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Also, here's a guitar scale calculator where you can see fingering for the scales described on this page.
Scales are commonly 8 notes per octave. That means there are 7 different notes before you get to the next octave, or 7 intervals within an octave. Scales on the page are restricted to equal-temperament tuning, such as standard guitar tuning of 12 equally spaced semitones per octave. We'll start with a simple major scale:
The C major scale is made up from the white notes on a piano, starting from any C key.
The notes in this scale are:
We can use the same notes from the C major scale (just the white notes on a piano), starting from A this time to produce a minor scale.
The notes in this scale are:
Different scales are generally used to complement the key of a song, often adapting to different chords throughout the songs. Jazz players in particular use different scales to create and release tension. The intervals are also critical for guitarists who bend notes (usually upwards, but sometimes releasing pre-bent notes downwards) between adjacent notes in the scale. This technique is common in most electric styles except jazz.
So what's a mode? There are several common uses of the word applying to musical scales:
Here's what we've learned so far:
This page will cover the modes derived from several common scales, starting with the major scale. We'll look also at common minor scales and branch into some exotic and Eastern scales. I'll also touch on how some of these scales are applied as inside and outside notes to common chord sequences.
There is plenty of information on these scales on the web and it's interesting to read how different players view these modes within the context of the music being played. Some focus vertically on how scales fit the current chord while other think more horizontally about how a sequence of notes can create an interesting melody over several chord changes. There's no real right or wrong approach, but a balance of different skills will increase your musical vocabulary.
The information here is common musical theory, however, it's information I learned from doing (and making mistakes) rather than being taught. My formative musical years had a startling contradiction of limited teachers (who mostly believed that anything other than classical music wasn't "real" music), progressive rock music that we learned by ear, and jazz music we couldn't understand. Fortunately, new players can now learn from talented teachers over a wide range of musical genres, with fantastic information and video resources in published form and over the internet. I must give credit to WIKI for its explanation of exotic scale derivations shown below as well as some derived scale names I didn't know.
My explanation of chords in previous pages is based on the dominant scale, and used the term "7" to describe a 7th chord. This makes good sense, because a 7 chord refers to a major chord with a dominant 7th. For example, a C7 chord has a Bb in a C major chord. The natural 7th is described differently as a major 7th chord. For example, a Cmaj7 has a B added to a C major chord. Some chord descriptions use "#7" or "+7" notation to indicate that the normal dominant 7th is raised a semitone to a natural 7th.
However, for our scale descriptions below, we need to relate notes to the major scale, not the dominant scale. So note names on this page have descriptions shown in this table of the major scale:
We described above how the major scale can be found on the white notes of a piano keyboard by playing an octave starting with any C key. Also, we noticed by starting with a different note, the octave produced a scale with different intervals. Starting with A, it produces a natural minor scale. There are 7 different notes in the major scale until we return to the root note again. So we can derive 7 different scales by starting from each note of the major scale:
You can see how all of these scales get their notes from the major scale. For example, E Phrygian has the notes E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E. If you played this over a C major chord, it would sound like a C major scale, however, if you play it over an E chord (Em7 is a good place to start), you can hear how it gives a completely different sound to this chord. That's what the Phrygian mode sounds like! Why was Em7 a good chord to work with? The 3rd and 7th are important notes that define a mode's minor/major tonality as well as its dominance, so this scale would normally be played over a chord with the same 3rd and 7th notes, in this case an Em7.
Now let's line these up with the same root note so we can compare the different intervals between these scales. It's the different intervals that give each scale its unique modal sound.
This table shows how different some of the scales are. It also shows some similarities. For example, a Lydian scale is the same as a major scale except that the 4th is raised a semitone. Also, the Mixolydian scale is the same as a major scale except that the 7th is flattened a semitone. You can also spot which scales have a minor tonality by the 3rd note in their scales.
The table above also shows what type of 7th chord relates to the scale, which can be a useful guide on what type of scale to use over different chords. It's worth spending some time practicing these scales over their related 7th chords to get to know how the different modes sound.
There are many more scales than those shown above. The sections below derive other sets of scales using different starting scales.
We showed above how some minor scales can be derived from the major scale. The Aeolian (natural minor) and Dorian are very common in Western, rock and classical music. Another common minor scale is the Harmonic Minor. This scale is easy to identify by one of its intervals being 3 semitones. This also leads to some interesting derivatives:
As you can see, many of these scales are named after similar Ionian-based scaled with their differences highlighted. For example, the Lydian ♯2 scale is the same as the Lydian scale with a 2nd note sharpened one semitone. Here's what these scales look like from the same root note, so we can compare intervals and see what types of chords these can be used with:
The melodic minor is another common minor scale that has common applications in both jazz and classical music. It is simply a major scale with a minor 3rd (flattened a semitone) instead of the major 3rd. In classical music, this scale is often used for ascending melodies (and called the ascending minor scale), while the natural minor is used for descending melodies. This scale is also known as the jazz minor scale, however, the scale is generally not changed for descending melodies in jazz styles.
Here are the same scales with the root notes aligned, so you can compare their different intervals.
