Theory Lesson 2: Major and Minor Scales and Key Signatures

If would be pretty boring we played all music in the same key. But we can rearrange where the half steps are in a scale and get 12 different major keys. (Do you know how many half steps there are in a scale? That’s right, 12!) A major key can be built off of every half step in a scale.

C   D♭  D   E♭  E   F   F#   G   A♭  A   B♭  B  

You might be wondering why I sharped some notes and made others flat. That’s because you will play something in B♭ a lot more than you will play something in the key of A#. Look at the piano, B♭ and A# are the same note. That means they are enharmonic equivalents: the same note written two different ways.

You know what key you are playing in based on the key signature at the beginning of the music.

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What’s up with all those sharps and flats? They look like they are completely random but they always occur in a certain order. If you have one sharp, it will always be F#. If you have two sharps they will always be F# and C#. The order goes like this:

F# C# G# D# A# E# B#

Use the mnemonic “Fat Cats Go Down Allies Eating Birds” to help you remember the order.

For flats, the order is the reverse of what it is for sharps.

B♭ E♭ A♭ D♭ G♭ C♭ F♭

Remember “Bead Go Catch Fish” for flats.

Unfortunately, if you have one sharp, it doesn’t mean you are in the key of F#. But it’s not to difficult to figure out what key you are in. For major keys with sharps, locate the last sharp that is written and go up a half step. That’s your key! So if you have one sharp, then F# is your last and only sharp. Go up a half step=G=key of G major. What if you have four sharps? You know the order will be F# C# G# D#. What’s the last sharp? D#. Now go up a half step to get E major.

For flats, it’s a little different. Find the second to last flat in your key signature and that’s what key you are in. You don’t have to worry about going up half steps. So if you have three flats (B♭ E♭ A♭) The second to last flat is E so you are in the key of E♭ . What if you only have one flat? For now just remember one flat is the Key of F. You’ll understand why when we learn about intervals.

These two tricks work for major keys. We’ll talk about minor keys later.

Major Scales

How do major scales work? Well it all depends on the arrangement of whole and half steps. Start with C major. Can you write half or whole in between each note?

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This is the order you get. Whole Whole Half Whole Whole Whole Half.

That’s the order of half and whole steps for all major scales which is why major scales sound the same. They have the same relationship between the notes. Try this exercise. Print out some blank sheet music. Notate an E (the first line on the treble staff). Without looking at a scale book and without thinking about your key signature for E, begin writing the scale just by the order of whole and half steps. Now compare your scale to an E major scale in your scale book. If you really  want to give yourself a workout, try doing this for the more complicated scales like A#.

You can number each note in your scale. We call these scale degrees. The numbers above the notes are the scale degrees.  Each note in a scale also has a name which are written below the note in the following picture.

Screenshot-2017-11-7 scale with scale degrees - Google Search.png

Don't worry about remembering the name for each scale degree. The most important ones are tonic, dominant, and the leading tone. Scale degrees and scale names are the same for major and minor keys.

Why do we call the seventh scale degree a leading tone? Because it wants to lead to tonic again. Try playing a scale and stop on the leading tone. You’ll be itching to play the tonic to feel complete. (Legend has it Mozart’s father would play scales in the morning ending on the leading tone. Young Mozart would jump out of bed, run down stairs, and play the tonic. Brilliant idea to get a prodigy up in the morning.)

Minor Key Signatures

You’ve probably recognized that some music sounds happy while other music sounds sad. For the most basic explanation Major=happy and Minor=sad.

For every major key, there is also a minor key that shares the same key signature. So there are 12 minor keys. How do you know if something is major or minor based on the key signature? It’s not always obvious at first since one key signature can have two possible keys (the major key and the minor key). A minor key that shares the same key signature as a major key is called a relative minor.

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Let’s say you have this key signature to the right.

 You’ve played through the song and it sounds sad. Now figure out what minor key you are in. First, determine what the major key would be? Remember for sharps you look at the last sharp written an go up a half step. So we are in the key of D major if we were in major. To determine the relative minor key, go backwards three half steps. I imagine a piano keyboard in my mind to help me count backwards. Three half steps back from D is B so you are in the key of B minor. Going back three half steps works for both sharp and flat keys. To sum it up, to determine a relative minor key determine the major key and go back three half steps to determine what the relative minor key is.

Screenshot-2017-11-6 e major - Google Search.png

Before we move on to what makes up a minor scale, memorize your key signatures. If you see this key signature to the right you want to know immediately it’s E major. Then test yourself on what the relative minor key would be. While it’s important to remember all your key signatures, focus on the ones you will be playing in the most. For now that’s 0-4 sharps or flats. Answers below.


Next we'll talk more about minor scales.

