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How Beginner Music Theory Makes You Into A Better Songwriter Part 2

You have heard the terms major and minor, and you know some scales. Not too bad, just use major or minor depending on your chord. Easy as that, right?


What if I told you there is more than one major or minor scale? What if I told you you could play in E minor on an F major chord? Okay, it’s super complicated, then?

Not necessarily. Learning more scales and when to use them opens up a world of possibilities for new melodies. However, before we get into combining everything, let’s break down some basic scales.

What is a Scale?

A scale is a collection of notes that fit over a certain tonality. Tonality simply means some key or chord that needs moving or melodic lines for our purposes.

We form a scale by using fundamental building blocks called intervals. Next, let’s dive into how to name and measure intervals.


Check out the keyboard below and observe all the terms we have written out.

Notice our labels we are assigning with each colored dot corresponding to the label directly above it. Either key is either being called major or perfect interval. These labels are based around a major scale, in this case, C major.

Let’s break down some of the rules these labels are following.

  • The major intervals only happen on the 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 7th
  • The perfect intervals only happen on the 4th or 5th, as well as the 1st and 8th
  • The numbering starts on perfect 1st, also called a unison
  • The scale “restarts” on the perfect 8th, also called an octave

Not so bad! But how does this work in other keys? Check out this labeled keyboard in F.

The exact same labels are used because intervals are simply about the distance from one key to another. To understand this, let’s label the rest of the keys in C major.

Notice every key is now labeled, and that extends beyond our C major scale. The distance between adjacent labeled keys is called a half step or semitone.

Semitones are the foundation that our interval labels are based on. Each label simply indicates how many semitones are in between a note. Therefore, we could say a major 3rd is a distance of 4 semitones. Now, let’s check out all of our intervals from D.

Once again, intervals are just a measurement of the distance between two notes from any starting point and are the foundation of scales, but also later concepts such as chords.


Now that we have learned the basics, we can truly understand what scales are. They are a pattern of intervals that, when performed, have a certain sound that fits certain tonalities.

Let’s make more sense of this. We saw the construction of a major scale, and most of us are familiar with it, so let’s try another. Look at the keyboard diagram with intervals and listen.

This scale is a D Dorian scale which is another type of minor scale. Now that we understand intervals, we can learn any scale we want since they all use the same building blocks.

Also, by learning scales through the use of intervals, we can move them into any other key since intervals are simply the measurement of the distance between any two notes.

Let’s take that concept and apply it. Check out the audio and keyboard diagram below. We will start with an E and use intervals from our D Dorian scale to figure out an E Dorian scale.

More Scales

Now, let’s look at another type of scale that will look slightly different from our major and Dorian scales. Check out the diagram and audio below.

The following C major scale is interesting because it has fewer notes. If we count them minus the octave, we get 5 notes (in red). Our 5 note scale will consequently be called a pentatonic scale.

Pentatonic scales, as we will see in future blogs, have a ton of unexpected use cases and can truly transform your melody writing from good to great.

Wrapping Up

In the next article in this series, we will discuss chords and how to construct them with intervals. If you have kept up with some of my other posts, it will look similar to making complex chords with easy piano since they share very similar concepts.

After we touch upon chords, we can begin to discover how to apply new scales to chords and create harmonic and melodic progressions.

If you have further questions or want private lessons in all things writing, arranging, and composing, email me at cjrhenmusic@gmail.com.

About Cj

Hi, I’m Cj Rhen, and I am a composer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist, and producer. You can find some of my work at cjrhenmusic.com or on sounds.com, where I write and record high-end sax and horn loops for your music. Also, you can check out my live streams at twitch.tv/cjrhenmusic to see me writing music like this post live and ask questions and chat.

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