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Welcome to my Harmony and Theory Bible series. These articles will aim to teach you how to approach theory and harmony, in a fun and creative way. Here you will find everything from beginners’ areas like intervals, chords, scale construction and modes to more complex harmony analysis and soloing approaches. Whether you are total beginner or somebody looking to recap some knowledge, this is the right place for you!

In today's article, we are focusing on the major scale and its harmony!





In order to understand different types of scales we have to first know what a scale is. Simply put, a scale is group of notes that start and end on the same note (pitch) an octave higher or lower. Every scale uses some sort of whole step (major 2nd) or half step (minor 2nd) distances between the notes. The most common scales are 7 note scales (the 8th note being the octave – same as first note) but we also have 5 note scales (pentatonic scales) or 6 note scale (whole tone scale) or 8 note scales (diminished scale or bebop scales!). For the purposes of this article we will focus on 7 note scales. Our starting point will be the major scale.


Major Scale Formula

The formula for any major scale is as follows: Root, Major 2nd, Major 3rd, Perfect 4th, Perfect 5th, Major 6th, Major 7th and Octave. This formula was used with all intervals in relation to the root of the scale (the starting and ending note of the scale - in our case C note or green dot on the picture).

Here is another way of writing major scale formula but this time we will be using whole step (W) and half step (H) method: Root, W, W, H, W, W, W and H. This formula is used if you count from notes as they appear in the scale. Some people prefer to call this tone (T) and semi tone (S).

Here is the major scale formula using a numbering system: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 (8 same as 1). Numbers represent intervals and are used (in some occasions, especially in gig situations) instead of Roman numerals to simplify things!

Let’s apply these formulas for the C major scale using all methods!

Formula counting everything from the root: C (Root), D (Major 2nd), E (Major 3rd), F (Perfect 4th), G (Perfect 5th), A (Major 6th), B (Major 7th) and C (Octave).

Formula using whole and half steps: C (Root), D (Whole step from C), E (Whole step from D), F (Half step from E), G (Whole step from F), A (Whole step from G), B (Whole step from A) and C (Half step from B).

Formula using letter (note name) system: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C.

We essentially end up with the same notes using all methods. Feel free to use whichever method suits you! Please remember that these formulas could be applied to any of the 12 notes from chromatic scale (not just C).


C Major Scale and its Harmony

Let’s look at the C major scale now: C D E F G A B (C).

C major scale

Below you will find a guitar graph that covers the C major scale in 5 positions (CAGED system). The CAGED system is based on open chord shapes that are turned into movable/bar chord shapes. We use it to equally split the guitar fretboard into 5 positions. For example, if you play the chord in position 1, that’s the same shape as E major open chord but played on the different place on the guitar neck. Therefore we call position 1 the E shape. We will rely on this system in future articles. You should read these graphs from left to right and from bottom to top!

Major Scale - five position (CAGED) system

Notice how all the notes in the C major scale use major or perfect intervals from root. It is also important to mention that C major scale has no accidental signs (sharps or flats).

To understand the major scale better, we will now look at 3 note (triads) and 4 note chords within the C major scale.


Triads (3 note chords) in C major scale:

  • I - C major (C E G) = we write I maj when labeling this on sheet of music.
  • II - D minor (D F A) = we write II min when labeling this on sheet of music.
  • III - E minor (E G B) = we write III min when labeling this on sheet of music.
  • IV - F major (F A C) = we write IV maj when labeling this on sheet of music.
  • V - G major (G B D) = we write V maj when labeling this on sheet of music.
  • VI - A minor (A C E) = we write VI min when labeling this on sheet of music.
  • VII - B diminished (B D F) = we write VII dim when labeling this on sheet of music.
  • VIII - C major (C E G) – same as I.

Some important information about Triads in C major scale:

  • Major chords are on I, IV and V (1st, 4th and 5th) scale degrees (note in the scale)
  • Minor chords are on II, III and VI scale degrees
  • Diminished chord is on VII scale degree.


