find C, notice that black keys are grouped in twos and threes. C is any white key just to the left of a group of two black keys. D is the white key to the right of C, while E and F are the next two white keys. "To the right" is called "higher" because it's higher in pitch.)

"Middle C" is the C nearest the middle of the keyboard.

To remember the structure of a major scale, play an ascending C major scale by playing any C and then the other white keys moving upward, ending on the next C. Note the intervals as you go.

Rule 2:  Every major scale has one and only one note of each "note name," and they occur in (cyclic) alphabetic order.

The note names are A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Possible variants are "sharp" and "flat," and occasionally "double-sharp" and "double-flat." The white keys are given the unadorned note names. "Sharp" means the note a half-step higher (to the right); "flat," a half-step lower (to the left). "Double-sharp" and "double-flat" are a half-step further in each case. Note that some sharps and some flats, and some double-sharps and double-flats, are white keys. E# ("E-sharp") is physically the same key as F; C-flat is the same as B; Fx ("F double sharp") is the same as G.

Thus, every major scale has an A, but it might be plain A, A-sharp or A-flat. Every scale has a B, which might be just plain B or might be B-flat (a black key) or B-sharp (a white key the same as C). If a scale starts on some sort of D (that is, either plain D, D-flat, or D-sharp), the next note will be some sort of E; then some sort of F; and so on.

Exercises:

Play major scales starting on various notes on the keyboard, without troubling about the names of the notes. (This requires only Rule 1.)

Play the G major scale, naming the notes as you go. This means find any G and play the scale notes up to and including the next G. You should get G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G. The one black key in this scale must be called F# because, by Rule 2, it must be some sort of F. Since it's higher than (to the right of) the white key that is just plain F, it must be F#.

Play the A-flat major scale. You should get A-flat, B-flat, C, D-flat, E-flat, F, G, A-flat. Now start on G# (the same physical key as A-flat). The physical notes you play are identical, but the names are now G#, A#, B#, C#, D#, E#, Fx, G#.

If your scale ends up on a different physical key or a different name from the ones you started on, something went wrong somewhere!