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Bassy Bill's Beginners' Basic guide to scales and modes

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by BassyBill, Feb 21, 2010.

  1. BassyBill

    BassyBill The smooth moderator... Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 12, 2005
    West Midlands UK
    I'm offering this here just hoping that it might help those out there who want to learn some real basic stuff but are currently confused and don't like to ask! Old stagers may skip this thread altogether.

    As a learner, I found it helpful to think of scales and modes like this. I don’t think understanding all this will automatically make you a better player – all I’m trying for here is to satisfy those who have a healthy curiosity and a desire to learn. The only prior knowledge you’ll need is:

    · A basic knowledge of note names
    · An understanding of what is meant by a semitone interval (“a one fret step”), a whole tone interval (“a two fret step”) and an octave interval (a twelve semitone gap between two notes that share the same name - the higher one, incidentally, being twice the frequency of the lower).

    Now, here’s a challenge for you. You have to play notes on your bass, following these rules:

    1) You have to play eight notes.
    2) The first and last note must be an octave apart.
    3) You must make each note you play higher than the last one.
    4) You are only allowed to use semitone and whole tone (often abbreviated just to “tone”) steps or intervals.

    If you meet all these requirements, we’ll call what you’re playing a scale (more about modes in a bit). There are some scales that use different rules, but we don't need to get into that until a bit later.

    There are quite a few ways to do successfuly tackle this challenge. Here’s one very common one, starting on C and just playing the “natural” notes (no sharps or flats).


    We have a scale! In fact, this is the very familiar major scale - the C major scale, as we're starting on C. The pattern here as you go up in pitch is tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone. Of course, you can continue further in pitch by starting again, but this time keeping going to make a two octave scale:


    Notice that the pattern of tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone happens between the first C note and the second, and again between the second C note and the third.

    Now, look at what you get if you play a selection of notes from this sequence, starting on the second and ending on the ninth.


    We have another scale! Eight notes, covering an octave interval, using just whole tone and semitone intervals. But it sounds very different to the first scale we played. This is because we have a different pattern of intervals (tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone, tone). Because we're starting on the second note, we can call this scale the second mode of the first one – we’re playing the same notes (still no sharps or flats), but we’ve changed the pattern of intervals and this makes it sound very different. We might go into why it sounds so different in another post.

    Anyway, take a break for a minute and enjoy riffing around to “Good Times” by Chic, a well known tune based on the interval pattern of our second mode. We'll look at some more modes in my next post.
    Caleb Mills likes this.
  2. trowaclown


    Feb 26, 2008
    I don't subscribe to threads. Instead:

  3. BassyBill

    BassyBill The smooth moderator... Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 12, 2005
    West Midlands UK
    Okay people, you’ve no doubt already worked out that we can make other scales using these same notes. We could start on the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, or 7th note of our original scale to make the following modes from it:


    None of these have the same pattern of tone and semitone intervals found in our first or second examples in the post above. So now we have seven different ways of playing a scale that meets the rules we set out earlier – that is, seven different modes, all based on the C major scale. They sound different to one another because they all use a different sequence of semitones and tones to climb one octave in eight notes.

    The modes all have names, just to give you more stuff to learn! They are as follows:

    First mode of this scale – Ionian
    Second mode of this scale – Dorian
    Third mode of this scale – Phrygian (this has a nice Spanish Flamenco sound to it)
    Fourth mode of this scale – Lydian
    Fifth mode of this scale – Mixolydian (quite a blues sort of sound to this)
    Sixth mode of this scale – Aeolian (the “natural minor” scale)
    Seventh mode of this scale – Locrian

    If folks are finding this stuff useful, then we could have a look in further posts at how this works in other keys (starting with notes that aren't C), how it relates to chords, other modes that can be constructed, why we have these notes to work with anyway, why certain modes sound a certain way and so on. Let me know if you’re interested, and my apologies to those who’ve read all through and learned nothing. This thread is beneath you, go and read something more appropriate! ;)
  4. BassyBill

    BassyBill The smooth moderator... Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 12, 2005
    West Midlands UK
    Well, if just one person finds this useful, I'm really pleased and won't feel that I've wasted my time. :)
  5. Looking forward to hearing more. Thanks.
  6. BluesWalker

    BluesWalker Supporting Member

    Jun 17, 2008
    This is a great thread for beginners. Keep up the good work!! I will check in now and then to see what you are posting and to see what gaps I can fill in my self-education.
  7. onlyclave


    Oct 28, 2005
    What about harmonic minor? There's an augmented 2nd between the 6th and 7th degrees which is a step and a half. Harmonic minor is much more common than say dorian or locrian...
  8. BassyBill

    BassyBill The smooth moderator... Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 12, 2005
    West Midlands UK
    Granted (at least to some extent). But see post #1 where I mention different rules. In fact, you quoted that very section.

    Just trying to take things one easy chunk at a time... ;) I haven't yet mentioned the modes that can't be derived from the major scale, but will do (as I said) if people find any of this useful.
  9. incident


    Dec 22, 2009
    This is excellent. Thank you for sharing your knowledge!

