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How to Read Guitar Music for Beginners (Part 3)

Updated on September 16, 2012

Key Signature and the Major Scale

Scales are constructed from the musical alphabet. Different scales have different formulas for construction. When speaking about scales we refer to the individual tones as numbers and/or degrees. It makes it easier to communicate that way and we don’t have to talk about any specific scale because the conversation can apply to any scale. The formula for constructing a Major scale is:

A whole step between the 1st and 2nd degrees, whole step between the 2nd and 3rd degrees, a half step between the 3rd and 4th degrees, a whole step between the 5th and 6th degrees, a whole step between the 6th and 7th degrees and a half step between the 7th and 8th degrees.

The C Major scale begins with C and ends with C. Fig. 1 shows a written representation of a C Major scale.

Fig. 1

The reason there are no sharps or flats in the key of C is that each tone naturally satisfies the construction formula without alteration.

Looking at the D Major scale we have a different situation.

Raw scale: D E F G A B C D

The distance between D and E is a whole step, that’s okay but the distance between E and F is naturally a half step and to satisfy the formula we need to have a whole step. If we flat the E it gives a whole step but it also gives us a half step between the 1st and 2nd degrees so that’s not good. If we raise the 3rd making it an F# that solves the problem. It also gives us a half step between the 3rd and 4th degrees of the scale which is what we need.

Fig. 2

Exercise: Continue constructing the D Major scale using Fig. 2 as an aid.

So now we know why the key of D Major has 2 sharps. We use the Key Signature to indicate what key the song is written in. The Key Signature, shown on the left of Fig. 3 between the Treble Clef and the Time Signature, also indicates which notes should be altered, either raised or lowered, when playing the music.

The sharp sign (#) or flat (b) sign for each note altered is placed before the Time Signature on the line or space on the staff that represents that tone as shown in Fig. 2 and Fig 3.

The same principal holds true for keys that have flats in them like the key of Eb but instead of raising the degree of the scale you would flat it.

Exercise: Using the Raw scale below construct the Eb Major scale.

Raw scale: Eb F G A B C D Eb

Constructed scale: Eb F G Ab Bb C D Eb

As long as you follow the formula you can’t go wrong. See Fig 3.

Fig. 3

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