About Scales and their Flavors

Musical U’s very own content editor and product manager Andrew Bishko discusses and demonstrates a variety of scale types, discussing the “flavor” of each one and how they’re put to good use in music.

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Christopher: So, today we’re going to be talking about different types of scale, and in particular the different flavors they can create in music. In our recent interview with Forrest Kinney we had a great conversation, partly about scales; and his perspective that learning a scale as a sequence of notes bottom to top to play at lightning speed is totally the wrong way to approach scales. And, in his view, scales should really be thought about as a collection of notes you can use for a real, musical purpose. For example to improvise a melody.

So on today’s episode, I wanted to dig into that a little bit. But we’re trying something new this time. Normally with these teaching episodes, I sit down and I write the script. And then I recite it by myself, and try and get it perfect. Today, we’re doing something a bit different. So I’m actually joined on today’s episode by a member of our team, Andrew Bishko. Say hi, Andrew.

Andrew: Hey. Hi. Hi, Andrew.

Christopher: So Andrew is our content editor and product manager here at Musical U. He’s a big part of the team, and he has an incredible musical background across a variety of styles and instruments. So, who better to come in and talk about scales, and maybe do a few demonstrations for us of how scales can be put to good use?

So, we’ll begin, I think, by talking about what is, for many people, the starting point in scales. Which is the major scale. The one and only major scale, which is what instrumentalists tend to learn first, and it’s often the basis for explaining a lot of the other types of scale we’ll be talking about today. So, Andrew, if you wouldn’t mind, can you first of all confirm that the major scale was the first type of scale you ever learned as a musician?

Andrew: Oh yes; definitely was all about the major scale.

Christopher: Cool. And can you confirm, also, that you have played far more major scales in your time as an instrument teacher and musician yourself than you ever would have liked to?

Andrew: Oh, definitely. Definitely.

Christopher: I’m sure everyone listening to this episode can relate to that.

Andrew: Yeah. Yes, it was always about the scales and key signatures, and whole step, half step. All that whole thing.

Christopher: And we have past podcast episodes talking about that in particular, I think. That whole step, whole step, half step pattern. And also a few good ones about constructing chords from scales. And a few that will give you a glimpse into this interesting world of scales, rather than the pure, kind of “fingering technique” world of scales.

Andrew, if you wouldn’t mind, can you kick us off with an example of a major scale?

Andrew: Yes. [plays] A G major scale.

Christopher: Very nice. And what are you playing, there?

Andrew: I’m playing a flute.

Christopher: Beautiful. So, one of the things we wanted to cover on today’s episode was that scales are not just a list of notes played bottom to top. But they are actually kind of a musical environment, and the set of notes you have in the scale really influences the character of the music that’s created. So, Andrew, maybe you can give us an example of an improvised melody using that major scale you just played.

Andrew: Sure. [plays]

Christopher: So, as you can see, the set of notes is the same; and there is some kind of familiarity with the mood that’s created there, compared with when you just play the notes bottom to top. But the scale should really be seen, and I agree with Forrest Kinney here, as a tool for you. It’s a resource you can use to make your own musical choices, whether that’s composing, or improvising, or whatever the case may be. And this major scale is a great starting point because, at least to our Western ears, myself as a Brit, Andrew as an American, it’s kind of the vanilla. Would you agree with that, Andrew?

Andrew: Yes. Absolutely. It’s the one flavor fits all.

Christopher: And so, you’ll see this major scale cropping up in probably in the majority of music you hear on the radio in most genres today. But not in all genres, and certainly not in all songs. So, let’s talk about some of the other types of scale that are available to you as a musician, and some of the other types of scale you’ll hear as a music listener.

The first thing to talk about is modes. Modes are often a very advanced topic when it comes to music theory. And they may be something you’ve shied away from if you’ve come across them in the past, because if they’re explained in the wrong way, they can seem very, very complex. I know that when I first learned music theory, as a teenager, they just seemed so obscure, with their odd names and the complete lack of explanation as to why you would want to know about them, let alone why you should learn them.

Andrew, what was your experience coming across modes?

Andrew: Well, for me, it was actually quite liberating when I discovered them, because I discovered them through improvising kind of on my own. I realized that when I changed the tonic in a major scale, that I came across with different sounds. And the funny names kind of came later. And so, I wasn’t challenged by the music theory when I came across it.

Christopher: Nice. That’s a much better way to get to know the modes. So, you said something there that we should explain, which was “when you changed the tonic of the scale”. What does that mean?

Andrew: So, for example, I just played a G major scale with the certain set of seven notes in it. I’m gonna play the same set of seven notes, but I’m gonna start on a different pitch. So, instead of having the tonic of the lowest note in the scale be G, it’s gonna be A. [plays]
Same notes, a completely different mood. And, if I use that scale to improvise in, again; a different mood completely. [plays]

Same notes, completely different mood.

