The Major Scale – also known as the Ionian mode – has a very important role in music; not only is it extremely widely used in a variety of genres of music, it serves as the parent scale to the other six modes, as discussed in my overview of the modes in Modes of the major scale – a quick and simple guide.
For the sake of consistency and simplicity, I’m going to restrict this and the following lessons to the key of C. This is simply to help the learning and understanding process be as smooth and straight forward as possible. I’m also going to be focussing on guitar fretboard theory rather than piano, since this probably is the reason you are checking this lesson out!
The first thing I believe we need to understand about any scale, be it a mode or otherwise, is the formula for that scale. Scale formulas can go a long way to help individuals realise a vast amount about music theory, particularly with regards to tonality and the use of sharps and flats or key signatures, an area that can be a minefield if taught insensitively and without consideration.
Tone (interval), tonality and timbre (tone).
To avoid any confusion, I’d like to spend a minute clarifying some terms.
In music, scales contain certain patterns of tones and semitones that define their sounds. These are examples of intervals, or the distance from one note to another in plain English. The semitone is the smallest interval in western music, and is the distance of one fret on the guitar fretboard. Whereas a tone is the distance of two frets. When I refer to a ‘tone’ or ‘semi tone’ in this lesson, this is what I’ll be referring to.
Tonality is quite simply the sound and qualities of a harmony. For example, whether a sound is major or minor is an example of basic tonality. Tonality is a fundamental element of music.
This term can be the one that is often confused with tone (intervals). You will often hear this element of music being used when describing the sound of an instrument or voice. In the guitar world, we come across guitarists talking about their guitar ‘tone’ all the time, simply because it is very important. What they are actually referring to is timbre.
Tones and semitones in the Ionian mode
Now, let’s get to the point of this post; to broaden our awareness of this widely used mode. To generate the sound of the major scale on the guitar fretboard, it is actually very easy to do on one string as long as you are patient, count carefully and trust your subconscious inner musician’s judgement. Firstly, you need to commit this formula of intervals to memory:
Tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone.
Alternatively, the formula could be abbreviated and presented in this way:
T T S T T T S
Once you can remember this formula, the next step is to apply it to the fretboard and use it. The way to apply the formula is to firstly choose a note to begin from, known as the root* (for this example I have chosen the note C on the first fret of the B string). We will then play the root, then from that note begin the formula. Remember, a tone (T) is the distance of two frets, and a semitone (S) is the distance of one fret. On a diagram, that would look something like this.
It is worth noting (no pun intended!) at this point how we begin on a C and end on a C. From the root, the second, higher pitched C is known as an octave. The word octave features the prefix oct, meaning eight (8). An octopus has eight tentacles, an octagon has eight sides, and an octave contains eight notes. Count the notes on the fretboard for proof!
When the notes are arranged into a vertical scale shape and played across all six strings, we end up with a scale that spans two whole octaves. This is one of my favourite C major scale shapes:
Practise and Familiarisation
A great way to practise any scale and the sounds it can produce is to practise to a drone. A drone is simply a held note. In this case you would use a C drone since it is a form of a C scale that we are practising. This way, when you play each note of the scale slowly over the drone, you can get a real appreciation of the sound of each interval and the overall tonality of the scale. Click here for an audio file of a C drone to get you started. When playing the scale to the drone, start really slowly and be sure to absorb yourself in the sounds to enjoy each interval. Try to connect with how these notes make you feel when you hear them. For example, I find some intervals very tense, whilst others sound more relaxed.
To finish with, I need to give a secret away to you. Back when I was learning guitar, I never seemed to be able to understand why fret 2 on the a string was a B, then fret 3 on the A string was a C. In my ‘logical’ mind at the time, every interval should have been equally spaced. It was only when I sat in front of a piano that this began to make sense to me, and I noticed there was no black key between the notes E to F, and B to C (this fact is very useful to remember). To further add to this, as I got older and became more experienced with music, I noticed that the white keys on the keyboard reflect the T T S T T T S formula, and my guess is that this is no accident!
* For further information on root notes, check out the lesson Modes of the major scale – a quick and simple guide.