Piano Scales Explained

In this post, we are going over some basics of piano scales, including major scales and minor scales.

First of all, let’s start with what a scale is. In music, a scale is a series of eight successive notes, with the eighth note duplicating the first. The notes in a piano scale are arranged systematically and played after each other. For instance, start from C, then D -> E -> F -> G -> A -> B, to C in the next higher octave. We also call the eight-note scale the Diatonic Scale.

The diatonic scale has two types: Major Scale and Minor Scale.

Why is a Piano Scale Important?

The scale helps define the key to a song. The key indicates how to build the chords in the song and helps you understand where the melody line is going.

The more you understand the tones in different piano scales, the easier it is to play or create a song.

Another thing worth mentioning is the importance of practicing piano scales. It is the foundation to build your techniques. Additionally, through practice, you’ll have your fingers, ears, and mind immersed in these scales, significantly enhancing your piano skills. This is just like developing muscle memories in sports via practice.

Key Signatures

Before we delve into the major and minor scales, let’s understand the steps and key signatures first.


A half step is a distance from one pitch to the next nearest pitch, either up or down. This particular interval is often referred to as a semitone.

A whole step is two adjacent half steps, also known as the whole tone.

When you go to the following immediate key on a piano keyboard, it is a half step. The following depicts some examples of semitones and whole tones.


Playing from a white key to a black key or vice versa is always a half-step. From the white key to the white key, it is not always a whole step because when there is no black key between two white keys, it is only half step, such as from E to F or B to C.


Accidentals are symbols. When placed before a note, change the note to a half-step.

Accidental Symbol  Meaning and Effect
sharp sign Sharp: raises pitch a half-step
flat sign Flat: lowers the pitch a half-step.
OR Double-Sharp: raised pitch two half-steps or one whole-step
double flat Double-Flat: lowers pitch two half-steps or one whole-step
natural Natural: cancels a sharp or a flat

Accidentals affect only the tones within that octave register and within that measure.

Key Signature

What is the Key Signature in Western Music Notation? The sharps and flats immediately next to the clef sign are called the key signature. These accidentals affect every note on the line or the entire piece of music unless they are canceled by a natural sign.

In the example below, every F note in this line has a half-step raised to F# (the red circled notes) since a sharp sign is placed on the F line in the key signature. It also indicates the song is in G major scale.

example of key signature: an f sharp

Major Scale

A major scale is a series of eight notes arranged in a specific pattern of whole steps and half steps.

Let’s use C Major as an example. To construct a major scale, we first start with the name of the scale, frequently called root or tonic. With the C major scale, the root is the note C, and the rest of the scale would fall in line as follows:

C -> D

Whole Step

D -> E

Whole Step

E -> F

Half Step

F -> G

Whole Step

G -> A

Whole Step

A -> B

Whole Step

B -> C

Half Step

c major scale
c major scale piano

With the above major scale rule, it is easy to construct a major scale with any root note. For instance, we can use the rule to derive the F major scale as follows:

d major scale
d major scale piano

Minor Scale

Each major key will have a relative minor key, the sixth tone of a major scale. The relative minor scale is built upon the relative minor key. For instance, D is the 6th tone of the F major scale, G♯ is the 6th tone of the B major scale, etc.

The Key Signature of both the major scale and its relative minor scale is the same. However, the difference is where the whole steps and half steps in a scale.

There are three forms of the minor scale:

  • Pure or Natural
  • Harmonic
  • Melodic

Natural Minor Scales

The natural or pure minor scale begins on the 6th note of its relative major scale and ascends or descends for one octave. Additionally, the minor scale uses the key signature of the major scale.

Major ScaleRelative Minor Key
Major ScaleRelative Minor Key

We usually use lowercase letters to indicate the minor scales. The half steps in the ascending natural minor scale come between

  • the 2nd and 3rd notes, and
  • the 5th and 6th notes within a minor scale.
c minor natural with descending

Harmonic Minor Scales

The harmonic minor scale is a variation from the natural minor scale. The difference is that the 7th note is elevated half a step. See the red note in the example. The half steps in ascending occur between

  • the 2nd and 3rd notes
  • the 5th and 6th notes, and
  • the 7th and 8th notes
harmonic c minor scale piano

The elevated 7th note in the harmonic minor creates a distance of one and a half steps between the 6th and 7th notes.

Melodic Minor Scales

The melodic minor scale is another variation of the natural minor scale. In ascending, the 6th and 7th notes have an elevated half step, and in descending, the 6th and 7th notes return to the natural minor scale form. In the below example, pay attention to the red notes. In this particular scale, the ascending and descending are different.

piano scale: c minor melodic scale

In the melodic minor ascending, the half steps occur between the 2-3 and 7-8 notes.

Chromatic Scales

A chromatic scale is a scale that consists entirely of half steps. You play every key (white and black) in succession on the piano.

  • Sharp and natural symbols are used for the ascending scale
  • Flat and natural symbols are used for the descending scale
piano scale: chromatic scale

In the chromatic scale ascending and descending notations, you can see the same tones being written in a different format. For example, C♯ = D♭, A♯ = B♭, etc.

They are enharmonic tones. It means that some tones are written on the clefs differently but refer to the same sound or the same piano key.

Piano Scales Chart

The following piano scales chart shows the cycle of keys and the relationship between all the major and minor scales. To read the chart, starting from C, moving to the right gives you the keys containing sharps, and moving to the left gives you the keys containing flats.

The chart also shows some enharmonic tones.

piano scales chart

The table below summarizes the major scales with the number of sharps or flats.

Scale# of Accidentals1234567
G1 sharpF♯
D2 sharpsF♯C♯
A3 sharpsF♯C♯G♯
E4 sharpsF♯C♯G♯D♯
B5 sharpsF♯C♯G♯D♯A♯
F♯6 sharpsF♯C♯G♯D♯A♯E♯
C♯7 sharpsF♯C♯G♯D♯A♯E♯B♯
F1 flatB♭
B♭2 flatsB♭E♭
E♭3 flatsB♭E♭A♭
A♭4 flatsB♭E♭A♭D♭
D♭5 flatsB♭E♭A♭D♭G♭
G♭6 flatsB♭E♭A♭D♭G♭C♭
C♭7 flatsB♭E♭A♭D♭G♭C♭F♭

To Warp Up…

Learning and practicing the piano scales enables you to wrap your fingers and mind around all the notes in the scales. Moreover, it enhances your understanding of melodies and chords. You can practice the piano scales slowly at first and build up your speed. Here are the Piano Scales for Beginners: 7 Jump-Start Tips.

The metronome can be helpful to your practice and make your scale play consistent with each note. If you have a digital piano, you may leverage some of the built-in drum rhythms, depending on the model, to facilitate your practice with more fun.

Related: Music Fundamentals Series

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