4 note chords in C major scale:

  • I - C major7 (C E G B) = we write I maj7 when labeling this on sheet of music.
  • II - D minor7 (D F A C) = we write II min7 when labeling this on sheet of music.
  • III - E minor7 (E G B D) = we write III min7 when labeling this on sheet of music.
  • IV - F major7 (F A C E) = we write IV maj7 when labeling this on sheet of music.
  • V - G dominant7 (G B D F) = we write V7 when labeling this on sheet of music.
  • VI  - A minor7 (A C E G) = we write VI min7 when labeling this on sheet of music.
  • VII - B minor7b5 (B D F A) = we write VII min7b5 when labeling this on sheet of music.
  • VIII - C major7 (C E G B) – same as I.

Some important information about 4 note chords in C major scale:

  • Major7 chords are on I and IV scale degrees;
  • Minor7 chords are on II, III and VI scale degrees;
  • Dominant7 chord is on V scale degree;
  • Minor7b5 chord is on VII scale degree.

Now we will talk about cadence. An improvisation will follow over a C major chord.



Simply put, cadence is group of chords (2 or more) that describe a given scale or mode and give it sense of resolution in a harmonic way. Since we have 7 notes in the C major scale (hence 7 chords) we have to figure out which ones would describe the C major scale best. How do we do that? It is very simple! We will look for chords that have stable notes (C E G of the scale) and less stable notes (D F A) or very unstable (F and B). In cadence we use 3 names to label those areas: Tonic (stable sound of the scale), Subdominant (less stable) and Dominant (least stable sound). In order for us to have a cadence for the C major scale, we would ideally use one chord from each area (tonic, subdominant and dominant). Without a doubt, the most stable chord in C major scale is the C major triad, which makes it fit under the tonic category. This triad has the notes C E G and it describes the sound of the C major scale perfectly. The subdominant area has 2 chords in it and they are F major (F A C) and D minor (D F A). Both of these chords have D and A notes which bring some instability to the C major scale sound. Try playing D and A notes over a C major chord and you will see what I mean! Finally, the dominant area has 2 chords in it and they are G major (G B D) and B diminished (B D F). Both chords have B and D as common notes which have tendency to resolve to a C note (root of the scale). There is also the F note in the B diminished chord, which could go to E or G (both notes belong to a C major chord!). An additional thing to know is that under the Tonic category we also have 2 more chords besides C major and they are A minor (A C E) and E minor (E G B). Between C major, A minor and E minor, the C major chord is the most stable tonic chord when it comes to describing the C major scale. A minor is 2nd on the list (it has A C E from which C and E are very important notes of the scale and belong to C major chord) while E minor is on the last place (it has E G B, shares E and G with C major chord but the problem is C note is missing which is root of the scale and very important note for stability of the harmony!). Here is a list of 4 classical cadences (from 1600-1900s): authentic, half, plagal and deceptive. We use this terminology even today, especially when talking to classical musicians :)

Ok, now that we’ve covered all 3 areas for cadences, let’s create a chord progression using Tonic, Subdominant and Dominant chord in C major.

  • Tonic: C major
  • Subdominant: F major
  • Dominant: G major
  • Tonic again to create sense of resolution: C major

This chord progression is also known as I, IV, V, I using all major chords. It is used not only in classical music but in all styles of music!

I have used C major to F major to G major and to C major chord progression in the backing for my improvisation in C major scale.

Here is an example of how to improvise in all 5 positions, using only the C major scale.


With all this information I will leave you to enjoy audio examples of the C major scale harmony and improvising example. Study the C major scale carefully and try to apply it to your own playing/improvising/accompanying/composing.

Feel free to leave comments, ask any questions you might have or simply share your opinions regarding this article. I will be happy to respond and help everybody!

Have fun studying this material and I will see you in the part 4 where we will focus on modes of major scale!


Pedja Simovic!/predrag.simovic


Related articles:

Harmony and Theory Bible (part 2) - Chords (Triads and 4 Note Chords)

Harmony and theory bible (part 1) - Introduction to intervals and chromatic scale