copyright © 1995 Will Pirkle Last Modified: Oct 1, 1995
This lesson originally appeared on StickWire - the Official Chapman Stick Mailing List.
Reproduced here by permission. This article can be reprinted only in its entirety.

Theory On Tap
Lesson 3a: Major Scale Part II

In Part I of this lesson, I gave a brief rundown of the history of Western Music and how the Major Scale plays an important role. We saw that there are some neat things that happen when you arrange the 12 chromatic notes into a 7-note scale consisting of mixed whole and half steps. There is an interesting phenomena that occurs with the 4th and 5th tones. Lesson I was written to give people a reason to want to learn the major scale (unlike most music teachers who force you to blindly learn scales "because everyone else does").

In Part II, I'm going to show the Major Scale Recipe, and how the scale arranges itself on the Stick(TM) fretboard. Hopefully, this will provide an ample foundation for the future Theory On Tap teachers to use. Perhaps, they will incorporate some of the Major Scale INsights I'm trying to provide here so that a unifying thread will tie the lessons together.

The Recipe

In the last lesson, we observed that learning note-sequences consisting of only half steps or only whole steps has a limited useage in Western Music. We want to learn the note sequences that are ripe with harmonically interesting ideas -- perhaps even so that we may purposely violate the ideas (atonal and 20th Century Music). The Major Scale is a mixture of half and whole steps that "work" in a secure way with the root, 4th and 5th of the key you are in. You can make any major scale by taking the following recipe and applying it to the chromatic sequence of notes:


These sequences of notes are identical in pitch, but not name (notice that C# = Db, etc...). The reaons for naming with #'s or b's will become obvious in later lessons, especially the Circle of 4ths lesson.

The Major Scale Recipe is:

W W h W W W h

Where: W = Whole Step

h = half step

If you have a piano nearby, you'll see that this WWhWWWh is the precise arrangement of the white keys starting with C. Thus, it is the C Major scale on the piano.

Suppose you want to produce the series of notes in the A Major Scale. What you do is start on A in the chromatic sequence above, and follow the recipe. Remember that the above sequence extends in both directions forever.

So it goes like this:

A Major Scale
(Key of A Major)
Starting note:
Whole Step --> B
Whole Step --> C#
half Step --> D
Whole Step --> E
Whole Step --> F#
Whole Step --> G#
half Step --> A

So, the sequence is: A B C# D E F# G# A

Exercise: Derive the Major Scale for the following keys:
C Major, G Major, F# Major

You should be able to apply the Recipe and come out with the correct sequences (answers at the end of this lesson).

There is an easier way to learn the note names to all 12 of the Major Scales by learning about Key Signatures and The Cycle of 4ths/5ths -- I believe that these topics are handled in future Theory On Tap lessons. It is important to know the names of the notes within the scales, even if you are learning the Major Scale by pattern recognition instead of note names. In Part I, I discussed the concept of tonal music and movement from one tonal area (key) to other areas. Knowing the names of the notes, and their degree gives you a lot of options for tonal movement. Degree really means interval: in the above example of A Major, we say that B is the 2nd degree, and G# is the 7th degree, etc... For completeness, here are the degrees of the Major Scale (with the example being the Key of A Major):

Note Name Degree Musical Terminology
A 1st tonic
B 2nd supertonic
C# 3rd mediant
D 4th subdominant
E 5th dominant
F# 6th submediant
G# 7th leading-tone

The Major Scale on the Stick

There is a diagram in Emmett Chapman's book, Free Hands, called STRINGS IN 4THS TO INFINITY. I am going to touch a little on this diagram, but I think that Free Hands does an impressive job of describing, discussing, and relating this pattern to to the Stick TouchBoard(TM). Also, I think the point of Theory On Tap is to add some Music Theory that can be used to support and supplement Free Hands, and not to simply repeat or replace what's already there.

The Major Scale has an interesting relationship with the 4th and 5th scale degrees. An instrument tuned purely in 4ths or 5ths (inverted 4ths) is bound to have an equally interesting relationship to the Major Scale. The one-octave Major scale has the following patterns on the Melody side of the Stick:

                             1 = use first finger here
(*) = Root = Tonic = 1st Degree

Check out for yourselves the location of the WWhWWWh pattern. Do it! Prove it to youself. It will also be helpful to remember the degree numbers with relationship to the root in terms of graphic position. Check out another way to play the same notes:

                             2 = use 2nd finger here

This pattern produces the same pitches and the same sequence of WWhWWWh. Check out this one:

                            3,4 = use 3rd or 4th finger here

Hold on!! These 3 patterns produce the same pitches, same WWhWWWh sequence, but look totally different. You are discovering something called an over-abundance of options that happens on any stringed instrument (except keyboard operated, and harp-like ones). The same notes occur many times on different strings in different positions.

What Emmett did with the Infinite 4ths diagram was to tame this over-abundance and put it in a perspective that almost anyone can easily grasp!

To really know the major scale, you need to be able to play it anywhere on the Stick, starting from any note. The Infinite 4ths diagram shows that the Major Scale pattern really repeats itself every 7 strings. If you learn this one pattern, you can play the Major Scale anywhere on the neck, starting from any note. Sounds like a miracle. Maybe it is.

Here is the pattern (this is a fictitious 10-string melody instrument -- see Free Hands for more clarification) -- the Root (tonic) notes are marked as (*):

  |-----|-----|--*--|-----|--*--|--*--|-----|-----|   repeats
                 ^ Start pattern here

The starting note I give isn't the tonic, but it is where this pattern repeats in terms of groups of strings. The big picture can be broken into smaller repeating units like this: (3), (2), (2)

(3) string pattern:

then (2) string pattern:


and finally another (2) string pattern:


Remember, 7 notes in the Major Scale, 3+2+2 = 7, the 5th is 7 half steps from the root, pattern repeats every 7 strings; there is even more numerology than that in this system, but I think you get the picture.

Because the Melody half is tuned in pure 4ths, this pattern wraps around the fretboard spirally (see reference at end for more details). So, unless you have a 10 string all melody Stick, you won't be able to see the whole pattern in a given position; only part of it.

What about the Bass strings?

Since the bass strings are tuned in inverted 4ths (5ths, that is), you would expect a similar pattern to exist on them, and one does. It also repeats after 7 strings. And, it contains the Infinte 4ths diagram within it!

Here is the Strings in Infinite 5ths diagram, showing the bass strings. So, the lowest strings are at the TOP of the diagram and the highest strings at the BOTTOM of the diagram. Check it out:

                       v Start Pattern Here
  |--*--|-----|--*--|-----|--*--|-(*)-|-----|-----|   repeats

This time, you play 4 notes per string before going to the next. This pattern breaks into repeating patterns in a 2, 2, 2, 1 fashion:

Pair (2 strings):

then another (2):


then another (2):


then a single string (1):


And, 2+2+2+1 = (you guessed it) 7

After this, the pattern repeats. That last string (1) has all whole steps. Remember the sequence WWhWWWh? The 3 W steps in a row wind up together on this string.

Look carefully at the pattern and you'll see the Infinite 4ths pattern inside of it.

Learning to play and move these patterns all over the neck is a matter of learning which part of the pattern you are in relative to your tonic or root note. This means learning the scale starting from (and ending on) any of the above notes. As it turns out, scales based off of different notes of a particular scale are called modes All of the Major Scale's modes are contained in the Infinite 4ths diagram, it just depends on where you start and end the portion of the pattern. The next Thoery On Tap lesson is going to discuss the modes in a LOT more detail, but I'd like to give one pointer on the modes:

It is easy to fall into the trap of associating the modes with the Major Scale they are derived from. In other words, thinking of the modes as a subset. This is natural since their patterns fall out of the Major Scale pattern. If you do this, your compositions will wind up sounding Major all the time (no variety). It is OK to conceive and learn the modes as they relate to the Major Scale they come from. Once you have done this, begin looking at the modes as altered major scales. Break them away from their associated "parent" Major Scale and listen

In the Modes lesson, you are going to find out how to play certain modes over certain chords. This is the really musical way to use the modes. When you have learned the patterns, go back and listen to the modes very closely, independent of any root chord. The modes each have a different flavor, a different mood that is associated with them. In the Modes lesson you'll learn how to capitalize on the moods they create by backing them up with the appropriate chords (or, backing up chords with the appropriate modes -- either way produces the same result).

I started this off with the concept that melodies come from note sequences (and rhythms). We want to learn robust, generalized note sequences to use for composition and improvisation. There is a special relationship between the Major Scale and the 4th and 5th tones. The number 7 comes up a lot. In addition, the derivitave scales, called the modes, give us even more note sequences that fit nicely over an almost infinite variety of chord structures which form the backbone of our compositions.

It will take more Theory On Tap to tie this together with chords, key changes, different tonal centers and songwriting/improvisation. Consume and digest the Infinite 4ths Pattern and Infinite 5ths pattern. Then, stay tuned for more Theory On Tap and always experiment on your instrument. The Stick is designed to be musically friendly. Make it talk!

Will Pirkle 9-22-95


The "Strings in Fourths to Infinity" diagram was taken directly from Free Hands, Page 41. Free Hands also covers the breakdown of its components, including a much more thorough graphical explanation of the unfolding of this pattern across the fretboard.

Free Hands, by Emmett Chapman
Published by Stick Enterprises, 1974/5/6/, 1980, 1989 Contact Stick Enterprises for more information.


C Major: C D E F G A B C
G Major: G A B C D E F# G
F# Major: F# G# A# B C# D# E# F#
(trick: E# = F <-- prove it to yourself!)

Thanks to Rick Bellinger for proofing my lessons!

Lessons: 1| 2 | 3 - Part I| 3 - Part II| 4 - Part I| 4 - Part II| 5| 6| 7| 8| 9| 10| 11| 12|
copyright © 1995 Will Pirkle
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