Major and Minor Scales

Learn How to Form and Play Major and Minor Piano Scales

A minor scale on the piano.
Half step intervals of the A minor scale. Image © Brandy Kraemer

Comparing Major and Minor Scales

Major and minor scales are built similarly. The differences between the two are:

  1. The position of the 3rd and 6th notes.
  2. The location of the scale’s intervals.
  3. Their contrasting “moods.”

 

Major and minor scales are variations of the diatonic scale, which is a musical scale built with intervals of 5 whole steps and 2 half steps. The diatonic pattern is as follows:

  • Major:
    whole - whole - half - whole - whole - whole - half

        C major scale:

        C -whole- D -whole- E -half- F -whole- G -whole- A -whole- B -half- C

     

    • Minor:
      whole - half - whole - whole - half - whole - whole

          A minor scale:

          A -whole- B -half- C -whole- D -whole- E -half- F -whole- G -whole- A

     

    Notice how the two half steps are always separated by either two or three whole steps; this system of intervals is the diatonic pattern. What makes a scale major or minor depends on which notes these half steps affect. Compare pictures #1 and #2, above:

    • In major scales, half steps appear after the 3rd and 7th notes.
    • In minor scales, half steps follow the 2nd and 5th notes.

     

    Major and Minor Thirds

    Due to the placement of these half step intervals, the third is the first note to reveal a scale’s major or minor status. In the diatonic pattern, the third is either major or minor:

    Major Third: The third note in a major scale, two whole steps (four half steps) above the tonic (or very first note).

       ●  In the C major scale, E is four half steps above C, so the major third is E.




    Minor Third: 1.5 steps (three half steps) above the tonic.

       ●  In the C minor scale, E flat is three half steps above C, so the minor third is Eb.
     

    The Moods of Major and Minor

    Major and minor are often described in terms of feelings or mood. The ear tends to perceive major and minor as having contrasting personalities; a contrast that is most obvious when the two are played back to back.

    • Major is perceived as more happy and positive.
    • Minor is perceived as more somber and melancholy.

     

    Try It: Play a C major scale on your piano, and follow it with a C minor scale; observe the change in mood once the third note is struck. For scale help, view the C minor scale highlighted on the piano keyboard, or read the notation.

       The C minor scale consists of:

       C -whole- D -half- Eb -whole- F -whole- G -half- Ab -whole- Bb -whole- C

     

    More Major & Minor Practice:

      ■ Major Piano Practice Scales  ■ Minor Piano Practice Scales
      ■ Major Piano Chords  ■ Minor Piano Chords
      ■ View Major Key Signatures  ■ View Minor Key Signatures

     

    Related Reading:

    • What Are the Forgotten Key Signatures?
      The circle of fifths shows only the working scales. But, if we expand on its pattern, we can see that it’s actually more of an infinite spiral, so there’s no end to the possibilities of musical scales. One could write a song in the key of B quadruple-flat; learn more.
    • Easy-to-Read Breakdown of the 15 Key Signatures
      Most notes of the staff name both major and minor key signatures, but some are only seen as one or the other. A few keynotes don't name any working key signature, and their scales are considered rare or theoretical. Consult this table to learn more, and to strengthen your understanding of the diatonic scale.
    • All About Key Signatures
      Everything you need to know about the accidentals & key signatures.

    • Use the interactive key signature locator to identify or double-check your key.

    • There are always two keys that relate to one another more than any other key. Find out what this means.
    • The Diatonic Scale: Comparing Major & Minor
      Major and minor are often described in terms of feelings or mood. The ear tends to perceive major and minor as having contrasting personalities; a contrast that is most obvious when the two are played back to back. Learn more about major and minor scales and keys.

     

    Start Playing Piano
     ▪  The Notes of the Piano
     ▪  How to Find Middle C on the Piano
     ▪  Piano Fingering to Improve Speed & Efficiency
     ▪  Playing Musical Triplets
     ▪  Test Yourself With Beginner Music Quizzes

    How to Read Sheet Music
     ▪  Symbols & Abbreviations of Piano Music
     ▪  Easily Memorize the Grand Staff Notes
     ▪  D Major Practice Piano Scales
     ▪  Illustrated Piano Chord Library
     ▪  Tempo Commands Organized By Speed

    Getting Started on Keyboard Instruments
     ▪  Playing Piano vs. Electric Keyboard
     ▪  How to Sit at the Piano
     ▪  Buying a Used Piano
     ▪  Finding the Right Music Teacher
     ▪  Musical Keyboard Comparison Guide

    Forming Piano Chords
     ▪  Chord Types & Symbols
     ▪  Essential Piano Chord Fingering
     ▪  Comparing Major & Minor Chords
     ▪  Diminished Chords & Dissonance
     ▪  Different Types of Arpeggiated Chords