Combined Augmented and Diminished Modes
The melodic minor scales have some interesting properties. Firstly, there is a sequence of 4 whole tones in the scale. This table compares an augmented scale to one of the melodic minor derivatives, showing how you can substitute part (or even all) of the augmented scale for any one of the melodic minor scales. The Augmented scale is special, by having only 6 different notes (or 7 notes over an octave instead of the more common 8 notes).
A scale that has such a strong augmented mode is probably the last place you'd expect to hear a diminished mode, but melodic minor scales include that as well! Diminished scales are strictly either "half-step, whole-step" or "whole-step, half-step" depending on musical context. They are also unusual within themselves by having 8 different notes, or 9 notes per octave. The table below compares a melodic minor scale derivative to a diminished scale. It shows the uniqueness of melodic minor modes, encompassing both augmented and diminished modes at the same time!
The melodic minor scale is also called the jazz minor scale.
Here are a couple of common applications of this versatile scale.
Lets say we have a chord sequence:
The key of the song is C major, so the obvious scale to play over the Cmaj7 chords is C major. You'd probably use D Dorian over Dm7, which has the same notes as the C major scale. We could also use G Mixolydian quite safely over the G7 chords, but that we be very predictable and somewhat boring for a jazz style.
The G7 chords present an opportunity to create tension by playing notes that are not in the anticipated C major scale. Not surprisingly, these notes are referred to "outside" notes. The tension is released by returning to a C major scale, playing the "inside" notes. A rule of thumb (in common use and advocated by the late Emily Remler) for scales over dominant 7th chords is:
Let's have a look at how the notes in these scales compare to the inside notes of the Mixolydian scale:
Looking first at the two melodic minor scales, notice how they both support the critical 3rd and flat 7th notes of the Mixolylian scale, as well as the root note. In our example over a G7 chord, these notes are B (the 3rd) and F (the flat 7th) and of course G (the root note).
For our example chord sequence Cmaj7 / G7 / Dm7 / G7 / Cmaj7, the first G7 does not go up a 4th (to a C chord), it goes to a Dm chord instead. So we'll use the jazz minor scale starting from the Mixolydian 5th over this G7 chord. This scale is nearly the same as the Mixolydian scale; the only difference is that the 4th note is sharpened a semitone. If you prefer to think of this scale as it relates to the Mixolydian root note (G in our example), it's the Lydian Dominant scale, also shown above. This is ideal for creating a hint of tension without straying too far from inside notes.
The next G7 in the example resolves up a 4th to Cmaj7, so we'll use the jazz minor scale starting from the Mixolydian flat 2nd over this G7 chord. This scale includes many outside notes not in the Mixolydian scale, so it creates tension that is released in the next bar by playing a C major scale over the Cmaj7 chord. It would also be common for the backing chord to be altered to include some of these outside notes, such as a G7-9 chord perhaps. If you prefer to think of this scale as it relates to the Mixolydian root note (G in our example), it's the Super Locrian scale.
This mode also supports tritone substitution. A tritone is 3 whole tones, so the substitution replaces a dominant 7th chord with one 3 whole tones away (up or down, it's the same thing). In our example, the G7 chord would be replaced with D♭7. This works because the critical 3rd and 7th notes exist in both chords, they just swap places.
I've really only dabbled in these exotic scales, using WIKI to learn more about them. I find them really interesting, opening up new avenues for exploration. These scales are derived from the Double Harmonic Major scale.
Here are the same scales with the same root note, so we can compare intervals. These scales are charaterised by a cluster of 3 notes each a semitone apart, and 2 intervals each of 3 semitones.
We used the white notes on a piano to generate the major scale and its derivatives. These scales have 7 different notes. What would happen if we used the black keys instead? We get pentatonic scales, so named because they contain 5 different notes. These scales include the major pentatonic and minor pentatonic, both very common in Western music.
We'll start with the black notes from E♭, for a minor pentatonic scale:
Here are these scales with the same root note. There are similarities between the two minor scales and also between the two major scales.
Here's a different pentatonic scale. It was used by John McLaughlin in the Mahavishnu Orchestra and is sometimes referred to as the "Mahavishnu Pentatonic" scale. It's also common in rock & fusion styles by many artists; notably Eric Johnson. It has a combination of Western and Eastern modes to my ears, and you can also derive some interesting scales by using different starting notes. I use it commonly over a dominant 7th chord (for example, G7 in the key of C) and 9th and 11th chords. It also works over a major root chord when it has a flat 7th flavour, common in blues, rock, rock 'n' roll, rockabilly and some country styles.
There are many more scales, but here are a few common ones, some already shown above for comparison.
Many altered scales are simply used to support altered chords, particularly in jazz styles. The harmonic major scale is the same as the harmonic minor, but with a major 3rd instead of a minor 3rd. The Neapolitan scale can be used to derive some other interesting scales including the Major Locrian, also shown above. The augmented scale has only whole tone intervals, so there are no other derivations of this scale. The diminished scales have repetitive whole-tone, half-tone intervals, so each one is the only derivative of the other.
The blues scale adds a flattened 5th to the minor pentatonic scale. Of course, this note is often omitted from phrases, resulting in many popular minor pentatonic blues licks. Blues easily strays into rock and other styles by including the 2nd and 6th notes for a Dorian flavour. Also, blues players often bend the minor 3rd note about a quarter tone sharp for tension and to hint at major tonality.