Christopher: And so, when you play the scale bottom to top, all we’re talking about is starting from a different note, essentially. You’re playing the same set of notes, but instead of starting on, in that case, the G, we started on the A. The second note of the G major scale becomes the first note of … What would that be called, Andrew?

Andrew: The A Dorian Scale.

Christopher: And so, this is one of the modes available to you as a musician; one of the seven modes you can make from the major scale, where the first one is the Ionian. So what we call the major scale is also the called the Ionian mode. And here come those wacky names, with Ionian and Dorian. And since you can start the scale from any of the notes, you can create seven different modes.

I’m gonna resist the urge to throw out adjectives in this episode. It’s often the case that if you look up this type of stuff online, you’ll hear lots of descriptors like “strange, odd, mysterious.” And I find there’s very rarely a really good adjective for any one of these modes. I don’t know if you feel the same, Andrew, but it’s hard to sum them up in one word, really.

Andrew: It also depends on the context. For example, the Dorian mode can have that kind of mysterious quality, but when it’s played in a faster tune, like an Irish dance tune, it has a real intensity and drive to it. So, the genre, the speed, all these have bearing on how you would describe the quality of each mode.

Christopher: That’s a great point. And one other thing we should mention before moving on, is that how we just defined the tonic and the modes makes sense when you’re playing the notes bottom to top. But obviously, in a melody, you’ve got them in all different orders. So in a melody, when we say the tonic, it tends to mean the note you start and/or end on, as that really emphasizes that note. And it’s the note you keep coming back to. So, even though a melody might use a whole different combination of notes from that major scale, it’s really about how much you emphasize them, and, which ones you come to rest on, that’s gonna give it the flavor of one mode versus another.

Andrew: That’s true. And I know that when I’m playing … It was a big movement forward in my ability to improvise and my ears to be able to hold the pitch of the tonic in my mind, in a different mode, you notice that I’m not playing … At first, I discovered these when I was playing on the piano, so I would just go, for example, I wanna play in G major. I would hold G with my left hand, and then play with my right hand.

And then here, I’m holding the A. So, I had a drone there, going on to tell me what the tonic is. But when I learned to do that with my ears, where I had that tone, that tonic, the awareness of that in my ears, I realized I could take the same notes and completely transform my melodies depending on which tone I was holding in my ears as the tonic of the mode. Or the scale.

Christopher: That’s a great suggestion. That’s something we’ve been talking about this week, in fact, isn’t it? We’ve been working with Steve Lawson, our resident pro for bass, to create some great drone tracks for our new improvisation modules. Because it can be such a great basis for playing around with the character of each note in the scale, and the influence they can have on the melodies you’re improvising.

Andrew: Absolutely.

Christopher: So, let’s give one more example of a mode, then, before we talk about a couple of other types of scale. We gave the Dorian there, where you start from the second note of the major scale. How about one that I know is close to your heart, Andrew? Can we talk a little bit about the Lydian mode?

Andrew: Yes. The Lydian mode, here, is the one that starts on the fourth step of the scale. So, in this case, in the case of a G major scale, the fourth step is C. And the Lydian mode, again, uses the same notes as the G major scale. So all naturals, except for the F sharp, but starting on C instead of G. [plays]

So it almost sounds like a major scale. Almost. But it has that raised fourth degree in that scale that really gives it a different sound to it.

Christopher: Yeah. And this is a great opportunity to talk about the other way people sometimes think about modes, which is variations on the major scale. So rather than thinking about just a different permutation of the same notes and the same intervals, some people choose to think of it as what notes you alter in the major scale to get to this other mode.
So as Andrew just said, that altered fourth, the raised fourth, is the only difference between a G major and a G Lydian. Or, in this case, a C Lydian versus the C major. And so, it can be useful, particularly when you’re listening out for that difference between one of the modes and the major scale, to also understand what is it that’s actually changed by starting from one of those other scale degrees.

Andrew: Yes. Absolutely. The thing about the Lydian mode that’s so fascinating is that, in terms of the, what I like to call the inner harmonic architecture of the scale, the way the tonal gravity, the way things pull and push … The Lydian scale is actually more vanilla than the major scale! It has very little tension to it, very little push and pull, so it does have this kind of floaty sound to it. [plays]

It always makes me wanna just run around on it, [plays] because it has that really floaty, free feeling to it. I know, I used adjectives, but…

Christopher: I think we can allow it. So, we’re definitely going to have Andrew back in the very near future to do a full interview here on the Musicality Podcast. And I know that that Lydian mode is something we’re gonna be talking a lot more about, and I’ll be asking him to explain a bit more of what he means in terms of gravity. So, that’s the Lydian mode, and the last one we should touch on is our gateway to minor scales. So far, we’ve been talking about major scales and modes.

One of the modes is, in fact, the basis for our minor scales. That’s the Aeolian mode, starting from the sixth degree of the major scale. So, Andrew, could you just give us an example of the Aeolian?

