The 12 major scales easily explained

The major keys are the most frequently used keys in all music. It is very important to know and master them when you compose music. In this article today, we will talk about the 12 major scales.
Table of contents

Every scale in our tonal system, in this case the major scale or Ionic mode, consists of two elements: tonality on the one hand and modality on the other.

The major scale is formed from one note called the tonic. Starting from this tonic, the major scale is built up by a sequence of eight notes with a certain hierarchical structure.

The relationship between these sounds, which we will call degrees because of their functionality, creates a scheme depending on their intervallic distance, which in a way corresponds to the major or ionic mode.

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The intervallic distance between all steps is one tone, except between the III-IV step and the VII-VIII step, where it corresponds to a semitone.

This scheme is observed in all major modes, regardless of their pitch. So the tonal scheme within the major scale is as follows:

Tone - Tone - Half Tone - Tone - Tone - Half Tone

If we take one of the 12 notes and use these distances, we get the 12 major scales that we will see below.

They are arranged in the circle of fifths:

Major scale arranged in the circle of fifths
Major scale arranged in the circle of fifths

C Major Scale

C Major Scale

The key C major (also called Do M in Latin notation or Model Scale and C in Anglo-Saxon notation) is based on a major scale on the note C, consisting of the notes C, D, E, F, G, A and B (B). Its key contains no basses or crossings. Its relative minor is A minor and its key of the same name is C minor.

The triad chord: C-E-G

The major chords of its key are C major, F major, and G major, the minor chords are A minor, D minor, and E minor, and B is its diminished chord.

C major is one of the most frequently used keys in music. Many transposing instruments sound in their original key when they play a part written in C major. For example, a Bb clarinet playing a piece written in C major sounds in Bb major. The white keys of the piano correspond to the C major scale.

G Major Scale

G Major Scale
G Major Scale

The key of G major (abbreviated G M in the European system and G in the English system, also Sol M in Latin notation) consists of the G major scale and contains the notes G, A, B, C, D, E, F sharp and G. Its key contains a cross sign (F sharp).

Its relative key is E minor and its key of the same name is G minor.

The chord: G-B-E

In the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, G major is often a key with chained rhythms in 6/8 time, according to Alfred Einstein, and in the Baroque period G major was considered a "blessing key".

Of Domenico Scarlatti's 555 piano sonatas, 69 are in G major, and 12 of Joseph Haydn's 104 symphonies are also in G major. Beethoven, on the other hand, used G major only very rarely; his only major orchestral work in this key was the Piano Concerto No. 4.

In orchestral works in G major, the timpani are usually tuned a fifth apart in G and D, rather than a fourth apart as is often the case in other keys.

Keep reading: All about musical syncopation and how to use it in your compositions.

D Major Scale

D Major Scale
D Major Scale

The key of D major (abbreviated D in the European system and D in the American system) consists of the D major scale and contains the notes D, E, F-sharp, G, A, B, C-sharp, and D. The key contains 2 cross signs. The key contains 2 sharps.

Its relative key is B minor and its key of the same name is D minor.

The triad chord: D-F#-A

The key of D major is very suitable for violin music because of the structure of the instrument, whose four strings are tuned in G, D, A and E. The open strings resonate sympathetically with the D string and produce a particularly brilliant sound. It is no coincidence, then, that many classical composers over the centuries have written their violin concertos in the D major key, among them Mozart (No. 2, 1775, No. 4, 1775), Ludwig van Beethoven (1806), Paganini (No. 1, 1817), Brahms (1878), Tchaikovsky (1878), Prokofiev (No. 1, 1917), Stravinsky (1931) and Korngold (1945). Paganini is one of the composers who often uses this abbreviation in some of his concertos, such as Concerto No. 4 in D minor.

