• Using the power of tetrachords to play any major scale you want!

    in Scales

    On Friday, I taught you how to look at chords according to the number of notes they have.

    This introduced us to names like “tetrads,” “pentads,” “hexads,” “heptads,” and of course, the “triad.” These are names for collection of notes played at the same time (i.e. – “chords”).

    Today, I want to talk about the other side of things — the names of collection of notes played one after the other (i.e. – “scales”). And specifically, I want to focus on the tetrachord.

    A tetrachord is a series of four notes, usually played one after the other. A major tetrachord is a series of four notes, in ascending order, separated by the following sequence: whole step – whole step – half step.

    In other words, if I start at “C” and add a whole step, that gives me “D.”

    So far, I have “C – D.”

    In following the “tetrachordal” formula, I add another whole step from “D.” That gives me “E.”

    So far, I have “C – D – E.”

    And lastly, I add a half step since my formula is “whole step – whole step – half step.

    That gives me “F” at the end.

    Altogether, “C – D – E – F.”

    This may look familiar to many of you. It is the same pattern that starts your major scales!

    Recall my little acronym I made up several years ago to help people remember the major scale…

    Why Won’t He Wear White When Hot?

    W W H W W W H

    (This is my way of getting you to memorize the “whole step / half step” relationships that make up the major scale. You won’t find it taught anywhere else like this, I promise…)

    If you’re really paying close attention, you may notice not ONE major tetrachord, but TWO!

    W W H W W W H

    In other words, a major scale is just two major tetrachords separated by a whole step.

    [C major tetrachord] – whole step – [G major tetrachord]

    So if you know all 12 major tetrachords, this can be another way to remember scales quickly:

    C major tetrachord: C D E F
    G major tetrachord: G A B C
    D major tetrachord: D E F# G
    A major tetrachord: A B C# D
    E major tetrachord: E F# G# A
    B major tetrachord: B C# D# E
    F# major tetrachord: F# G# A# B

    (switch to flats)

    Gb major tetrachord: Gb Ab Bb Cb
    Db major tetrachord: Db Eb F Gb
    Ab major tetrachord: Ab Bb C Db
    Eb major tetrachord: Eb F G Ab
    Bb major tetrachord: Bb C D Eb
    F major tetrachord: F G A Bb
    C major tetrachord: C D E F

    Do you see what I see?

    Gosh! Where do I start? There’s so many patterns and observations to make.

    First off, I was moving in “FIFTHS,” just like the circle of fifths chart below:

    circle of fifths

    Secondly, notice that the next “tetrachord” in line finishes the previous one. So if you actually read the “C major tetrachord” out loud and then the “G major tetrachord,” that’s the entire C major scale.

    Same goes for the G and D tetrachords… and the D and A tetrachords — on and on.

    Another thing worth pointing out is the first note of one tetrachord is always the last note of the next tetrachord (when moving in fifths like I did above). So two tetrachords joined by a whole step always equal an octave.

    Fourthly, it further proves how related major keys are on the circle of fifths chart. Now you know that they also share tetrachords!

    Fifthly, it points out how ANYTHING can be broken down to smaller parts. Maybe you’ve mastered major scales already but if you look at other unfamiliar scales this way, it should be much easier.

    For example, I haven’t talked about trichords yet but as the name implies, it’s a series of 3 notes just like a tetrachord is a series of 4 notes.

    2 trichords separated by a whole step create a minor pentatonic scale. Check it out…

    A trichord:
    A – C – D

    E trichord:
    E – G – A

    Together, “A – C – D – E – G – A.”

    And, since minor and major are related, you can easily start this scale from C to get a regular pentatonic scale (i.e. – “major pentatonic”).

    A – C – D – E – G – A – C – D – E – G – A

    (Just like we can take a C major pentatonic scale and play the same notes from “A” to “A,” we can take the minor pentatonic scale and play the same notes from “C” to “C” to get a C major pentatonic scale.)

    And it doesn’t stop there…

    There are pentachords, hexachords, and others. I’ll talk about those in other posts.

    For now, I hope this helps to give you another perspective.

    Until next time —

    The following two tabs change content below.
    Hi, I'm Jermaine Griggs, founder of this site. We teach people how to express themselves through the language of music. Just as you talk and listen freely, music can be enjoyed and played in the same way... if you know the rules of the "language!" I started this site at 17 years old in August 2000 and more than a decade later, we've helped literally millions of musicians along the way. Enjoy!

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


    { 17 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Mimi

    thanks jermaine for this lessons. i learned something new


    2 jon

    Great lesson. I’m becoming a theory pro!


    3 a.k. (w/o_the_47)

    rhetorical question: “how do you know all this stuff, Jermaine?”


    4 Jermaine

    @a.k. – Lol, lots of studying and application!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! And thinking about how to break it down so more people can understand it. I love breaking it down!


    5 a.k. (w/o_the_47)

    i forgot to ask this question. the tetrachord is made up of 4 notes, seperated by two whole steps and one half step. you didn’t mention the rule for the separation of the three notes in a trichord. i’m guessing it’s 1.5 whole steps and then 1 whole step?


    6 Eresmas

    Wheels make work easier.

    The circle of fifhs makes music easier.


    7 MS

    I am really learning to appreciate the ‘Circle’!
    a.k.(w/o_the_47), spell it correctly, like Jermaine says! Not 1.5 whole steps, etc, but flatten this or that! Show the teacher that we are learning here!
    Keep posting.


    8 MS

    Thanks for that wonderful post – as usual. You really make things easier to understand. Keep up the good work, and may God continue to bless you, Good Steward; only He could adequately reward you. Blessings be upon you and your loved ones, and the Hear & Play family!


    9 Jermaine

    @MS… thanks!!!!!!

    I think u gotta catch me up too! Lol, give us an example of how A.K. could rephrase his statement?


    10 Jermaine

    @MS; We must have been typing our comment at the same time because I only saw your first one! I really appreciate the encouragement! Thanks a lot :-)



    sir, you know how to keep our minds clicking


    12 Mair


    When would I use this in a song? Does this serve as a walk up during times of silence?


    13 Dantheta

    Nice job i can now grasp my major scales firmly. You’ve got all the magic.


    14 Dantheta

    Wow I can now grasp my major scales well. Thanks a million JG.


    15 elin

    ya~this is great!now i can answer my teacher’s bugging questions,, i bet she doesn’t know d acronym you gave to easily remember the major scale :D ..thanks~


    16 Cahao

    This is an awesome technique Mr. Griggs. Thank you.


    17 Dan T

    So, are there easy ways to apply the tetrachords for playing different modes?
    This is very useful for Ionian.
    Thanks, Dan


    Leave a Comment

    Previous post:

    Next post: