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The 5 Ws of the Major Scale

Walfrid Kujala | March 2020

From the September 1972 issue of The Instrumentalist.

    Everyone knows that studying and practicing scales is good for you. Yet, too many of us not only neglect this type of practice, but also allow our understanding of scale theory to get rusty. We forget that scale study, in addition to being indispensable for technical development, also increases our musical understanding – which is the real reason it helps our technique.

    There is no better time than the start of this school year to "go back to the fundamentals," hence this article on the structure of the major scale. May I suggest that you use this material for your student flutists who need the review and, even more so, for those who never really learned much about scales in the first place.

Keyboard Practice

    Even if you don’t play the piano, you should acquaint yourself with the layout of the piano keyboard, for this will help you to visualize scale construction that much better. If you have a piano at home or one is available at school, play on it the examples given here. Being able to feel as well as see the music on the keyboard will help you to hear it more accurately.

    This should be, after all, one of our main goals – to be able to recognize types of scales and intervals by both sight and sound. You will soon notice that keyboard practice (you needn’t spend much time at it, or do it regularly) will give you an additional perspective resulting in a more fluent flute technique.

    The scale in Figure 1 is the familiar C scale that can be played on the piano, using only the white keys:


    We call this a major scale – made up of eight tones arranged in a distinctive pattern of rising whole (w) and half (h) steps: Note that there are 5 ws and 2 hs.


    Now let’s construct other major scales starting at different points on the keyboard. Try G first. If you play eight consecutive tones on the white keys beginning with G, you will notice the "false" ending to the scale. The F does not fit. Without even having memorized "w-w-h-w-w-w-h," you will instinctively correct the F by playing the black key located to its right. You have thus raised (or sharped) the F by a half-step, and we call this note "F-sharp" (F#). You see how this now fits the w-w-h-w-w-w-h pattern.

    The seventh degree of a major scale (F# in G major, B in C major) is called the leading tone because of its tendency to lead or resolve upward by a half-step.

    Now try F as the beginning of a scale, using only the white keys. Here again you’ll recognize a flaw in the sound of the scale, though not at the leading tone as before. Referring to w-w-h-w-w-w-h con-firms your suspicion that B is too high. It has to be lowered (or flatted) a half-step. We strike the black key located to the left of B and call it "B-flat" (Bb). The F major scale looks like this on the staff:


    Here are two more examples of major scale construction beginning on D and Bb, and which follow the w-w-h-w-w-w-h formula:

    Complete these major scales. Play them on the piano, then on the flute. Continue practicing them through a two-octave range, up and down:

Is F Better Than E#?

    You have noticed by now that some of the notes have two different names, depending on the scale in which they appear. For example, the black key to the right of G is called G# if in A major, and Ab if in Eb major. In some scales, even the white keys can have dual names. For example, E# in F# major is the same as F in C major. Notes like these, that have two different names but sound the same, are called en-harmonic notes. During the course of practicing your scales, you will become very fluent with enharmonic notes.

    Question: For the sake of simplicity, wouldn’t it be easier to perform music if E# were written as F, B# as C, Cb as B, and so on? One way to answer this question is to ask another: For the sake of simplicity, wouldn’t it be easier to read words if eight were written as ate, chord as cord, weigh as way, eye as I, know as no, and so on?

    Play this passage on the piano and then the flute:

    Confusing, isn’t it? The scale of F# major

may not be as easy to play as a C major scale, but at least it is much easier to read and understand in Figure 10 than in Figure 9. You see now that identical sounds in music as well as language can have entirely different meanings, and that these meanings can be made clear by their spelling and usage.

Key Signatures

    During our scale construction project you will recall that we wrote the required sharps or flats just to the left of the affected notes. If a piece of music stays mainly in one key, the same sharps or flats will be used throughout. To keep repeating the symbols would be tedious and make the music look cluttered, so a shorthand system of key signatures is used. The key signature is placed to the right of the clef sign like this:


    It simply tells you that, until further notice, all Fs, Cs, Gs, and Ds during the piece are to be sharped in all octaves. There are 14 key signatures altogether, not counting C major, which needs no signature. Here is a complete chart of them. Notice that, as the signatures expand, the new sharp or flat is placed slightly to the right of the last one:

    You should memorize all the signatures – both the names of the keys and the order of the sharps and flats. It would not take too long to memorize them if you just sat down and studied them carefully. But for permanent retention there is no substitute for everyday use of the key signatures, so that you will be as familiar with them as you are with the multiplication table. That is one of the purposes of daily scale practice.

    As you practice scales on your flute, you’ll probably find a tendency to simply observe the various sharps and flats in the signatures, without remembering the names of the keys and the corresponding signatures. When practicing scales, always make a conscious effort to associate the key name. Once in a while, as a check, quiz yourself on the keys and signatures. They will soon be indelibly etched in your memory. Occasionally you should ask one of your friends to aid you by naming the 15 different starting notes in a random sequence; then see how quickly you can respond with the correct scale on the flute.

Try Singing

    Although I have pointed out the importance of feeling and seeing scales on the piano keyboard as a way of understanding them better on the flute, the ultimate test of your mastery is how well you hear the component intervals of a scale. An excellent ear-training exercise is to alternately play and sing the notes of a scale. Here is a suggested pattern to be practiced in various keys. The numbers represent the degrees of the scale. Play the uncircled numbers, and sing or hum in your most comfortable vocal register the circled ones:

    Finally, try this more difficult test of fingering and hearing sensitivity:

    You can invent an infinite number of variations (including descending patterns) to this exercise.

An Investment

    The practice of scales remains one of the most reliable methods for developing technique, but it is important that finger dexterity be coupled with theoretical under-standing if that practice is to be most effective. I have found that the time spent explaining these fundamentals to students has been returned in accelerated progress.