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What is a simple way to determine the notes in a scale?

For example, let's say, that somehow you determined that a song you want to play, is in the key F# major. How can you quickly recall or figure out the notes that are included in the F# major scale?

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Do you want to know key the signature? Or relative major/minor? Or the notes in the key? Please elaborate. Also F# doesn't tell us anything about the key for example the key of C major is different then the key of C minor. –  Dom Nov 9 '13 at 21:13
    
Are you talking about finding the notes of a scale, or finding the accidental signs in a key signature? –  American Luke Nov 9 '13 at 22:36
    
@American Luke- accidentals don't appear in key signatures. That's why they're called accidentals. All accidentals are sharps/flats/naturals, but not all #/b/naturals are accidentals. –  Tim Nov 10 '13 at 7:35
    
Late edit !! Natural signs will always be accidentals !! As will bb and x, as they won't appear in a key sig. –  Tim Nov 10 '13 at 7:44
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Why do you minus me? I'll fix the post! –  Jesus Christ Nov 10 '13 at 10:35

5 Answers 5

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Scales are built on interval formulas. Diatonic scales (no added sharps or flats other than what is in the key signature) use only half steps and whole steps. With a diatonic scale you can follow the same interval pattern for major scales and one for minor scales. These patterns (as seen in the links) are Whole Whole Half Whole Whole Whole Half which is often notated as WWHWWWH for major and Whole Half Whole Whole Half Whole Whole notated as WHWWHWW for minor.

*Note - An interval is the distance between two notes. (ex: C to C# is a half step)

Using these interval patterns you can start at your root note (the first note of the scale) and follow the pattern. For example with a C major scale you start with the root (which is C) and use the major interval pattern to find the rest of the scale. Which would be this:

root(C), whole step(D), whole step(E), half step(F), whole step(G), whole step(A), whole step(B), half step(C)

I would suggest trying a couple major and minor keys using the correct pattern to get the hang of it. If you get stuck look at a key signature chart or a circle of fifths to make sure you have the right notes in the key.

Here is a list of all the scale interval patterns if you are working with more than just diatonic scales:

Major Scale: R, W, W, H, W, W, W, H

Natural Minor Scale: R, W, H, W, W, H, W, W

Harmonic Minor Scale: R, W, H, W, W, H, 1 1/2, H (notice the step and a half)

Melodic Minor Scale: going up is: R, W, H, W, W, W, W, H

going down is: R, W, W, H, W, W, H, W

Dorian Mode is: R, W, H, W, W, W, H, W

Mixolydian Mode is: R, W, W, H, W, W, H, W

Ahava Raba Mode is: R, H, 1 1/2, H, W, H, W, W

A minor pentatonic blues scale (no sharped 5) is: R, 1 1/2, W, W, 1 1/2, W

R - root
W - whole step 
H - half step
1 1/2 - a step and a half

I hope that helps. Good luck!

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I'm not quite sure this is what the OP was asking, but it is a good answer in itself. –  American Luke Nov 9 '13 at 22:40
    
I cannot be exactly sure what they were asking, but I am pretty sure that I gave him the answer he was looking for. I hope they reply soon so that I can help them come to a conclusion. –  MattCamp Nov 9 '13 at 22:41

@Neil Meyer has covered what the cycle of fifths is (well, half of it), but it works the same way with the flats.

Since you just want to play/jam (and I guess at the moment you don't want to write down on a formal piece of paper anything) I suggest you do this:

Start with the C major scale (or A minor) that has only natural notes. That means the notes it contains are C D E F G A B.

Now, look at this picture: enter image description here

I know it might seem confusing at the beginning, but you'll get used to it. The notes you're going to need in the C major scale are the colored ones (as well as the open strings).

Just play them again and again and again and you'll get used to them eventually (that's what I did). It might be easier to play the notes (of C major scale) on just the first 5-6 frets at first,then add one more fret,then one more and so on..

Then, when you feel comfortable enough, move on to the next scale (on the cycle of fifths), so that there aren't that many differences on the key (only one sharp or flat) and you do the same thing.

enter image description here

This is a good picture to help you with it. You start from the C and then move on on the right or left till you reach the last one.

Each step on the right adds a sharp (#) to your key. That means G major scale has one sharp, D major scale has 2 sharps etc.. The cycle works the same way if you go to the left. The only difference is that you add a flat (b) to your key.

If this picture confuses you, here are some tips: Each pizza piece contains the chord (C), then the notes that the chord contains (C E G) and then the relative minor chord (Am).

