• 3 Guidelines To The Proper Spelling Of Scales

    in Piano,Scales,Theory

    spelling of scales

    In addition to distortion, wrong spelling can make simple scales appear challenging or even difficult.

    In today’s post, we’ll be looking at common errors associated with the spelling of scales and I’ll give you guidelines that will ensure that you’ll always spell scales correctly.

    But before we get started, let’s look at one of those difficult situations.

    “Who Can Play This Scale: B#-D-Fb-E#-G-A-Cb-B#?”

    Instruction: Pause for a moment and try to play the notes of the given scale on the keyboard.

    (Thank you for being a good sport.)

    At first attempt, playing the given scale is not the easiest thing on earth to do. However, after playing this scale twice, or even once, you will discover that it isn’t as difficult as it seems.

    Heck, all the scale tones are white notes on the piano. Check them out below:

    Now that you agree with me that “B#-D-Fb-E#-G-A-Cb-B#” isn’t difficult to play on the piano, why was it difficult initially?

    What if I give you this same scale, but this time with a different spelling like: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C, would that make it easier?

    B#-D-Fb-E#-G-A-Cb-B# vs C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C

    Let’s check out these two scales:



    They sound alike and are even played using exactly the same notes on the piano. The only difference between both of them is the way they are spelled.

    Notes that sound alike but are spelled differently are said to be enharmonically equivalent.

    Check out the table below:



    Enharmonic Equivalence



    B# and C





    Fb and E



    E# and F







    Cb and B

    Even though the first tones of each scale (B# and C) are on the same finger key on the piano (aka – “enharmonic equivalents”), use of B# makes this scale more difficult than it really is.

    Without apology, I want to say that spelling is everything. If you’re wondering why I feel so, then check this post on musical homonyms.

    In this post, I’ll be revealing traditional scale formation practices that once you master, you’ll never spell a scale incorrectly again.

    “Hey! Can We Do Some Classical Music Talk?”

    A background knowledge of classical music will contribute a lot to our understanding of spelling is necessary.

    It’s possible for a few people to dismiss these traditional scale formation practices that I want to share with you because of their classical inclination.

    “But before you do so, here’s a $64 million dollar question”

    Did you know that the major and minor scales that are used in contemporary styles such as gospel, rock, salsa, bossa nova, etc., were passed down to us from musicians who were classical music practitioners?

    Long before the evolution of jazz, rock, etc., (aka – “American popular music styles”), the classical music tradition was the order of the day.

    To a large extent, there’s no popular music style without elements of the European art music form (classical music).

    The following are true after all:

    Rock musicians didn’t discover triads.
    Jazz musicians aren’t the first improvisers.

    This is not to say that there are not distinct contributions popular musicians have made. In fact, popular musicians met the existing elements and took them a step further in the 20th century.

    Therefore, whatever it is that I’m going to share here will be beneficial to musicians of all classes and creeds, irrespective of what they play, whether European classical, American popular music, or Afro-centric gospel music.

    Traditional Scale Formation Practice

    There are seven letter names in music – A, B, C, D, E, F, and G.

    Further reading: Seven letter names.

    Scales are formed by playing these letter names in a succession, in such a way that all seven letter names are used without omission or repetition. That is, without leaving any one of them out or repeating any of them.

    Here’s the basic template:

    C D E F G A B

    D E F G A B C

    E F G A B C D

    F G A B C D E

    G A B C D E F

    A B C D E F G

    B C D E F G A

    In each arrangement, no letter name is omitted or repeated.

    If you stop at this basic template, you’ll end up with what is known as the ancient scale system (aka – “modes”).

    In addition to the basic arrangement, sharp and flat symbols (aka – “pitch modifiers”) are added to create major scales.

    Sharp keys

    The sharp symbol (#) raises the pitch level of a note by a semitone (half step).

