This article aims to define what a scale is in music. Perhaps you’ve come across this term before and are unsure what it means. I’ll be discussing the difference between major and minor scales (and others as this article grows) and what the term relative minor means as well.

If any of that sounded confusing to you, don’t worry, I will explain everything in detail as we go. By the end of this article, you will be armed with the knowledge and confidence to begin putting this theory to work in your playing. Whether you play a piano, a guitar, or a violin, the principles are the same.

Since there is so much information to unpack, let’s start with the absolute basics.

Let’s begin!

Scales. Man playing guitar.

The definition of a scale

In music theory, a scale is nothing more than a set of musical notes ordered by pitch. This could be ascending (higher in pitch) or descending (lower in pitch).

If the pitch increases as we progress through the scale, that scale is said to be an ascending scale. Likewise, if the pitch decreases as we progress through the scale, it is said to be a descending scale.

Each note of a scale has a specific name associated with it (tonic, dominant, subdominant, etc.) and that is what we refer to as a scale degree. I won’t dive into that just yet, but I wanted you to be aware of the term scale degree.

Now, let’s move on to the next term we should become familiar with, and one that you might have heard before: the diatonic scale.

What does the term “diatonic scale” mean?

A diatonic scale is a term used in music theory which simply means that the notes of a scale have been placed in a particular order starting from the tonic (the note we begin the scale on). From that starting note, we then arrange seven ascending or descending notes, making our scale either a major diatonic scale or a minor diatonic scale.

You can also think of a diatonic scale in music as being any stepwise sequence of the seven “natural” pitches which creates an octave without changing the established pattern of a given key.

Scales. Piano.

Major scales

Something that musicians discovered a long, long time ago was that the relationship between the tonic (C for example) and the 5th scale degree (G in this case) was pretty important.

They noticed that the major scale of the 5th scale degree shared all the same sharps or flats with the tonic except for one. Let me put it a different way so it makes more sense.

Take the C major scale: C – D – E – F – G – A – B

You’ll notice there are no sharps or flats in that scale. For that reason, it is the easiest scale for beginner musicians to work with and understand.

The 5th scale degree, or fifth note from the left, is the G note. If we apply the major formula to the key of G, you’ll see something kind of cool.

Here’s the G major scale:

G – A – B – C – D – E – F♯

The G major scale contains all the same sharps and flats as C major except for one difference – the F♯.

Let’s continue this example.

The 5th scale degree of the G major scale is the D note. Let’s see what the D major scale looks like: D – E – F♯ – G – A – B – C♯

The D major scale contains the same F♯ as the G major scale, but it has one additional sharp, which is C♯.

If this all still seems like a mystery, consider this. The major scale is just a formula built around whole steps (2 frets on the guitar) and half steps (1 fret on the guitar).

W = Whole step

H = Half step

Something important to keep in mind is that the distance between E and F as well as B and C, is naturally only a half step.

With that in mind, here is the major scale formula:


If we apply that formula to the C major scale, it looks like this:

C – W- D – W – E – H – F – W – G – W – A – W – B – H – C

It has no sharps or flats

If we apply that formula to the G major scale, it looks like this:

G – W – A – W – B – H – C – W – D – W – E – W – F♯ – H – G

It has one sharp: F♯

Let’s look at a major scale that has a flat. The F major scale:

F – W – G – W – A – H – B♭ – W – C – W – D – W – E – H – F

It has one flat: B♭

Scales. Violin.

Minor scales

Every major scale has a corresponding relative minor scale, which shares the same sharps or flats. The only difference is that we start the relative minor scale on the relative minor note of that major scale

Let’s look at an example that I think well really help solidify this information.

Once again, let’s use the C major scale. We are looking for a minor scale that contains no sharps or flats, just like the C major scale.

The formula for the minor scale is as follows:

W = Whole step

H = Half step

W – H – W – W – H – W – W

A nifty trick, without looking at the circle of 5ths chart (We’ll get into that in another article) is to simply go down three half steps from the tonic of the major scale. In the case of C major, three half steps down – or back – happens to be the note of A.

Let’s see if it matches the formula for the minor scale.

A – W – B – H – C – W – D – W – E – H – F – W – G – W – A

It matches perfectly!

Here’s a bit of an FYI. If you’ve heard of the natural minor scale, it refers to the same minor scale we are working with here.

Now, let’s take a look at some other examples of relative minor scales.

We touched on F major earlier, so let’s find out what its relative minor scale is. Moving three half steps back, that is F to E (naturally a half step), and then E to D (naturally a whole step) we now know that the relative minor scale of F major is D minor.

D – W – E – H – F – W – G – W – A – H – B♭ – W – C – W – D

Let’s do one more example and then I’ll give you a challenge. Everyone loves a challenge right!?!?

We’ll randomly select the A major scale and find the relative minor of that scale. Counting backwards three half steps from A, we end up on F♯.

The relative minor scale of A major is F♯ minor:

The A major scale contains three sharps: F♯, C♯, and G♯

The F♯ minor scale contains the same three sharps: F♯, C♯, and G♯

F♯ – W – G♯ – H – A – W – B – W – C♯ – H – D – W – E – W – F♯


Scales. Yamaha piano.

The relative minor challenge!

Alright let’s do this!

I’m not going to make this easy, but I’m confident that with the knowledge you are now armed with, you can crack this challenge with no problem.

I want you to figure out what the relative minor scale is of E major.

Take as much time as you need, but really try and figure this out on your own before Googling the answer.

What to do next?

If you are brand new to music, music production, or are interested in learning to play the drums, you can check out my article: What is a DAW? – What Does DAW stand for?

You might also want to check out this article: Acoustic Vs. Electronic Drums – Which One is Right for You?

If you are looking at buying your first drum set or any other musical instrument for that matter, take a look at Zzounds. They have a variety of acoustic drum sets and electronic drum sets for purchase.

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Andrew has been a life long lover of music. Although starting his musical journey on the guitar, (we won't talk about his skills on that particular instrument) he found his true passion was for drumming and making music to share with others. He also enjoys writing blog posts about off the wall subjects that are very much real—such as Bigfoot, UFOs, and what's up with European mayonnaise. Why is it sweet???
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