1. Please take 30 seconds to register your free account to remove most ads, post topics, make friends, earn reward points at our store, and more!  
    TalkBass.com has been uniting the low end since 1998.  Join us! :)

Scale modes and general theory - plea for help

Discussion in 'Music Theory [DB]' started by RockinBones, Feb 1, 2013.

  1. Really I just wanted to check a few points on theory as I don’t have a teacher who could confirm if I’m on the right track or not! Please forgive any abundant ignorance and don’t think I’m disregarding the value of anything, I probably just don’t “get it.”

    Dorian, Mixolydian, etc modes – so these are essentially a set of notes derived from the key signature but with specific sharpening or flattening of notes or switching around of tones and semitones within that scale (so let’s say in C, the Mixolydian would be G Mixolydian, contain all the same notes as C major but with a flattened 7th). Is that all there is to it, or am I missing something? Would you only use G Mixolydian when playing in the key of C, or is it purely that C Diatonic and G Mixolydian share the same notes except a flattened 7th, and that’s as far as the relationship goes?

    In which case, should I learn/use them in “bass world” where chord tones 1,3,5 and 7 seem the most important notes to land on the strong beats, are likewise flattened, augmented or diminished dependent on the chord being used and then connected up by passing notes or whatever on the weak beats (say G7 – would that be the same as G Mixolydian if you threw in a 2, 4 and 6?). I suppose I’m just wondering whether I need to understand Mixolydian, Locrian, Dorian and all that stuff if I’m more likely to be given a chord chart with Gm7b5, C7, etc on it, and work with chord tones and chromatic passing notes (I think I'm using the right terminology...possibly not!)

    I’m desperately trying to learn to improvise and craft interesting basslines rather than formulaic stuff, but it sometimes feels like I could play any random array of notes and it would be some mode of a scale with an augmented this or a 13th note that. So the other, bigger question is which elements of music theory do you think are the most helpful in informing improvisation over a chord chart, for example?

  2. Stick_Player

    Stick_Player Banned

    Nov 13, 2009
    Somewhere on the Alaska Panhandle (Juneau)
    Endorser: Plants vs. Zombies Pea Shooters
    I suggest that you find a living, breathing teacher, even over skype, that you can fully engage in a discussion.

    The information that will surely be posted here, ad nauseam, will be confusing and opinionated - especially when it comes to "modes".
  3. Mushroo

    Mushroo Supporting Member

    Apr 2, 2007
    Massachusetts, USA
    If you are not willing to study with a teacher or read a music theory book (questionable decisions IMHO) then the only alternative I can see is to begin asking yourself questions like:

    What is my favorite song? What scales or modes (if any) does the bass player use in this song? Does it sound good? If so, why (or why not)? Can I take this idea from Song A and use it in Song B?

    Plenty of people have become good musicians without formal study. The common thread in all instances is that they had "big ears" and listened to lots and lots of songs to learn from the masters. :)
  4. Thanks for the replies. I tried finding a teacher and do have the occasional lesson but because I'm learning to read music and use the bow, the theory I come across there is very basic. At the other extreme, I have read various websites and looked at some books, but find many of them go from very basic to very complex in the turn of a page, often asserting that something uses these notes or that mode or whatever, but never explaining why. So I've got as much as I could from those and was just hoping to get some clarification on a couple of those points which had seemed to lack explanation.
  5. hdiddy

    hdiddy Official Forum Flunkee Supporting Member

    Mar 16, 2004
    Richmond, CA
    That's how I think of it. The Greek names for a scale just describe which notes in the scale gets altered relative to a major scale. IMO, people start to convolute it when they start telling you to play notes from the C major scale over a G7 chord because its' the same as G Mixo. Mainly cuz it can be an easier teaching device so people don't have to learn new fingerings or what not. Personally, I'd rather be able to know all the fingers or give myself the ability to move to any fingering. Play what you hear is more important that being attached to a particular scale or fingering.