It is very well suited for guitar music. The sixth string (which is normally tuned to E) can be tuned one tone lower (to D), leaving two Ds as open strings. Domenico Scarlatti imitated the mannerisms of the guitar in his piano sonatas, which is perhaps why more than 70 of his 555 sonatas are in D major, more than in any other key.

For some beginning wind players, however, D major is not a very pleasant key, as it is transposed to E major on Bb instruments, and beginner methods generally avoid keys with more than three sharps.

Nevertheless, the Bb clarinet is often used for music in D major and is probably the key with the most sharps that is practical for the instrument. However, there are composers who, when writing a work in D minor with Bb clarinets, replace them with A clarinets when the music changes to D major.

A Major Scale

A Major Scale
A Major Scale

A major (abbreviated LaM in the Latin system and A in the American system) is the key that consists of the major scale A and contains the notes A, B, C sharp, D, E, F sharp, G sharp and A. Its key contains three cross signs (in F, C and G). Its relative key is F-sharp minor and its key of the same name is A minor.

The triad chord: A-C#-E

Although not as rare in symphonic literature as other keys with more crosses, examples of symphonies in A major are not as numerous as those in D major or G major. Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, Bruckner's Symphony No. 6 and Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 almost complete the list of symphonies in this key in the Romantic period. Both the Clarinet Concerto and the Clarinet Quintet (both by Mozart) are in A major. In chamber music, A major occurs more frequently. Both Brahms and Franck wrote violin sonatas in A major.

According to Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart, A major is a suitable key for "Declarations of innocent love, ... the hope of seeing the beloved again after separation, youthful joy and faith in God.". It is used in synaesthesia to represent the colour green.

E Major Scale

E Major Scale
E Major Scale

The key of E major is the major scale of the musical note E and contains the notes E, F sharp, G sharp, A, B, C sharp, D sharp, D sharp and E. Its key contains 4 sharps. Its relative key is C sharp minor and its key of the same name is E minor.

The triad chord: E-G#-B

In the Latin system it is abbreviated Mi M and in the American system it is abbreviated E.

Only two of Haydn's 104 symphonies are in E major, Nos. 12 and 29.

Even in the 19th century, symphonies in this key are rare, Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 7 being one of the few examples. Two symphonies that begin in D minor and end in E major are the "Gothic" Symphony by Havergal Brian (1876-1972) and Symphony No. 4 by Carl Nielsen (1865-1931). Mahler's Symphony No. 4 begins in G major and ends in E major.

E major is also the key of the last movement of the unfinished symphony by Franz Schubert (1797-1828), Symphony No. 4 by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), Symphony No. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) and Symphony No. 10 by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975).

This key is difficult for wind instruments, acceptable for the string instruments of the symphony orchestra and very suitable for the guitar. If available, clarinets in A should be used instead of clarinets in B flat. For the former it would be written in G major, for the latter in F sharp major or G flat.

The Greeks ascribed certain qualities to each temperament because each was easily recognizable by the different interval sizes in its scales. Since the use of equal temperament, however, all intervals of all keys are by definition equal, so it makes no sense to speak of the qualities of one key as being different from those of another. Nevertheless, the Russian composer Aleksandr Skriabin (1872-1915) considered E major "the purest of all keys" and chose it to represent the color white in synesthesia.

B major scale

B major scale
B major scale

B major (abbreviation in the Latin system Si Mayor and in the American system B) is the key that consists of the B major scale and contains the notes B, C sharp, D sharp, E, F sharp, G sharp, A sharp and B flat. Its key contains 5 sharps. Its relative key is G-sharp minor, and its key of the same name is B minor.

The triad chord: B-D#-F#

Although B major can easily be considered a strange or difficult scale because of its distance from C major (as can be seen from the circle of fifths) or the large number of sharps, Frédéric Chopin considered it one of the easiest scales to play because the fingers can reach the black keys more easily. He often recommended it to piano beginners and left the C major scale until last for this reason (as it is the most difficult to play fluently due to the lack of black keys).

It is used in synaesthesia to represent the colour blue.

