Understanding the Theory Behind the D Major Scale

Learning how to play a scale is more than just memorizing notes and where to put your fingers. If you really want to understand scales, you should learn the theory behind them.

The D major scale is an important one to know, especially if you play a string instrument like the violin. It has appeared in everything from string quartets written by Mozart and Beethoven to symphonies composed by Joseph Haydn.

Let’s take a look at the theory behind the D major scale so that you can understand why you’re playing certain notes. You can also check about theĀ C major scale.

What Are Major Scales?

To get started, let’s first create a shared understanding of what a major scale is.

A scale is a series of notes that either ascend or descend. To picture if a scale is ascending or descending, imagine the notes on a treble clef staff [1]. If the notes get higher on the staff, it’s an ascending scale. If they get lower, it’s a descending scale.

In any major scale, you’ll have a combination of whole steps and half steps. They are octave repeating — meaning that you’ll get a similar note pattern no matter where you play the scale on a keyboard. The last note is also one octave higher than the first note.

Now that we’ve established what a major scale is, let’s take a closer look at the D major scale.

What Is The D Major Scale?

Since a scale is a complete sequence of notes, we’ll start and end on the same note. The D major is the following sequence: D – E – F# – G – A – B – C# – D. It’s an ascending scale, so the last D will be one octave higher than the first D.

Why are these the notes we play?

We’ve talked about how major scales consist of whole tones and halftones. The sequence of whole tones and halftones will always be the same no matter what major scale you’re playing. There are two whole tones, a halftone, three whole tones, followed by another halftone. Written out, it looks like this: W – W – H – W – W – W – H.

To help yourself understand this, take a look at a keyboard. E is a whole step up from D, where we begin. F# is another whole step up from E and the first black key we play. Then, since a halftone is next, we take a half step down from F# to G, back to a white key. This continues for the rest of the scale.

How Do You Identify The Notes?

There are a few different ways to name and identify the notes in a major scale. One of the easiest ways is just to number them. D is the first note in the sequence, so it’s number one. E is number two, and so on.

This is good for beginners, but it doesn’t get to the theory of the scale.

Instead of just calling D the first note, we would call it the “root” of the scale. Since you know that D is the basis of the entire scale, this is easy to remember.

You could also call it the “tonic” of the scale, which is the most important note. Most songs will start and end with the same tonic — listen closely the next time you put music on to see if you notice this.

The second most important note in a scale is the “dominant,” which is the fifth note. In D major, this is A. The “subdominant” is third important, but the fourth note on the scale — so here, it’s G.

These are all scale degrees. Understanding the degrees and how they relate to one another can help you to build chords, write emotional music, and change previously written music to a new key.

The complete scale degrees for the D major scale look like this:

  1. Tonic: D
  2. Supertonic: E
  3. Mediant: F#
  4. Subdominant: G
  5. Dominant: A
  6. Submediant: B
  7. Subtonic: C#
  8. Tonic: D

The subtonic is sometimes also called the leading tone because it leads you back to the tonic note. You can also call the final tonic the ‘octave,’ since it’s the first note repeated one octave higher.

Are There Similar Scales?

Yes — the relative minor and parallel minor.

A major scale’s relative minor has the exact same notes in a different order. The D major scale’s relative minor is B minor.

Once you know musical theory, you can always find a major scale’s relative minor. You just play the minor scale of the submediant. In this case, it’s B.

Parallel minors are also pretty easy to figure out. A parallel minor is a minor scale with the same tonic note. For D major, the parallel minor is just D minor.

Knowing information like this is helpful for musicians who are trying to create harmonies and melodies in songs. If you learn the theory well, you can improvise on the fly and create something really beautiful [2].

Understanding the way the different notes work together will make you a more confident and skilled musician.

How Do I Play It?

You’ve got the theory down — now it’s time to actually play the D major scale.

The fingering for your left hand is very simple. Assign each finger of your hand a number — your thumb is one, the index finger is two, the middle finger is three, ring finger is four, and pinky is five. Those numbers are the same with both hands.

To play this scale on your left hand, the fingering looks like this: 5-4-3-2-1-3-2-1. Your third finger comes over your thumb to play B and continue the rest of the scale.

On your right hand, the fingering is basically the mirror image: 1-2-3-1-2-3-4-5. This time, your thumb will come under your third finger after you play F# to continue the rest of the scale.

Keep Building Your Musical Skills

With this guide to the theory of the D major scale, you’ll have all the tools you need to not only practice playing the scale but also to write melodies and harmonies that complement each other.

Don’t let your musical education stop there. Check out the five benefits of learning piano to get inspired.

Read more on the E Major Scale here.

Stephanie Su

Started learning music when she was four years old, Stephanie is a music teacher and a music therapist who is highly proficient in Piano, Violin, Guitar, and Ukulele. She likes to learn, teach, and share her music playing experiences.

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