    Rather than go through this "translation" process of playing C major scale notes over G7, I'd rather just go straight to think of playing notes in G scale with a flatted 7th (which so happens to also be G Mixo). Cm7b5 - you just flat the notes you need (b3, b5, b7) and add changes to the non chord tones as alterations to taste.

    That said...
    Yes to all of it. You should learn it all as more knowledge is not harmful. Where the teacher is important is that they guide you on what to learn first and how to learn it. It's too much to take on all at once. Beware that all the stuff you just threw out (esp chord tones on strong beats) has in a way, been strategies people have come up so that they can play a strong melody. It's just one approach of many. At least that's what I think of concepts like that. They're just general rules, and at some point, rules are made to be broken.

    Again, get a teacher. Getting into all of this to the point where you can pull things out on demand takes years.
  6. Mushroo

    Mushroo Supporting Member

    Apr 2, 2007
    Massachusetts, USA
    Nothing wrong with working on 1 page of a book for a week or a month before you flip to the next page. In fact I recommend taking it slow and mastering a concept before moving to the next one. You'll learn more by carefully studying an excellent book one page at a time, than by jumping around between a lot of different methods and websites. Ed Friedland's book gets a lot of love around here, if you are looking for a recommendation.

    You are on the right track learning to read music and devouring as much music as you can get your hands on. By learning lots and lots of songs, you will naturally begin to internalize the sound, which will allow you practical application for the theoretical ideas you're learning. Music theory is simply academic people trying to codify trends in music after the fact. ;)
  7. hdiddy

    hdiddy Official Forum Flunkee Supporting Member

    Mar 16, 2004
    Richmond, CA
    Actually, I wouldn't do it that way. I would start with learning tunes and identifying things (with help of a teacher) and use the theory books as a reference to look them up. Understand why a certain theoretical idea works in the context of a tune. Going straight from a theory book to learn a concept is backwards. It's possible to learn it that way, but to me it doesn't make sense.

    Everything you need is there out in the records. Find the music first then look at the theory. Looking at the theory in a book first is backwards!
    INTP likes this.
  8. abemo


    Feb 27, 2012
    Arvada, co
    You're on the right track, but overcomplicating it. The way I learned modes, was to start by playing a basic major scale, let's say G. Once you have that down, play the same scale, but start at the second, in this case an A and finish on the 9th, also the A. That is the second mode, dorian. Once you have that down, play the same scale starting on the third, a B, ascending all the way to thee high B. That is now third mode, phrygian. Repeat this process starting on each interval, until you reach the octave again, take notes on how the half steps and whole steps move in relation to the tonic of each mode, repetition makes it stick. Once you've mastered all the relative modes to G major, move on to another key, but once the basic layout has worked its way into you fingers and mind its much easier.

    Then to apply it, if you're given a progression in a key of Am, you know all the relative modes (c maj, d dorian, e phrygian, f lydian, g mixo, a aolian (minor) and b locrian), and you can write your basslines in any of the relative modes.
  9. tstone


    Nov 16, 2010
    San Francisco, CA
    As far as simply understanding the intervalic structure of the modes, here's my approach.

    Most of the modal scales differ from a major or natural minor scale by just one note. The exceptions are Ionian, which IS major, Aeolian, which IS natural minor, and Locrian, which differs by two notes. Here's the breakdown:

    Ionian: major, no deviation
    Dorian: minor with #6
    Phrygian: minor with b2
    Lydian: major with #4
    Mixolydian: major with b7
    Aeolian: natural minor, no deviation
    Locrian: minor with b2 & b5

    When I was learning this stuff, I found it useful to commit theses structures to memory. If I wanted to play, say, a D Phrygian scale, it was easier for me to think "D minor scale with flat 2" than to think "OK, Phrygian starts on scale degree 3 of a major scale, D is the third scale degree of Bb major, so I'll play the notes of a Bb major scale going from D to D."
  10. GrowlerBox


    Feb 10, 2010
    Nude Zealand
    Even further off base, no doubt, but something I've started to bring to the bass that has been helpful with improvising on trombone, is thinking of scales as pitch collections, rather than as linear progressions from one note and back again. So, I think of Bb major (and its modes) as simply "2 flats", and listen to various ways of connecting these various pitches as I play in a certain context.

    This is not at all to suggest against learning scales and their modes, chord-scale theory, etc, but I find it quite freeing to spend some time each session simply using such a pitch collection over a standard backing track (iRealb usually, FWIW) and see what comes out of it.
  11. Thanks for the input everyone! Much appreciated. This has really helped make sense of it for me, so thanks all, I'm a lot happier with getting my head round that element of theory, I just need to knuckle down to drilling all these scales, modes and everything into my head through practice. If only I'd not spent all those years playing 5 note basslines in rock and punk bands instead of actually practicing...!
  12. joebar


    Jan 10, 2010
    learn tunes that interest you and then use theory in hindsight to explain it all.
  13. obimark


    Sep 1, 2011
    modes have NO different notes than the scale from which they derive, EVER. They simply start on a different note than the main scale , so for instance the second mode of G, would always start on A, then you would simply play the same notes of the G Major scale except starting on A and ending on A. That's it.

    So if you know where a particular mode is relative to its major mode you can play it provided you know the major scale. Easy.

    Learn your major and minor scales front and back. Then work in how the modes work with them, does this mean anything for someone like me playing in a rock/funk cover band, not really, but it is nice to know.

    For 90% of western music the major and minor, plus "Blues" scales will get you through any song, other than modal jazz.
  14. JGoldberg


    Jul 10, 2011
    Westchester, NY
    Learning the modes was a lot like getting to know all of my wife's personalities; different sides of one great woman. :confused:
  15. John Goldsby

    John Goldsby Supporting Member

    Mar 4, 2003
    Bassist @ WDR Big Band Cologne, Regular Contributor to Bass Player Magazine
    You're basically on the right track with modes and scales. You might want to download this free jazz handbook, which describes how to construct all of the basic jazz scales using whole-steps (indicated with W) and half-steps (indicated with H), and also a list of which of these modes tend to work best on different types of common chords.

    So, if you see that a major scale has this whole- & half-step construction:
    WWHWWWH, then you can figure out any major scale, starting on any note, just by following the whole- and half-step formula.

    You can think of a Dorian minor as starting on the 2nd degree of the major scale (the notes in C = the same notes in D Dorian), or you can just think of D dorian with the appropriate whole- and half-step formula:

    When I play a D Dorian now, I'm not thinking "These are the notes of the C Major scale, used over the minor ii chord." I'm just playing the D Dorian sound as an entity in itself. I think when I first started, I had to think of the Dorian scale in a lot of different ways, just to understand it and get it under my fingers and in my ears.

    You can think of the Dominant/Mixolydian scale (mode) as starting on the 5th degree of the major scale (the notes in C major = the same notes in G dominant/Mixolydian). Or, you can think of the corresponding whole- and half-step construction:

    You should also be aware that just because a particular mode "fits" a chord, that doesn't mean that every note in the mode sounds good at every rhythmic spot in a line. As a very general rule of thumb, chord tones sound good on beats one and three (in 4/4 time). I'll often put a chromatic half-step in between two notes of a scale to force a chord tone to land on the rhythmic spot that I'm hearing. (Check out "bebop scales" in that free jazz handbook, and don't forget to practice the chromatic scale as well :)

    Learning various scales and modes will help you get the vocabulary together to play what you're hearing in your head. So, go ahead and check out the theory and start finding your way around the fingerboard with various scales in all twelve keys. (First, master a scale slowly in one or two keys, and then see if you can slowly apply that skill to the other keys).

