It’s time for another fun little ukulele music theory lesson! Today I’m going to share a little bit about the major scale on the ukulele. Knowing your major scales on the ukulele can be so helpful for so many things, whether you’re looking to learn more about how music theory works or you want to learn more about building chords and creating your own chord progressions for songwriting and composing.
When I first entered college after high school, I majored in music. My main instrument at the time was piano, so part of my daily practice routine was scales, scales, and more scales. Scales of all kinds, in all keys, in all kinds of variations, up and down the keyboard endlessly. They really weren’t my favorite things to practice, but I plodded away at them and appreciated the technical knowledge and skill they gave me.
Then when I first picked up a ukulele four years ago, one of the first things I decided to add to my daily practice routine was – you guessed it – ukulele scales. But where to start? Playing the ukulele major scales is a unique challenge if you’re playing a re-entrant uke. But knowing your ukulele scales is a great first step towards understanding more music theory, so let’s learn more about how to construct a ukulele major scale!
Tune Your Ukulele
Before we begin, let’s make sure our ukuleles are in tune. To tune your re-entrant ukulele, you’ll start with the top (fourth) string, the string that’s closest to the ceiling when you hold your uke like you’re ready to play. Moving down towards the floor, you’ll find the rest of the strings numbered 3, 2, and 1.
- Tune your fourth string to the G above middle C.
- Tune your third string to middle C.
- Tune your second string to E above middle C.
- Tune your first string to A above middle C.
You can either use a clip-on tuner or an app on your phone or find a ukulele tuner on your laptop and make sure your mic is turned on so it can hear your uke as you pluck each string to tune it!
Remember when tuning your strings to always turn the tuning pegs so the strings are slightly flat (lower), and then tune up slowly, turning the pegs less than a quarter turn until your strings are in tune.
Whole Steps and Half Steps
A ukulele major scale is basically constructed out of a series of whole steps and half steps in the musical alphabet. In Europe, these are also referred to as tones and semi-tones. When we’re talking about whole steps and half steps, also keep in mind that these refer to European/Western music theory – in some Asian countries, music theory is a whole other science!
You can visualize whole steps and half steps by looking at a piano keyboard. You’ll notice there are white keys and black keys laid out in a pattern of five white keys with one black key between each of them, two white keys with no black keys between them, and then three white keys with a black key between each of them.
If you start at middle C on the piano (just like you’d start at middle C on the open C string on your ukulele) and play every single key in order, both white and black keys, those are half steps in the musical scale. If you play only the first three white keys, skipping the black keys, those are whole steps.
Another way to think about it using the piano keyboard visual is that every single key represents a half step. Skipping a key in between two keys (whether black or white) represents a whole step.
Read more: Does Ukulele Size Matter?
Thinking about your ukulele fretboard, each fret on the fingerboard represents a half step. So if you slide your finger up each fret and pluck the string, you’re playing a series of half steps. If you skip a fret and move your finger up two frets at a time, then you’re playing whole steps.
The ukulele major scales are constructed using a series of these half steps and whole steps, and they’re instrumental (ha ha) in understanding things like how to create chords and chord progressions, which are very important for playing chord melody!
Ready to construct your first ukulele major scale?
The Musical Alphabet
Each note on the ukulele (or piano, violin, flute, or other Western musical instruments) is represented by a letter A through G. When we start playing a scale like C major, we start on the note of C and then proceed through each of the letters in the musical alphabet (C, D, E, F, G, A, B) and then play the next C that is an octave (eight notes) higher than the original note, or root note.
We can raise or lower each of these notes by adding symbols like a flat (looks like a lower case letter “b”) or sharp (looks like a hashtag “#”). Each of these symbols lowers or raises a note by one half step, and we’ll talk a little bit about the difference between whole and half steps in the next section.
How to Construct a Ukulele Major Scale
Like I said earlier, a ukulele major scale is constructed by using a series of whole steps and half steps. Regardless of what musical key you’re playing in, the major scale is made up of the same pattern between notes:
Whole step – whole step – half step – whole step – whole step – whole step – half step
What this pattern means is that there’s a whole step between the root note of the scale and the second note, a whole step between the second and third, a half step between the third and fourth, a whole step between the fourth and fifth, the fifth and sixth, and the sixth and seventh, and then finally a half step between the seventh note and the eighth note of the scale, which is the same as the root note of the scale, just an octave (eight notes) higher than the first.
It might sound confusing, but we’re going to go back to our piano keyboard to give you a better visual.
Starting with the C major scale is the easiest way to visualize the major scale pattern. If you play all of the white keys, skipping the black keys, that’s your C major scale.
Try playing the C major scale on your ukulele: starting with your open C string, you’ll pluck the open C string, then each fret in this order:
These correspond to the notes in the musical alphabet of C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and C (an octave higher than where you started). Because most re-entrant ukuleles are tuned to the key of C, this is going to be the most useful scale for you to learn! Once you know how to pick out the notes of the ukulele major scale on the fretboard, you’ll be able to compose your own melodies and songs.
Now that we have an understanding of the musical alphabet and how to construct a ukulele major scale, we can talk about intervals.
Intervals are the distance between any two notes in a particular scale. Using the scale of C major again as our example, we can assign a number to each of the notes:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 (octave)
C D E F G A B C
If we play the C and E notes at the same time, those notes are called a third. The distance between the C and the G is a fifth, and the distance between the C and B is a seventh. As we play our ukulele major scales, we’ll start to be able to recognize by ear the distance between two notes. This is a very useful ear-training skill that we can use when we want to start soloing on the ukulele!
How to Play a Ukulele Major Scale
Now that we know what the pattern of the major scale is (whole whole half whole whole whole half), we can apply that to any major scale on the ukulele! You don’t have to start just on the open C string to play the C major scale – now we have a whole world of scales available to us!
Understanding these major scale patterns and knowing where each note is on the ukulele fretboard will unlock your freedom in playing solos and writing your own songs on the ukulele. You can play them in any major key you want, just using that pattern and understanding how many frets to skip between whole and half steps.
Locate the D above middle C on your ukulele (2nd fret of the C string) and follow the pattern for the major scale (whole whole half whole whole whole half), playing just the notes on the C string. Congratulations! You’ve just played the D major scale that includes the notes of D, E, F#, G, A, B, and C#. Using all the information outlined here in this blog, you can confidently play any ukulele major scale just by locating the first (root) note of that scale on your ukulele fretboard!
Are you fascinated by music theory? Or maybe you’re ready to start learning how to solo on the ukulele? Take a look at all of the amazing online courses on the Terry Carter Music website! You’ll find helpful and informative ukulele courses that cover things like how to read music and how to solo on the ukulele! Whether you choose to just buy one course at a time or treat yourself to a monthly or annual membership, you’ll find everything you need including video lessons, downloadable backing tracks for practice, and PDF materials that you can save to your digital device or print for future reference! Level up your music theory skills and have fun doing it!