F Sharp Major Scale

F sharp major scale
F sharp major scale

F-sharp major (abbreviation in the Latvian system Fa♯M and in the American system F♯) is the key consisting of the scale F-sharp major and containing the notes F-sharp, G-sharp, A-sharp, B natural, C-sharp, D-sharp, E-sharp, F-sharp. Its key contains 6 sharps. Its relative key is D sharp minor and its key of the same name is F sharp minor. Its enharmonic equivalent is G flat major.

The triad chord: F#-A#-C#

Major scale
Major scale

Domenico Scarlatti composed only two sonatas in this key, K. 318 and K. 319. None of his sonatas are in a key with more crosses. The only symphony in the standard repertoire would be Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 10, which remained unfinished (although there are some movements from other symphonies in this key). Two of Alexander Scriabin's piano sonatas, Nos. 4 and 5, are in F-sharp major. It is used in synaesthesia to represent the celestial colour.

Keep reading: Pentatonic - Explanation, History and use

C Sharp Major Scale (D Flat Major)

C sharp major scale
C sharp major scale

C-sharp major (abbreviation in the Latin system Do♯M and in the American system C♯) is the key that consists of the major scale C-sharp and contains the notes C-sharp, D-sharp, E-sharp, F-sharp, G-sharp, A-sharp and B-sharp. Its key contains 7 sharps.

Its relative key is A sharp minor and its key of the same name is C sharp minor. Its enharmonic equivalent is D flat major.

The triad chord: C#-E#-G#

D flat major scale
D flat major scale

On a harp tuned in C sharp major, all pedals are in the down position. Since the strings are plucked and shortened, this is the least resonant key of the instrument.

Use in classical music: Although most composers prefer the enharmonic equivalent of D flat major because it has only 5 Bs compared to the 7 sharps of C sharp major, they sometimes choose the key of C sharp major:

  • Johann Sebastian Bach used it for his Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier.
  • The String Quartet No. 3 by Béla Bartók is one of the few in this key.
  • In the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6, Franz Liszt changes the key at the beginning from D flat major to C sharp major.
  • "Octaves" from the series Six études, op. 5 by Jeanne Demessieux, an organ piece of great difficulty, which will also be heard in C minor.

A Flat Major Scale (G Sharp Major)

A flat major scale
A flat major scale

A-flat major (abbreviation in the Latin system La♭M and in the American system A♭) is the key that consists of the A major scale and contains the notes A-flat, B-flat, C, D, E-flat, F, G, and A. Its key contains 4 basses. Its relative key is F minor and its key of the same name is A flat minor.

The triad chord: Ab-C-Eb

This key is said to convey a sense of peace and serenity and was used extensively by Franz Schubert. 24 of Frédéric Chopin's piano works are in A flat major, more than any other key.

Beethoven also chose A flat major as the key for a slow movement that followed another in C minor, a practice imitated by Anton Bruckner in his first two symphonies in C minor and also by Antonín Dvořák in his only symphony in C minor.

Since A-flat major was not chosen as the central key in 18th-century orchestral works, the passages or movements in this key retained the timpani tunings of the preceding movement. In Beethoven's 5th Symphony, for example, the timpani in the first movement is tuned in C and G. Since the timpani were tuned manually, there was no time to retune them to A flat and E flat in the second movement. In Bruckner's Symphony No. 1, however, the timpani are retuned between the first movement in C minor and the following movement in A flat major.

There are many arrangements of The Star-Spangled Banner in A flat major, and professional singers are expected to sing it in A flat or B flat major at auditions.

Edward Elgar's Symphony No. 1 in A flat major is the only symphony in this key that is part of the orchestra's standard repertoire. A-flat major is the key with the most Bs used by Domenico Scarlatti in his piano sonatas, but only twice: in K. 127 and in K. 130. Both Felix Mendelssohn and John Field wrote a piano concerto in A-flat major (Mendelssohn's concerto is for two pianos), with the horns and trumpets tuned to E-flat major. It is used in synaesthesia to represent the colour violet.