    Sharp keys are keys that have a number of notes that are to be raised by this pitch modifier. In the case of G major scale:

    …the F note is raised by a semitone (half step).

    Here’s a list of the sharp keys:

    D E F# G A B C#

    E F# G# A B C# D#

    G A B C D E F#

    A B C# D E F# G#

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

    You’ll do well to notice that for every key, a certain number of notes are raised by the sharp symbol. This is called key signature and it is also noteworthy that no two keys have the same number of sharp symbols (aka – “key signature”).

    Let’s also consider flat keys.

    Flat keys

    The flat symbol (b) lowers a note by a semitone (half step).

    Flat keys are keys that have a number of notes that are to be lowered by this pitch modifier. In the case of Bb major scale:

    …the B and E notes are affected by this pitch modifier.

    Check out the flat keys below:

    Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb C

    Eb F G Ab Bb C D

    F G A Bb C D E

    Gb Ab Bb Cb Db Eb F

    Ab Bb C Db Eb F G

    Bb C D Eb F G A

    Flat keys also have their respective key signatures. For example, Db is the only flat key that has 5 flats.

    Now that you’re properly acquainted with the rules of scale formation, let me show you the spelling guidelines for scales.

    #1 Spelling Guideline – Be Alphabetic

    While spelling traditional scales, do your best to be alphabetic. This is because traditional scales consists of all seven alphabets.

    No doubt, certain alphabets may be raised or lowered by pitch modifiers, but the alphabetic sequence of the letter names must not be tampered with.

    All C scales must start from C to C and that includes major and minor scales built in the keys of C# and Cb.

    Make this a rule…

    After every C is D
    After every D is E.
    After every E is F.
    After every F is G.
    After every G is A.
    After every A is B.
    After every B is C.

    No exceptions!

    It’s common to have the C# scale improperly spelled like this:

    This spelling may be all but correct because it’s not alphabetic. Here are the two places where there are errors…

    1 – D# to F

    Alphabetically, after D is E, not F. Even though that note looks pretty much like an F note, in order not to violate this guideline, spelling the F note in terms of E will correct this error. Spelling F in terms of E will produce E#:

    Since sharps raise notes, sharping E raises it to sound like its equivalent, F, but without breaking the rules.

    2 – A# to C

    After A is B and not C. Spelling the C# major scale using C after A# instead of B is wrong. The correct spelling can be arrived at, if we spell the C note in terms of B. Spelling C in terms of B will produce B#.

    “Let’s fix the spelling dysfunction now…”

    Substituting F with E#:

    …and C with B#:

    …will give us a proper spelling of the C# major scale:

    Go ahead and crosscheck this new spelling. You’ll be sure to see that all the scale tones are connected in alphabetic series.

    #2 Spelling Guideline – Don’t Omit/Repeat

    It is improper to omit or repeat any of the letter names while spelling traditional scales. This omission or repetition will only result in wrong spelling.

    If a scale starts on C, every other alphabet should follow serially. In this incorrect spelling of the D major scale:

    …we have D, E, Gb, G, A, B, Db, and D.

    Here are the two noteworthy omissions and repetitions:

    Omission/Repetition #1 – E to Gb

    Spelling Gb after E leads to the omission of F. If you look at this spelling of the D major scale, you’ll notice that there’s no F letter name. This is inappropriate and wrong as well.

    Also, it shouldn’t escape your notice that spelling E to Gb leads to the repetition of G. Having two letter names in one traditional scale creates a false relation. Musicians who lived several centuries ago call this false relation the musica ficta. Having G and Gb in the same scale will produce a wrong spelling.

    Omission/Repetition #2 – B to Db

    Spelling Db after B leads to the omission of C. As a result, this produces a D major scale without the C letter name.

    On the other hand, B to Db will lead to the repetition of D. Make no mistakes about it, having Db and D in the same scale will produce a wrong spelling.

    “Let’s fix the spelling dysfunction now…”

    We can fix this dysfunction by adding the omitted note.

