Why are scales called major and minor

Scales (scales), Jürg Hochweber

See also: church modes, modes, scales on the fingerboard, chord structure, home

Preliminary remark: all the scales discussed can of course be shifted (= transposed) into all keys, I always start with c as the reference tone (or with scales similar to minor from the parallel a).


The basis of all scales is the well-known Major scale: do re mi fa sol la ti do with the two semitones mi - fa and ti - do. Or absolutely from c:

Example in C major:



Has the same ingredients pure A minor, only then a is the root note, (i.e. the melody usually ends on a and the main accompanying chord is Am).

Example of pure A minor:



if the g is increased to g sharp, we speak of harmonic minor:


if the f is also increased to f sharp, we get melodic minor:

In melodic minor, the increases in f sharp and g sharp are usually only valid in the upward movement, while the notes f and g are used in the downward movement.


In a melody there is rarely only harmonic, melodic or pure minor, but alternates, that is, the notes F, F sharp, G sharp, G sharp can be used in A minor. If the chord E (the dominant) sounds, then g sharp is usually appropriate, but if the chord G sounds, for example, then g. F sharp and g sharp appear in ascending lines, f and g appear downward. Fixed rules cannot be established, however, your hearing has to decide.



The so-called Church modes, also Modes called, derived from the C major scale (not in the historical sense), they differ from C major and pure A minor only in that a different tone is perceived as the fundamental tone, but they contain the same components:

Keynote scale Sounds
d: d-Doric d e f g a h c
e E-Phrygian e f g a h c d
f f-Lydian f g a h c d e
G g-Mixolydian g a h c d e f
a aeolian (= pure minor) a h c d e f g
H (h-Locrian) h c d e f g a
c c-ionic (= major) c d e f g a h

So: D-Doric contains the same tones as C major or E-Phrygian etc. Analogously, for example, E-Doric contains the same tones as D major or F sharp Phrygian.

There is a lot of confusion about the names and uses of the modes. Even the medieval theorists erroneously assigned the terms Doric, Lydian etc. to the Greek tribes of the Dorians and Lydians etc. Furthermore, the term 'church modes' suggests that it is a matter of keys such as G major or F major, although it actually refers to key types such as major and minor. But even that is only partially true, since the church modes in the Renaissance and earlier meant rather certain melodic turns. And today many believe that it is a kind of style, even if only a didactic model is meant.

Note: In improvisation courses you often see scale names that belong to chord progressions, such as:

Aeolian D-Mixolydian C-Lydian H-Phrygian
Em D. C. Hm

this is of course rather confusing, since all four scales have the same components, namely e f sharp g a h c d (= pure E minor).


As in harmonic minor, in Phrygian the g can be increased to g sharp, but g and g sharp are usually not directly next to each other. While the other church modes almost merge with major or minor, Phrygian has a certain independence. The distinctive semitone step f - e to the root is probably responsible for this. Sometimes the d is raised to d flat as a leading tone to e. This scale sounds oriental and flamenco-like and is also very popular in pop music.

Example Phrygian:


Example Dorian:

As you can see, the notes here are the same as in the pure or Aeolian A minor, only here d is felt as the keynote. Accordingly, Dm is also the main chord, and G is the characteristic chord for D Dorian (major subdominant).


The pentatonic scale on c is simply a major scale without the notes f and b. So there are no semitones. If a is perceived as the root note (main accompanying chord is Am), one can speak of pentatonic A minor, but the term is not standard.

Example pentatonic A minor:



Blues scale:

Unfortunately, this is a very unclear term that is used in different ways. Originally it was a major scale, where the third and seventh notes can also be lowered (the seventh almost always). The fifth note is also sometimes lowered (flatted fifth). Often the tones are deliberately played impure, 'smeared' (pitch bend).

Example blues scale:

Today, the blues scale is usually understood to be the pentatonic scale with an additional passage tone:
a c d es e f g. This is sometimes referred to as minor blues:

But that's a bit misleading because typical blues pieces don't use this scale. In general, scales are not the typical element of the blues, but, among other things, the 12 bar scheme and the frequent use of 'smeared' tones.



'Gypsy Minor'

Example Gypsy Minor:


Scales that cannot be traced back to the major scale:


Whole tone scale:
It simply consists of loud whole-tone steps.

It takes some experience to incorporate the whole tone scale so that it looks natural. E.g. in jazz and blues possible. It usually only appears briefly above the dominant (here in the third bar) and the continuation should lead as seamlessly as possible into other, familiar scales. The whole-tone scale is related to melodic minor, as almost only whole-tone steps occur there.

Example with whole tone scale:



the Whole semitone scale (also called reduced scale):

A whole step alternates with a semitone step. This scale also appears on the (altered) dominant.

Sound sample whole-tone semitone scale:

This scale is very popular in jazz.


I almost forgot the chromatic scale, which simply consists of all semitone steps.


That would be the usual scales.
If we still allow quarter tones and the like, there would be countless other scales. However, these cannot be systematically investigated, they can hardly be derived from the natural overtone spectrum.


© copyright 2002/2017 by Jürg Hochweber