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Understanding scales.

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by jells, Nov 28, 2006.

  1. jells


    Nov 27, 2006
    I am looking to improve my understanding of scales and their uses. What I would like is a simple explanation (if thats possible)!! On what scales can be used with what chords and why. I am familier with the pentatonic and major scales. I would like to know what other scales are usfull in popular music- for example where would the "dorian" or the "mixolydian" scale be used? may be some examples of well known tunes would be usfull.
    I'm sure i'm missing the point some where and i'm sure if pointed in the right direction i'll soon get the hang of it! Any suggested reading would be welcome.
  2. brianrost

    brianrost Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 26, 2000
    Boston, Taxachusetts

    Wel,l you need to step back to zero and start over. Dorian and Mixolydian are modes not scales.

    What scales can be used with what chords? Simple...the chords built from that scale, for starters!

    Let's look at C major, here's the scale:

    C D E F G A B

    Starting on any note of the scale if we take every other note we can build triads which are the simplest chords, having three unique notes.

    C E G = C major triad
    D F A = D minor triad
    E G B = E minor triad
    F A C = F major triad
    G B D = G major triad
    A C E = A minor triad
    B D F = B diminished triad

    This is the most basic relationship between scales and chords.

    Suggested reading? Any basic text on music theory or harmony!!!
  3. jadesmar


    Feb 17, 2003
    Ottawa, ON
    Oh oh.. you called triads the simplest chords.. you're in trouble now.
  4. Modes essentially are scales.
  5. RareBear


    Oct 30, 2006
    I found a scale flash card system. Quietly notated on each scale was something that looked like this:

    That stands for whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half.
    It's the intervals of a scale--this one being the major scale--in terms of whole steps (two frets), half steps (one fret), minor 3rd (three frets) etc. If you know the chord and it's root, you can apply this WWHWWWH formula to finding notes in the scale during your playing.

    A minor pentatonic scale for instance would be:


    It can be confusing if you don't learn the few formulas in terms of WHm3 patterns because it can seem like there's a whole lot of exceptions because of the lack of whole steps between B and C and E and F. These patterns are intervals that don't matter what the key is. Look for scale books or systems that provide these forumlas. A decent reference is "The Guitar Scale Deck" which can be found at Sam Ash and GC. It's for guitar but the scales don't care if your's has four strings or seven.
  6. brianrost

    brianrost Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 26, 2000
    Boston, Taxachusetts
    Now you need to start over, too :smug:

    Seriously, understanding the use of modes is bad enough without saying a mode is a scale. A mode is exactly that, a mode of a scale.

    If you tell me you're playing in G Mixolydian (i.e. G A B C D E F) you're playing the Mixolydian mode derived from the C major scale.

    Probably the hardest thing about discussing music theory is getting people to agree on the names of things, like the allusion above that you can have chords with less than three unique notes :crying: I know that there are reference books which consider simple intervals to be chords (like the infamous power chord) but that only makes it harder to explain basic harmonic principles to someone.

    Use of scales and modes over particular chords is best discussed in the context of the current harmony. For instance, since the C major triad is found in the keys of C, F and G is it appropriate to use the same scale for playing over that chord regardless of key or should the scale be chosen based on the function of that chord within the key? This is the exact sort of thing that confuses the heck out of beginners.
  7. Mark Wilson

    Mark Wilson Supporting Member

    Jan 12, 2005
    Toronto, Ontario
    Endorsing Artist: Elixir® Strings
    Back to the original post...

    The modes are..

    I= Major
    II= Dorian
    III= Phrygian
    IV= Lydian
    V= Mixolydian
    VI= Aeolian
    VII= Locrian

    Now, Diatonic triads in the key of C (as posted before) are:

    VII=Minor 7(b5) or Diminished

    Assuming you're in the key of C (CDEFGABC) the Dorian mode would be (DEFGABCD)

    So Dorian, you can use over Minor Chords, usually. Specifically, the 2nd degree of Minor.

    Mixolydian (GABCDEFG) you can use over the Dominant 7th chords (or usually the 5th degree).
    You can do this because both Dom7 and Mixolydian have flat 7s in the chord and scale.

    Locrian (BCDEFGAB) can be used with Minor 7b5 chords, or Diminished chord. Essentially, the same thing. The Dim chords are usually the 7th degree of the scale.

    once you learn how to use those over those specific chords, you've just learned some of Humber college's Improv class!
  8. Correlli


    Apr 2, 2004
    New Zealand
    You can use scales to create melodies. Use parts of scales to create motives.
  9. With respect, I'd say you're wrong on a couple of counts here. Yes, a mode is a scale, They are not qualitatively different; they are the same sorts of things--merely sets of notes at specified intervals from a specified starting point. The C ionian mode, for example, is also the C major scale. So which one is it really, a mode or a scale?