Edit: If you don't want to use the cycle for whatever reason of yours, you can just Google 'C major scale' or 'F minor scale' or whatever to find out what notes the scale you are interested in contains and then use the first image to find them on the fretboard.

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For example, let's say, that somehow you determined that a song you want to play, is in the key F# major. How can you quickly recall or figure out the notes that are included in the F# major scale?

OK here is how I teach it.

  • You start on C major. It has no sharps or flats (But it does have semi tones) You count 5 (C.d.e.f.G) G is our new key Number four is the one where we get the sharp (C.d.e.F.g) Hence G major has a F sharp
  • We keep on counting though from G to get a new key. (G.a.b.c.D) D is our new key. It keeps it sharp from the previous key (F#) And gets a new one at four again (G.a.b.C.d) So D major has a F and C sharp
  • We now count from D to get a new key (D.e.f.g.A) A is our new key. It keeps its sharps from the previous key (F# and C#). And gets a new one at four again (D.e.f.G.a). So A major has F,C and G sharps.
  • We count then from A to get a new key. (A.b.c.d.E) E major is our new key. It keeps its sharps from the previous key (F, C and G) And gets a new one at 4 again. (A.b.c.D.e) So E major has F,C,G and D sharps
  • We then count E to get a new key. (E,f,g,a,B) B major is our new key It keeps its sharps from the previous key (F, C, G and D) And gets a new one at the fourth step. (E,f,g,A,b) So B major has a F, C , G D and A sharp.
  • We then count from B to get a new key. (B,c,d,e,F) Now we get F SHARP! major It keeps its previous sharps (F, C, G, D and A) And gets a new one at the fourth step. (B,c,d,E,f) Thus F sharp major has F, C, G, D, A and E
  • Last one of the sharps. We count five from F (F,g,a,b, C) Now we get C SHARP! major And it still keeps its previous sharps (F,C,G,D,A,E) And gets a new one at four. (F,g,a,B, C) So C sharp Major has a F,C,G,D,A,E and B sharp
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If you want the flats ask a new question and let me know. –  Neil Meyer Nov 11 '13 at 6:51
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Whilst thorough,this is way too technical.For a keyboard player it may work, where the notes are laid out graphically, and there IS only ONE place to play a given note, but for a budding guitarist (OP), first he'll have to learn all the notes, fret by string, and then work out how to transfer from one note in a scale to the next - up a fret, or onto the next string ?? By the time he's done all this he will have taken up another instrument !! Patterns work for guitars -I know, I play and teach both ! It does work on keys,'black notes' are introduced sequentially. No black notes on my guitars... –  Tim Nov 19 '13 at 17:12

MattCamp's is a thorough answer, but I feel that the question is too vague. If the OP is asking purely about SCALES, then this would probably work, but would depend a lot on the instrument in question. If it's keyboard related, then # and b being quoted may help find a way round (black notes = # & b), but if it was a guitar, for example, it's not much help. Each note looks the same ! For scales on the guitar, patterns work far better. Not particularly technical - but who says music making has to be ?

Why would one want to learn (or know) scales? You don't learn the alphabet to be able to speak. They're there to mix up to make tunes, so either way, learning scales by whatever method should only be a means to an end. By the time the OP has learned all the formulae for the different sorts of scales (why no pentatonics ?) he may as well have learned them note by note by rote.

Now the question is a lot clearer - I think the answers so far all go along lines that are too technical.Your answer as a guitarist is to learn PATTERNS on the fretboard. When you've learned just one shape (2 octaves worth) for each of the main scales - major, natural minor, maj. and min. pentatonic. and the variant called blues, you'll have enough patterns and shapes to cope. To change key, just move up or down. This is not a complete panacea - it doesn't exist - but it'll take you a long way, safely.

Guitars are amongst very few instruments that this trick works for, so feel lucky. Try a phrase you know, in the key you know, then move it along the fretboard. You keep the same relative fingerings, but you'll be playing in a new key. Goodluck !

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We learn alphabet to be able to write correctly :) –  Jesus Christ Nov 10 '13 at 21:12
    
But your question was about playing, not writing. Hence my statement. –  Tim Nov 10 '13 at 22:19

The answers above are very good; you should know how to figure this out on you own. Though, if it helps, there are a few online tools that can tell you this information (and more). Here's a good one: http://www.musictheorysite.com/scale-generator/

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I need this scale generator to be in my head, not an online site :) –  Jesus Christ Nov 10 '13 at 21:46

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