Construct Major and Minor Scales

Whole Half Step Game

This is the time of year when students learn about whole and half steps so they can construct scales, which is a requirement for many theory tests.

If you have ever used little tokens or figures on the keyboard to construct scales and noticed it was confusing to some students, I think you will find placing the W’s and H’s behind the keys is a big help.

This has turned out to be a great success for my “hands on” learners, as well as students who have trouble understanding the entire concept of scales. Students who were very frustrated with  theory worksheets quickly caught on using manipulatives and these cards I designed to be placed behind the keys.

I made many sizes and styles of cards before I settled on this design. I wanted the cards to be big enough for children to handle, but small enough to see the W and H when placed behind the piano keys.

I am so happy to report how much it has helped my students who were confused. My philosophy is that if they don’t understand what you are teaching, change the way you teach. The student is not going to change!

You can use these cards in a game or simply as a way to visually show scale patterns. Be sure to use sturdy card stock and laminate the cards so they will stand up behind the keys. For major scales, consider using the sentence “We Were Happy When We Were Home.” I’ve noticed my students and I say this continually as we play. All the W’s and H’s are hard to remember, especially for some students.

The inexpensive, colorful pencil erasers in the photo above can be bought in bulk this time of year. Go look now while all the school supply material is on sale.  I bought a large pack years ago and  I use them all the time, especially with an older child who who might be insulted with all the cute toys I have collected. They are also good for the easily distracted child, or the child who takes 5 minutes to decide if they want a kitty or a puppy.

I am posting some of the ways I use these cards, but I would like to emphasize that after you have tried them, adapt the activities to fit your needs. If you have a better idea, please leave a comment. My students have really enjoyed learning scales this way, and I hope yours do too!


  • Whole Step Half Step free printable from my website, cut into individual cards
  • Pencil erasers to use as game tokens
  • Piano keyboard
  • Optional: W W H W W W H written on a chart for student reference

Directions for playing as a game with two players

  • There are two color backgrounds, making it easy to separate the cards for two players. Each player receives 8 cards of one color. However, when I play against a student, I often do not give myself a “wild card” because students really enjoy winning and love to beat me.
  • Place the cards on the piano book stand, with the blank side up.
  • Decide which scale you are going to construct. C major is  good because the half steps are so easy to see.
  • Both players put an eraser (or token) on the first note of the scale.
  • Player one draws a card. If it is a “W”, place it behind the D on the piano keyboard, because that is the first whole step. The student also places a token on the D key. The first whole step has been completed.
  • If the player draws an “H”, the player discards the card by putting it in the back of his stack on the piano stand. No token is placed on the piano.
  • If a “Wildcard” is drawn, the student can place it aside to use later and draw again, or he can use the wild card immediately. The wild card can be turned upside down to be either a “half” or “whole” step.
  • The second player then draws and plays in the same manner as above.
  • Play continues between the players. The game is over when one player completes a major scale.
  • An alternate version for younger students is to let the student (but not the teacher) draw again if they draw the wrong card. Obviously the objective is to learn how to construct the scale, not for the teacher to win.

Directions for other ways to use the cards

  • With one player, the student draws all the cards, continuing until a scale is completed. This is a good way to explain how to construct scales to beginners.
  • The cards can also be used to simply explain whole and half steps, placing the cards and erasers randomly on the piano keyboard and not constructing a scale.
  • In a group lesson, 3 or more players can play. You will need to print out more cards.
  • Younger children love to use my collectible erasers of cute animals instead of the erasers in the picture above.


  • To learn how to construct major or natural minor scales.
  • To learn half and whole steps on the piano keyboard.


  • Elementary to middle school, depending on the scale and the student’s abilities.

Why I like this activity

  • There is only one page to cut out!
  • It is colorful and students like color.
  • Students like the games and activities we use with these cards.
  • Students tell me the WWHWWWH cards really help to understand how to write scales.
  • When we get to natural minor scales, a light bulb comes on as they change the order of whole and half steps.
  • It really works.

I wish

  • I wish I had room on the printable to add a  “step+half step” card to construct harmonic minor scales.
  • I wish I had made a matching WWHWWWH chart.
  • I wish I could remember the sentence for the natural minor scale pattern! Can anyone help me?
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28 thoughts to “Whole Step Half Step Game

  • Heidi Neal

    My students have loved playing this game and it has really helped them remember the pattern. For the natural minor pattern I have them say “When H**** Went West He Wore White.” I ask them to choose a boy’s name starting with H & tell me why they think he wore white just for fun. I’m posting it on my blog today w/ a link back here.

    • susanparadis

      I love it! Thanks for sharing.

      On Thu, Feb 7, 2013 at 12:03 PM, Susan Paradis' Piano Teacher

    • Diane Lindsay

      My creative daughter and I just made up with a saying for the harmonic minor scale: WE HAVE WATERMELON WITH HARRY WHEN HE’S HOME.

      • susanparadis

        Diane, that’s cute!

