Introduction to Major and Minor Piano Scales

piano scales
Will Powell/Flickr/​CC BY-SA 2.0

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 Scale

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 Scale

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-