Many new piano players dread learning to play scales, thinking they’re boring and tedious. But scales will help you develop both your technique and a working knowledge of music theory. Most beginners start out by learning to play the C major scale.
Highlights of the C Major Scale
When it comes to Western music, the key of C major is the most common. Some of that might be because it’s the easiest to learn and teach, so it has essentially become the “default” key. This scale has no flats or sharps, and all the notes are played on adjacent white keys on the piano, so it serves as most new pianists’ introduction to the instrument.
Songs written around this scale tend to be more positive and uplifting. Most popular songs are upbeat and relatively simple, so that may be part of the reason the key of C major has become so ubiquitous.
But the C major scale isn’t only popular in contemporary times. Some of the most beloved classical pieces, including Bach’s Prelude in C and Haydn’s Piano Sonata in C Major, were written using it!
Structure and Key Signatures of the C Major Scale
Every major scale follows a formula of whole steps and half steps. After the starting note, you’ll move a whole step/whole step/half step/whole step/whole step/whole step/half step. That can be abbreviated to W W H W W W H. When we start with C and follow that formula, we find that this major scale consists of these notes:
C D E F G A B C
As you can see, there are no sharps or flats in this scale! As a result, the key signature on the treble clef and the bass clef will have no sharps or flats. This is the only major scale with no flats or sharps.
How to Play and Learn the C Major Scale on Piano
Most piano students learn this scale first, as it’s played using only the white keys. We’ll look at playing it with both your right hand and your left hand.
- Start by playing middle C with your thumb.
- Play D (one white key to the right) with your index finger.
- Play E (one white key to the right) with your middle finger.
- Move your hand to play F (one white key to the right) with your thumb.
- Play G (another white key to the right) with your index finger.
- Play A (one white key to the right) with your middle finger.
- Play B (one white key to the right) with your ring finger.
- Play C (one white key to the left) with your pinky.
When you play the scale in descending order, be sure to use the same fingerings! This quick tutorial illustrates how to play the scale. As you learn, be sure to pay attention to and remember the note names!
- Start by playing middle C with your pinky.
- Play D with your ring finger.
- Play E with your middle finger.
- Play F with your index finger.
- Play G with your thumb.
- Move your middle finger over your thumb, so your middle finger plays A.
- Play B with your index finger.
- Play C with your thumb.
Make sure you use the same fingerings (use the same fingers to play the same keys) on the way back down. As you start to feel comfortable playing one octave on the piano keyboard, you can start practicing playing two octaves or more at a time. You can add on an octave higher or an octave lower; either is fine.
Relative and Parallel Scales
Relative major and minor scales share the same notes. The C major scale and the A minor scale are made of the same seven notes, so they are relative scales. These scales each have a different root note, and the order of the notes is different for each.
Parallel scales, on the other hand, share the same tonic (or starting) note. This is also called a root note. Since the C major and the C minor scales share the same first note, they are parallel scales.
Chords of the C Major Scale & Their Scale Degrees
The C major scale’s chords include many of the first triad chords new pianists learn. In the context of the scale, these chords are identified by Roman numerals as well as names that indicate their place among the other chords. Here are the scale degree names and numerals of chords in C major:
- I – Tonic: C major (C)
- ii – Supertonic: D minor (Dm)
- iii – Mediant: E minor (Em)
- IV – Subdominant: F major (F)
- V – Dominant: G major (G)
- vi – Submediant: A minor (Am)
- vii° – Leading tone: B diminished (Bdim)
You might wonder why we need these identifiers. You may have seen chord progressions illustrated using a series of Roman numerals. This system allows you to transpose a song into any key, as it illustrates the relationship between each of the chords. For example, a common chord progression in C major is C-Am-F-G or I-vi-IV-V. If you want to learn more about scale degrees and scale degree names, check out this helpful video guide.
Songs in The Key of C Major
Here are some of the most famous songs written in C major:
- 1. “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen
- 2. “Piano Man” by Billy Joel
- 3. “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” by Elton John
- 4. “Modern Love” by David Bowie
- 5. “Cecilia” by Simon & Garfunkel
- 6. “It Wasn’t Me” by Shaggy
- 7. “Hungry Like the Wolf” by Duran Duran
- 8. “Last Nite” by The Strokes
- 9. “One More Chance” by The Notorious B.I.G
- 10. “Drops of Jupiter” by Train
Common Chord Progressions
If you want to understand how this scale is used in music, it helps to understand some of the common C major chord progressions. Here are a few:
- 1. C-F-G (I-IV-V)
- 2. C-Am-F-G (I-vi-IV-V)
- 3. Dm-G-C (ii-V-I)
- 4. C-G-Am-F (I-V-iv-IV)
- 5. C-G-Am-Em-F-C-F-G (I-V-vi-iii-IV-I-IV-V)
If you try playing or listening to these progressions, you’ll find that they can sound quite different, especially considering they’re in the same key. Progressions with more minor chords tend to sound sadder, while those that use major chords primarily or exclusively tend to sound upbeat.
Of course, you aren’t limited to these progressions (or even the chords listed). Modified versions of these chords (like seventh chords, suspended chords, etc.) are also part of the key. If you’re working on your own chord progressions, don’t be afraid to get creative!
You might also wonder about the chord progressions of the songs listed above. “Hallelujah” has a verse chord progression of Am-C-Am-F-G-C-G (I-vi-I-vi-IV-V-I-V) and a chorus progression of F-Am-F-C-G (IV-vi-IV-I-V). “Drops of Jupiter” is an example of a song with a simpler progression. It’s C-G-F-F or I-V-IV-IV.
Learning to Play the C Major Scale
Now that you understand some of the music theory behind this important scale, we hope you’ll have an enjoyable time learning it! Let us know your thoughts in the comments, and please like and share if you found this guide useful!