        On Tue, Apr 23, 2013 at 10:21 AM, Susan Paradis' Piano Teacher

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  • Gena

    I have a student who likes to play the scale until it sounds right. I have been encouraging him to think each note, but he gets frustrated going A, B, C#, D…etc. and just starts playing. This looks amazing. Thank you for all of your help – I have used your worksheets and games to liven up my studio. My students and parents LOVE everything. I can’t thank you enough.

    • susanparadis

      Gena, this game has worked wonders with my students, so I hope it works with yours, too.

  • Laura

    This is a wonderful game. I teach music for students with dyslexia and this is great for their tactile learning!

  • Melissa Risk

    Thanks for the great ideas! I think I will add one more card labelled “home” when placing these behind the piano keys and marking steps with erasers. I’ve tried teaching the ‘recipe’ for making a major scale, but 9 out if 10 times, the student starts on the tonic and says “whole”. I then explain that wasn’t a whole step, because you haven’t stepped anywhere yet. I found that if we chant “home, whole whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half”, a light bulb goes off. (It doesn’t always stay on, which is why I’m excited to try your game to reinforce and reaffirm.) Thanks again!

    • Melissa Risk

      I just saw Christy’s post, where she mentions the same idea. Sorry, Christy!

    • susanparadis

      Melissa, you’re right about the 9 out of 10 times!

  • Jenny

    You have no idea how much you have impacted my life as a teacher! Thank you for the FREE games, worksheets, activities, ideas! It makes my students happy to learn music. I LOVE your idea of using photo paper from the dollar store to print on. It makes everything look so professional and I don’t have to laminate. Thank you!!!

    • susanparadis

      Thank you Jenny. The photo paper was a happy accident when I discovered at the Dollar Tree. I don’t use it very often since I have a laminator. But the colors really pop out on things like the Ladybug game!

  • Beverly Holt Guth

    P.S. I like the stripes! 🙂

    • susanparadis

      Thank you! You made my day!

  • Beverly Holt Guth

    Another great resource for teachers – you’re awesome, Susan! I think I’m going to look for just 2 colors – one color for whole steps and one color for half steps. I think that might be a good visual. The above teacher made me think about showing tonic and dominant. Ever since I lived in Lousiana, where the theory test asks first-graders to know tonic and dominant, I’ve incorporated that concept early on. Not sure what I’ll do yet, though. I might just make some tiny tonic and dominant cards that can fit on the key…. Or maybe your fertile mind will come up with something! Do you see how hungry and greedy we all are for ideas? If you never do another thing, you have helped who-knows-how-many thousands of students!

  • Anna

    Susan, I think your sentence should be “We Were Happy When We Were Here” — your students must be SO happy to be with you in your studio each week!

  • 88pianokeys

    Thanks for the cards, Susan, these will be a great way to visualize/label the steps. I think I will write numbers 1-8 on the erasers as my students learn/create scales by memorizing codes. Major scale code = 34-78 and minor scale code 23-56. Adding the W and H cards should solidify this idea even more!

    • susanparadis

      Good idea! Anything that can help them see the half steps is great. For parents or others who may not know what the numbers are, they are the scale steps that are help steps in the major and minor scales.
      Thanks for sharing!

  • Chrissa Brown

    Wow, this is wonderful timing, Susan! I’ve just been tearing my hair out trying to teach half and whole steps this week!! I think this will be a big help! Thanks 🙂

  • Christy

    Thanks for the wonderful ideas!!! I have a suggestion though…for using this as a scale teaching tool, I’d like to see the tonic note of the scale referenced so that students understand that to build the scale the first W is actually the 2nd tone of the scale. When I teach scales I like to give the first note (tonic) a name and then build from there. It’s also then easy to assign numbers to the different degrees of the scale and show how chords are built. You could even include the numerical value or Roman numeral (but with the younger ones I’d prefer numbers) under the W or H so that students have the visual that a scale is 8 notes and the H step occurs between the 3rd and 4th degrees and the 7th and 8th degrees.

    I love your blog and your willingness to share your creativity with us!!!

    • susanparadis

      Thanks for sharing this with us. I’m sure this will help the students even more.

  • Kathy Bresee

    Hi Susan – this is a test to see if you get my email – would love to write to you if this is the case – Thank you Kathy Bresee

    • susanparadis

      Feel free to write me. There is a link on my site with my email address.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for the great ideas!! I look forward to your emails! ~ Maryfrances

    • susanparadis

      Thank you for letting me know!

  • Pam Johnson

    OMG! I was so thrilled to see this game on my email this morning!! I have been struggling with this concept with my younger students. Some of them are ready to play scales, but I (because of the way I learned scales but never understood them) am determined to help my students make sense of them. THIS is the answer for me!! Thank you so much —- and now I’m dealing with the question: Why didn’t I ever think of this??!! You’re so creative, Susan. Thanks for all your wonderful, helpful ideas!

    • susanparadis

      I also wondered why it took me so long to figure this out. I do plan to make a matching chart to put on the piano stand, as well as matching step and a half cards. I just need to take a break from those stripes for a while!

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