    And no, the modes are not really derived from scales, and I wish people would stop trying to teach them exclusively that way. They can indeed be generated that way, and that's sometimes a helpful way to go about it. But essentially they are tonalities/modalities of their own. D dorian, at bottom, is D dorian; it's not C major in any meaningful sense, though it can occur, locally as it were, within C major. The classic example I give is So What. That piece is in D dorian and Eb dorian. That IS the tonality; to try to tie that to a C/Db major tonality, as the "mode of the major scale" approach tends to, would be simply nonsensical.

    To me, it's the insistence on tying modes to major scales that confuses beginners, because it isn't the best way of describing what really goes on. An example is the idea that if you play a diatonic progression in, say, a major key--maybe C Am F G--that means you have to play four different "modes of C major." This just ain't necessarily so. A more harmonically apt way of looking at it is that you're playing in C major the whole time, but changing the notes you emphasize, according to the harmonic movement. This is really what's going on; you do not change tonalities with every chord. The fact that this way is easier too is gravy.;)

    Explaining modes as if they're something different in kind from scales actually hinders understanding IMO. You're right that certain things are more commonly referred to as scales and others as modes, and that confusing the terms can mess people up. No one, for example, says "Phrygian scale." (Though they do refer to major and minor modes....) But that doesn't change the fact that they work in basically same way. Modes/scales serve to specify the harmonic space you're in, which includes specifying which notes create consonance (tension) and which dissonance (release), and how much of each. And you can build triads off modes just as you can the major scale (ionian mode).
  10. As an addendum, I say this a lot, but it's still true: the best way to really understand the differences between the modes is to play them all from the same starting note, not to do the "moving up the piano on the white keys approach."

    That is, play C lydian, C ionian, C mixolydian, C dorian, etc., rather than C ionian, D dorian, E phrygian, etc.
  11. jvbjr


    Jan 8, 2005
    When I think "scale" I think what is the key signature here?

    When I think "mode" I ask what notes are being accentuated here?

    Everything boils down to a key signature, even if it is a moving key signature that only lasts half of a measure. The key signature tells me the ionian (major scale) mode, when I choose to rearrange the ROOT of the given key signature, that tells me the mode.

    So, assuming the diatonic notes that sound right over progression are C D E F G A B, we should all know that gives the key signature (scale) of C. However, we conclude that the ROOT is not C, but rather A. So we wish to emphasize the A chord and its triad, so we look to our modes to discover that the "A" is the 6th mode of C Major and thus is Aeolian, so our key signature (scale) is C, but since we want to emphasize the A as the root, we utilize the A Aeolian mode.

    In the end, modes are just a reshuffling of the notes making the root note of the mode the main point. If you have a deck of cards and you shuffle them, it is still a deck of cards.

    Since you will never play A Aeolian from A to A, in other words A B C D E F G A, in succession, what good is the modal information anyway? I guess it helps you identify the the chord tones as A C E. If you can chord spell and know your circle of 5ths inside out, all this modal talk is just another way of saying the same thing IMO. If I yell the house on fire in English or German it still means the same thing, I feel that much of music theory is confusing as people are coming from different vantage points and while they are saying the same thing, they are using different ways (languages) to express it. Music theory has become Spanglish where all the ideas have been melded together into on confusing glob that many have an impossible time figuring out. Just rename the notes A B C D E F G H I J K L and it would be infinitely simpler. Rework the piano to have six white and six black keys and anyone could understand music theory.
  12. No, it really doesn't. Much music is not purely containable by a Western major or minor key sig, and is really modal. That's IMO where understanding of modes is most needed. If a tune is truly in D dorian, it's a waste of time trying to think of it somehow as being in C major.

    IMO you mostly don't even need to think of modes in a purely diatonic major progression like, say, C Am F G. It's a waste of time to think of yourself as working in 4 different modes (C ionian, A aeolian, F lydian, G mixolydian) when you're really only moving around in one (C major/ionian). That would be making things more complex, less accurate, and harder to understand, not easier and clearer (which is what we want, right?).

    IMO this is needlessly complicated. If the Am is part of a diatonic progression in C major you probably don't need to reference A aeolian at all. If the modality is really A aeolian, you don't need to reference C major.

    Not really the case, or at least, it's no more true of modes than of major scales. IMO it's not really possible to understand what modes are and do if you constantly chain them to major scales. They are their own modalities. You can't understand a piece that's in D dorian by assuming it's some aspect of C major harmony.