    I also agree with hdiddy
    You should find some music that you like, and then see if you can apply your newfound theory knowledge to what players are doing on classic albums. There is also a list of classic jazz albums in that free jazz handbook.
    Good luck!
  16. Marc Piane

    Marc Piane

    Jun 14, 2004
    +infinity. Well said.
  17. jloehrke


    Dec 23, 2010
    I think that fixating on modes is a big mistake (one that I myself made) for a beginning improviser. Check out Hal Galper's youtube videos for a more thorough explanation of this. You should learn to improvise the way jazz has evolved - first learn to embellish melodies. When you've got a handle on that, then progress to chord tones and their embellishments; this is, btw, how you learn to walk well - check out Ron Carter's Building Jazz Bass Lines which is a simple-seeming but profound text. Then, when you've mastered all that, you can start experimenting with modal ideas. After that, of course would come intervallic and textural playing. Mike Longo's book The Improvised Melodic Line is the best improv text I've seen and follows these steps.
  18. John Goldsby

    John Goldsby Supporting Member

    Mar 4, 2003
    Bassist @ WDR Big Band Cologne, Regular Contributor to Bass Player Magazine
    I agree with your basic idea, jloehrke—that one should learn with respect to the way jazz evolved. However, I don't think most of the early bass players learned to play bass lines by learning the melodies to songs and then the chords and then how to embellish the chords and melodies. I think they found what the root of a chord progression seemed to be, and then they played any other notes (chromatic, chordal, scalar) to lead into the next root. As jazz developed, the chord progressions and bass lines became more intricate, and bassists played more scales and modes.

    Ron Carter says in this video: "These notes are here forever. Your job is to have the skill level to be able to find those notes when you need them. So, this is how I practice." Then Mr. Carter proceeds to play major scales in several keys with his inimitable sound and feel.

    The major scale is also called the Ionian mode. There is only a slight distinction between a scale and mode. They're basically the same thing—a series of notes following an intervallic pattern. We could say that a scale is defined by a key signature, and a mode is a series of notes derived from a particular scale: In the key of B major (5 sharps), we would play a B major scale. If there was an extended F#sus7 in the chord progression, we might play the F# Mixolydian mode (or dominant scale as it's also called).

    There's no reason to be afraid of practicing scales and modes—they're building blocks of music. All bass lines are created using combinations of only three things: chord tones, scale tones, chromatic passing tones. It makes sense to practice all three things: arpeggios, scales (modes), plus the chromatic scale. This will only help you "have the skill level to be able to find those notes when you need them," as Ron Carter says.

    I've played with both Hal Galper and Mike Longo and they're both brilliant players and teachers. The videos I've seen, at least from Galper, are dealing mostly with jazz soloing—not necessarily jazz bass line construction. I want to check out Mike Longo's book at some point. I've heard it's great.

    Many years ago, I did this book of Ron Carter transcriptions. I'm not suggesting that you buy the book, but only pointing out that I reaped a huge benefit by transcribing a lot of his lines when I was first trying to figure out how to walk bass lines. I'd would suggest that you pick any bass line from a recording you like of any bassist and listen to it a lot and try and pinpoint what you're hearing—every note you hear could be categorized as either a chord tone, scale tone, or chromatic passing tone.

    Another book I did years ago deals with the same topic—the nuts and bolts of bass line construction using my "real-life" examples. I'm also not suggesting that you buy this book—you can learn all of this on your own. Every note in the Ron Carter transcription book, and every note in my 'Bass Notes' book is either a chord tone, scale tone, or chromatic passing tone.

    I emphasize once again though: Don't ignore scales and modes. They're important tools to have in your arsenal of technique. The OP is right on target to be asking about modes and scales and thinking about how to incorporate them into his or her playing.
  19. Swakey


    Nov 26, 2012
    Learning the modes is a must as a musician. But its where and how to apply them that is more difficult. You should get a teacher for that
  20. Swakey


    Nov 26, 2012

    Its wrong to say this. G mixolydian contains all the notes of C major, but starts on a different root.
    Or G mixolydian contains the notes of G major with a flattened 7th