Happy Practicing!



Theory Lesson 1: Half Steps, Whole Steps, and Why They Are Important for the Violin

Most beginners' biggest fear about the violin is knowing where to put their fingers. While there are no frets, keys, or markers of any kind on a fingerboard, that doesn’t mean we aren’t using a framework to help us. That framework is built out of…you guessed it, half steps and whole steps.

What is a half step and whole step? First, let’s start with intervals which are measured distances between one note and another note. These distances are measured using half steps and whole steps. A half step is the smallest distance between one note and the next. On the violin, a half step is when your fingers are basically touching each other. A whole step is two half steps.

Half and whole steps are a lot easier to see on the piano. A piano keyboard is made up of white and black keys.



Do you see how there is a repetition of 2 black keys then 3 black keys? This pattern continues all the way up and down the keyboard. A half step is the distance from a white key to the black key that touches it. If you move to the right, the closest black key is a sharp. If you move to the left, the closest black key is a flat. Take the note D. If you move up a half step, you’ve reached D#. If you move down (left) a half step you have D flat. On the violin, moving up towards your bridge makes a note sharp and moving back towards your scroll makes it flat. On the piano, if you go from one black key to its nearest white key, you are also traveling a half step. D# to E is a half step.

If you study the keyboard you’ll notice there are two instances where white keys are touching each other with no black key in between them. These two instances occur between B and C and between E and F. That’s because B and C and E and F are half steps apart from each other respectively. If you go up a half step from B you get C (not B#). Other than these two instances, if you travel from one note to the next note in the musical alphabet you are traveling a whole step. For instance, G to A is a whole step (you’ve can also see how you’ve traveled two half steps: G to G# and G# to A).

So how does this help your violin playing? Two ways. Half steps and whole steps make up your invisible framework on your fingerboard and they also help with intonation. All intervals can be associated with certain songs to help you identify them. A half step sounds like the beginning of the theme song from Jaws (or the last movement from Dvorak's Symphony No. 9).

Choose any note on the violin and play “Jaws” using one note and a half step above that note. Your fingers should really be touching. Almost all beginners have trouble with their half steps being too far apart. Try playing “Jaws” again but this time scoot your half step finger up a little from the first. It doesn’t quite sound right, does it?

C Major Fingering Chart for Violin

Now let’s talk about how half steps and whole steps make up your invisible frame work. Your half steps and whole steps will change depending on what key you are in. Let’s say you’re playing in the Key of C. There are no sharps or flats in the Key of C so you’re only half steps will be between B and C and between E and F (remember the piano?). Here’s what the Key of C looks like on a violin in first position.


You can see the half steps, they’re the notes that are touching each other. You see how there are fewer half steps than whole steps. In fact there is usually only one pair of half steps for each string (if you’re staying in first position). Whatever key you are playing in, don’t worry about the whole steps, concentrate on remembering where the half steps are. This is how you build up your framework.

If I’m playing in the Key of C, all I have to remember is where the half steps are for each string. My framework looks something like this.

G string= B and C (2 and 3)
D string= E and F (1 and 2)
A string= B and C (1 and 2)
E string= No half steps (but your F is lower than your other first fingers since it is natural (not sharp or flat)

So when you are playing in the Key of C, I think 2 and 3, 1 and 2, 1 and 2, “low” 1 for each of the strings. This way you don’t have to think, “Is that second finger high or low?”

As your fingers develop more and more muscle memory, you don’t necessarily have to think about these numbers, your fingers will naturally just do it. But until then, practice thinking in terms of half steps.

Now you try. Let’s say we’re in the Key of G which has one sharp, F#. Your violin fingerboard is going to look almost the exact same except all of your F’s are going to move up one half step. What is your framework going to look like now? What are the numbers you are going to remember for each string? Think about it. I’ll give you the answer after this little video that is completely unrelated.

Okay. Here’s the answer for your half steps in the Key of G

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G string= 2 and 3 (B and C)
D string= 2 and 3 (F# and G)
A string= 1 and 2  (B and C)
E string= 1 and 2 (F# and G)


Try playing through a G scale starting at your open G string and going to your high G on the E string. Play it as fast as you can. You’re not thinking about notes, sharps, “high” 2s or “low” 2s. All you are thinking is 2 and 3, 2 and 3, 1 and 2, 1 and 2. Make those half steps fingers on each string super tight.

Can you play through the scale faster than you could if you were just thinking note to note? Keep working on it, just thinking about the half steps. The more you do it, the quicker it gets!

So embrace your half steps! They are the tiny building blocks for your left hand technique. Later we'll discuss  using half steps to help you play notes that span big leaps across the fingerboard, but first let’s talk a little about key signatures and scales.

Happy practicing!