    Keep posting...I am listening and learning.
  10. Darkstrike

    Darkstrike Return Of The King!

    Sep 14, 2007
    Nice stuff, gonna dig into it later, when I have a bass in hand. :cool:
  11. gnuv


    Jan 11, 2010
    subscribed! thanks! :)
  12. Reaper Man

    Reaper Man

    Jan 15, 2010
    well, color me interested as well...
  13. BassyBill

    BassyBill The smooth moderator... Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 12, 2005
    West Midlands UK
    I'm really glad to hear the positive comments, but would like to say again that learning all these modes won't turn you into a great player like some kind of magic spell.

    The reason I posted this was the down to the fact that I see a lot of discussion about modes in this forum, and some of it could maybe be really confusing. I wanted to clarify some stuff about modes and scales in a way that anyone can understand if they haven't had this opportunity before. I'm certainly not trying to give bass lessons here! Just satisfying curiosity, as I said.

    Anyway, it's a bit late here in England (nearly midnight!) for me to get my head around the next post, but tomorrow I will take this a step or two further as some people do seem interested... let's just see where this might lead us. :)
  14. BassyBill

    BassyBill The smooth moderator... Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 12, 2005
    West Midlands UK
    Okay, here's a bit more about modes before we move on further.

    We have seen that we have seven different ways (so far) of covering our one octave range in tone and semitone steps. What makes each of these ways or MODES different to the others is the order in which we play the tone or semitone steps. For reference, the order of steps for each mode is summarised here, in abbreviated form (T=tone, S=semitone):

    Ionian - T, T, S, T, T, T, S (our usual “major scale”)
    Dorian - T, S, T, T, T, S, T
    Phrygian - S, T, T, T, S, T, T
    Lydian - T, T, T, S, T, T, S
    Mixolydian - T, T, S, T, T, S, T
    Aeolian - T, S, T, T, S, T, T (the “natural minor” scale)
    Locrian - S, T, T, S, T, T, T

    The next important thing to understand is that we could choose to play any of these patterns using any note as our starting point. For example, if we played the first pattern of tone and semitone steps starting from the note A, we would have the scale A Ionian (or A major). Again for reference, here are the notes for each mode when starting on A. Notice that in each one, we use all the note letters A to G and then add sharp signs or flat signs to get our correct sequence of tone and semitone intervals in each case.

    A Ionian – A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#, A
    A Dorian – A, B, C, D, E, F#, G, A
    A Phrygian – A, Bb, C, D, E, F, G, A
    A Lydian – A, B, C#, D#, E, F#, G#, A
    A Mixolydian – A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G, A
    A Aeolian – A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A
    A Locrian – A, Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G, A

    So, there we have seven (so far) different ways of getting across the octave interval from A to A using tone and semitone steps. Seven different modes, each sounding different because it is a particular sequence of intervals and hence different notes get played as you go up the scale.

    If you play any of these on your bass, you’ll notice that each one has a particular set of patterns in terms of the fingering used. This can help you to learn the modes in a way that enables you to play any of them from any starting point. But do remember what I pointed out earlier – just being able to play different modal scales all over your bass won’t make suddenly turn you into a great player. I do think, though, that understanding all this can help you work out which notes are likely to create the lines you want to play, but we still have a little way to go before we can start to look at how this stuff can be applied in that way.
  15. trowaclown


    Feb 26, 2008
    Sounds all good so far. Could you please touch a little on what modes are used commonly, and why so? Thanks for your time invested in this!
  16. Hi BassyBill

    You just pulled a whole lot of stuff I was already doing into a couple of paragraphs that I could understand. Thanks
  17. JDHolmes


    Jan 6, 2010
    A quick question, in your original post speaking about C and modes, your notation as you moved down (?) the modes also changed the note; i.e. C D E F G A B C, then you moved and said, D E F G A B C D. You had me there very well.

    However, in the discussion above about the A modes, you kept A in your notations all the way through. Why the change? And, is there a difference?
  18. reptyls


    Jan 17, 2010
    Key West, Fl
    Subscribed!!! Thank You I just got a bok about scales, modes and arpeggios and this really explains it and makes it much easier than the book.
  19. the_hook


    Apr 9, 2008
    BassyBill...great job, and keep it going.

    I know everything you've written so far because I've learned it all recently. But I was stuck for a while on certain things because you can't ask a book questions, nor did I even know what to ask at those points.

    What you're doing here will help a lot of people get past the sticking points of music theory, and there are many. Keep it in simple chunks like you have so far, as most books progress too quickly and gloss over parts that prevent people from learning further.

    I like to think of of all of this as a big Rubik's Cube. You'll see similar colours and sides over and over again, but used in slightly different combinations. Every combination has a name, and has a use, but some will appear more often than others. Some work well together, others don't.
  20. dmrogers

    dmrogers Supporting Member

    Jan 26, 2005
    Eastman, GA

    Thanks a ton!

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