    Omission #1 – F letter name

    Substituting Gb with F#:

    Omission #2 – C letter name

    Substituting Db with C#:

    Putting this together will give us a proper spelling of the D major scale:

    In this new spelling, there is neither an omission nor a repetition.

    #3 Spelling Guideline – It’s Either a Sharp or a Flat Key

    From what we covered in an earlier segment of this post, we have sharp and flat keys.

    Sharp keys are keys that their letter names are modified using the sharp symbol while flat keys are keys that their letter names are modified using the flat symbol. Simply put…

    Sharp keys have sharp symbols.
    Flat keys have flat symbols.

    With the exception of C, every other key belongs to one out of these two key signature types.

    Having sharp and flat symbols at the same time in traditional scales* can lead to wrong spelling. For example, the spelling of the D major scale:

    …is wrong. This is because D major is a sharp key. Having an F# and Db (which are clearly sharp and flat notes) within the same scale is inappropriate.

    “Let’s fix the spelling dysfunction now…”

    The right thing to do is to stick to the default pitch modifier of the D major scale, which is the sharp symbol.

    In this case, we’ll be replacing Db with its enharmonic equivalent – C#:

    This would produce a proper spelling of the D major scale:

    * The harmonic and melodic minor scales are an exception to this rule. I’ll explain why this is so in another post.

    Final Words

    With all you’ve been equipped with in this post, it is my utmost belief that you’ll have an eagle’s eyesight that can spot the slightest dysfunction in the spelling of traditional major and minor scales.

    Truth is, when a scale violates one of the guidelines, it violates all. In this spelling of the F major scale:

    …all three guidelines are violated.

    Violation of Spelling Guideline #1 – Be Alphabetic

    After every A should come a B.

    In this spelling of the F major scale, the A# letter name is succeeded by C. This is all but alphabetic and would lead to incorrect spelling.

    Violation of Spelling Guideline #2 – Don’t Omit/Repeat

    After every A should come a B.

    In this spelling of the F major scale, the A letter name is succeeded by another A note (A#). This is clearly a repetition. Also, repetition of two A letter names (A and A#) would lead to the omission of the B letter name.

    Violation of Spelling Guideline #3 – It’s Either a Sharp or Flat Key

    F is a flat key.

    The use of the sharp symbol should “raise” a red flag. It’s wrong to have a sharp symbol in the spelling of a flat-based major scale. Always remember that.

    It’s been a long post. Reading through this post is good, reading it again is better, printing it out is the best.

    All the best.

    Bye for now!

    The following two tabs change content below.
    Onyemachi "Onye" Chuku (aka - "Dr. Pokey") is a Nigerian musicologist, pianist, and author. Inspired by his role model (Jermaine Griggs) who has become his mentor, what he started off as teaching musicians in his Aba-Nigeria neighborhood in April 2005 eventually morphed into an international career that has helped hundreds of thousands of musicians all around the world. Onye lives in Dubai and is currently the Head of Education at HearandPlay Music Group and the music consultant of the Gospel Music Training Center, all in California, USA.

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.


    { 3 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Yemi

    Thank you for this post. I started out with classical music when I learnt how to play the piano. I have never actually known this. I have often wondered what makes one key flat and the other sharp. I’ll be on the look out for your explanation of harmonic and melodic scales. Shalom.


    2 jaimejdelriog

    me interesa informacion de que nombre lleva la escala para improvisación del ritmo boogie -woogie en el piano y como estructurar una pequeña improvisación en los diferentes tonos de la escala en C.D.E.F.G.A.B.


    3 Richard Blocher

    I believe you have created a great service here for me,because I have always wondered about the proper use of scales. This is part of my everyday exercise practice.The correct spelling was never explain to me, I just went on for granted they were right, and I was wrong. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with me, I understand the difference now.It has become clear for me.

    Respectfully, Richard Blocher


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