E Flat Major Scale (D Sharp Major)

E flat major scale
E flat major scale

The key of E-flat major (abbreviation in the European system Mi♭M and in the Anglo-Saxon system E♭) is the scale of E-flat major (E-flat, F, G, A-flat, B-flat, C, D and E-flat). Its key contains 3 B-flats.

The triad chord: Eb-G-Bb

This tonality is easier to play on brass instruments, which generally have a timbre associated with the idea of bravery. Beethoven's Heroic Symphony, for example, has such a character. Beethoven also uses this key for his last piano concerto, the Piano Concerto No. 5 "Emperor", which could also be said to have a heroic and solemn character. But there are also sweet and romantic works, such as Anton Bruckner's Symphony No. 4 ("Romantic") or Alexandr Glazunov's grandiose Concerto for Saxophone and String Orchestra. Mozart uses this key extensively in various piano concertos or, for example, in his majestic Symphony No. 39, and it is also the main key (with which he opens and closes the opera "The Magic Flute").

B Flat Major Scale (A Sharp Major)

B major scale
B major scale

The key of B major (abbreviated Si♭M in the Latin system and B♭M in the English system) is the B flat major scale and contains the notes B, C, D, E-flat, F, G, A and B-flat. Its key contains 2 B-flats. Its relative key is G minor and its key of the same name is B flat minor.

The triad chord: Bb-D-F

Note that in German the B-signed note is "B" and the natural is "H". In contrast, in the English system the B is naturally "B" and the B is "B♭".

B flat is a pleasant key for most wind instruments, especially for woodwind instruments like the B clarinet and the B trumpet. It is an easy key for wind instruments because most of them transpose to B flat, e.g. the saxophones, clarinets (except A), the high horn in B flat, etc., which transpose to B flat (in which case they read the notes in C major) or E flat (in which case they read the notes in F major). In some cases, like the horn in F, they transpose to G major.

This key is often used in salsa and merengue, where many of these wind instruments are used. Many works written or arranged for symphonic orchestra use the key of B flat or its related minor for the above reason.

Symphony No. 98 by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) is the first symphony he wrote in this key and also includes trumpet and timpani parts. Five of the piano concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) are in B flat major.

In Baroque music - in which equal temperament was not yet used and therefore each key had its own character - it was called the key of progress and the Renaissance because it is almost always above G minor. At various moments in the history of piano concertos in the Baroque period, the key of B flat major was the key of progress and the Renaissance.

At various times in musical history it has been used for toasts, such as the Libiamo from La Traviata and the Brindis from the Spanish opera Marina. The tavern songs of the baroque composer Henry Purcell are also composed in this key.

In synaesthesia it is usually used for the colour sepia.

F Major Scale

F Major Scale
F Major Scale

The F major scale (abbreviated Fa M in the Latin system and F in the English system) F, G, A B, C, D, E, F. Its key contains 1 B sign. Its relative key is D minor and its key of the same name is F minor.

The triad chord: F-A-C

F major is the natural key of the English horn, the basset horn, the horn in F, the trumpet in F and the Wagner tuba. Music in F major for these instruments is therefore written in C major. Most of it sounds a fifth higher than written, with the exception of the trumpet in F, which sounds a fourth higher.

Of the six overtures Francesco Maria Veracini wrote for the Prince of Dresden, many are in F major or B flat major because the wind instruments in the Prince's orchestra were limited. Even in F, there is an arpeggio in F major (which is formed from a major third, a minor third and a pure fourth).

Beethoven wrote his Symphony No. 6 op. 68, "Pastorale", and his Symphony No. 8 op. 93 in F major. Vivaldi used this key for the "Autumn" of the Four Seasons, RV 293. Brahms' Symphony No. 3 is also in F major.

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