    The modal info has about the same usefulness as saying a piece is in C major or G minor. The terms describe the harmonic space you're occupying, which then let you know what notes lie inside that space, which are "strongest," and which lie outside it, and to what degree. This doesn't mean determining what you have to play. It means determining what you have to play if you want to stay inside that harmonic space.
  13. Audiophage


    Jan 9, 2005

    You do realise that aeolian is the modal name for natural minor, right? If you can grasp the concept of relative minor then key signatures for modes shouldn't be much harder, it's basically the same concept.
  14. jimbob


    Dec 26, 2001
    Charlotte NC
    Endorsing Artist: Acoustica Mixcraft; Endorsing Artist: DR Strings
    Thank You!!!!
  15. DaRK_CaRNiVaL


    Sep 13, 2005
    I am also looking to try and understand scales but I dont really have any knowledge at all other than its worth learning :)

    I was wondering if anyone could post up the scales for the Major notes, so far I have gathered C from this thread is C D E F G A B.
    Would D major be D E F G A B C?
    and what does the minor pattern look like?

    Also what fretboard patterns are you supposed to use when you are practicing scales?
  16. Check this out:

  17. jvbjr


    Jan 8, 2005
    Yes I do. I know the 21 most common modes based on ionian, melodic and harmonic minor as well as another 10 or so odd balls like Napolean Minor, etc...

    The issue is, why is it necessary to remember so much information? Western instruments have 12 notes, most scales or modes are the result of selecting 7 out of the 12 choices. Since we do not always play diatonically, we can usually get away with using 9 of the 12 notes, calling the extra two an 'outside sound', chromatic substitutions or 'accidentals'. In the end, what is the goal? To make good music. What is the easiest way to achieve our goal? Good ears, an understanding of the key signatures, a bit of diatonic theory and the ability to avoid those three clams. Passive listeners could careless that Steve Vai utilized the Dorian #4 mode over that Chorus section, they just care that it sounds good.
  18. tr68gt

    tr68gt Acme Corporation Beta Tester

    Aug 2, 2006
    Naples, Florida
    Right when I thought I was on the verge of almost understanding, you all have managed to confuse the crap out of the whole thing for me. I wish I had never read this thread.

    I'm going back to square one....

    (I know you all meant well :) )
  19. dlloyd

    dlloyd zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

    Apr 21, 2004
    It's really easy. Trust me on this...

    A scale is a defined set of notes played in sequential pitch order. It doesn't matter what the notes are, as long as they're played in order, it's a scale.

    A key defines a set of notes that you want to play. They're usually referred to by "major" or "minor". Each major key has a relative minor key. They're essentially the same choice of notes, but imply a different tonality... eg C major has the same basic set of notes as A minor, but C major has a tonality that rests on C, whereas A minor has a tonality that rests on A (surprise, surprise).

    The modes are sets of notes contained within those keys, that have tonalities that rest on different notes of the key. Ionian and Aeolian are easy... they're the same as Major and Minor.

    They are, in major scale order:

    I: Ionian
    ii: Dorian
    iii: Phrygian
    IV: Lydian
    V: Mixolydian
    vi: Aeolian
    vii: Locrian

    You can play in the Lydian mode and not be playing a scale. If you play the notes from the Lydian mode in sequential order, you're playing a Lydian scale.

    It's easier, as Richard suggested, to understand the tonality of the modes by playing their scales all with the same root. So instead of practicing C ionian, D dorian, E phrygian, F lydian, etc., all of which have the same notes as C major, you ought to practice C ionian (same notes as C major), C dorian (same notes as Bb major), C phrygian (same notes as Ab major), C Lydian (same notes as G major)
  20. That's a good question. I would agree that things are often simpler in reality than what we make them. But theory has its place, and I think that place has a great deal to do with reproducibility and communication. For example, you might be able to find some notes that sound good to you over a given chord in a given setting without knowing a shred of theory. But if you don't know what you're doing, you may find it hard to get that same good effect at another time, when you're operating over a different chord (say, B7 rather than G7). If you understand what you're doing, it's easier to call on it again when you need it. In addition, if every time you hit a chord you have to poke around to find what gives the sound you want, the chord will often be gone before you manage to hit on anything. However, if you already have some knowledge of what note choices give what sounds over what chords, you don't have to reinvent the wheel every time.

    Now, IMO you don't actually need formal theory to accomplish this in all cases, as it's sometimes possible to a similar place through trial and error. But for many if not most of us, some knowledge sure makes the process go faster. I mean, you could reinvent a bunch of geometrical theorems from first axioms if you wanted, but not everyone would want to.

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