Andrew: Sure. So, staying with the G major scale as our base, the sixth degree is E. I’ll start from the lower octave there. [plays]

So that is the Aeolian mode.

So normally people use first learn major scales, and then you learn minor scales. Those are the two most common scales in the classical music tonality that has then gone into pop music. And the minor, the Aeolian is what is used to create the minor scale.

Christopher: So, I’m gonna descend into adjectives for a moment, and just suggest that minor, to a lot of us, means dark or sad, compared with major that’s bright and happy. And that’s very loose, and as we’ve touched on before, really depends a lot on context. But I say it just to preface commenting that what we just played was the natural minor, and it’s maybe the least minor-y sounding of the different types of minor scale. As you heard, it’s definitely different from the major scale, but it’s only a notch different. And so, we should also explain the two types of minor scale that instrumentalists tend to be examined on.

One is the melodic minor, so called because it’s typically used in melodies. And the other is the harmonic minor, so called because it’s used, also, for the basis for forming chords. So, Andrew, would you mind just playing the natural minor, followed by the melodic minor, followed by the harmonic minor?

Andrew: Absolutely. [plays]

Christopher: Very nice. Thank you. And I remember, back when I was learning clarinet, as a, I guess eight year old, I would always go for that harmonic minor for the exams, because then I could play the same thing up and down. And I didn’t need to remember to change the accidentals in one direction. Definitely made life easier.

Andrew: Right.

A lot of people are driven crazy by the melodic minor. And the thing to remember is that scale … No one ever plays that scale! The scale only reflects the way the minor scale is used in composing where, a lot of times, when you’re coming up to a note, you raise certain steps, and going down, lower those steps. It just reflects the customs of the way certain melodies go.

Christopher: Absolutely. And that’s a beautiful example, I think, of why we should think of these up and down scales as really coming from the practice of creating music, like Forrest was talking about on that interview, rather than being the rules by which people compose and create. It’s not … It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation, but I think it’s clear that in that case, the melodic minor really only exists based on observing how composers tend to write melodies.

So, let’s squeeze in one more type of scale here before our time is up. And let’s pick one that demonstrates the fact that you can get completely away from this major scale basis. We’ve been talking, so far, about the major scale, and the modes, and the minor scales that can derive from one of the modes. But you can pick any collection of notes, choose one to be the tonic, and you’ve got your own scale. Which, musicians have been doing for hundreds of years. So we’ve got a whole plethora of scales out there with various wacky names. Some with no names at all.

But one of the common ones that does come up often, and particularly with guitarists who learn it as a fretboard pattern, would be the minor pentatonic. Which is interesting, partly because it has a different number of notes to the major scale. So, Andrew, would you mind playing the minor pentatonic for us and telling us a bit about that?

Andrew: Yes. [plays] That’s a E minor pentatonic, and it has … Pentatonic means five notes. Penta-tonic. And it’s also based on a mode of the G major scale, but it only has five notes.

Christopher: Yeah, so, interestingly, although it sounds like a very different scale, you can trace back even the origins of this one to the major scale if you try, by going from the major scale to the major pentatonic. That’s a subset of the major scale. And from there, choosing one of the modes of that scale gives you the minor pentatonic.

Okay, so as you can see, it can be hard to even demonstrate a scale that gets us fully away from that major scale basis. How about a whole tone scale, Andrew?

Andrew: Okay. A whole tone scale. [plays]

It’s really hard to find a beginning and an end, because they’re all the same interval. It’s all major seconds.

Christopher: Yeah, every interval is a whole step, or a whole tone, which is where it gets its name from. And that produces a very different basis than the major scale with that whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half pattern we talked about before.

So, as you can see, there’s a whole world of scales out there. And there are various ways you can think about them. We’ve touched on a couple of them there. But the real message, I think, of our episode today, is just to play around with them. Don’t think of them as up and down drills to be done as part of your instrument practice. Spend some time really exploring, and creating, and improvising with these different types of scale you come across. And you’ll be able to develop a relationship with them, and an understanding of them that makes them far more interesting and useful to you in music.

So, Andrew, any personal favorites or remaining scales that you think we could share that we haven’t touched on so far?

Andrew: This is a scale that I use in Klezmer music a lot. And it’s called Ahava Raba, which means great love. And again, it has no … It doesn’t relate to the major scale directly. It has its own interval pattern.

And, again, it’s gonna generate a different mood, different feelings, and different styles of melodies.

Christopher: So, I hope you’ve enjoyed this whirlwind tour of a few different types of scale, and the flavors they can produce. This episode was a bit of an experiment. We were taking a leaf out of Matthew and Jeremy over at Music Student 101’s book. And just doing a slightly more off the cuff conversation, rather than something carefully prepared, and I would love to hear your feedback. Is this something we should do more of? Would you like to hear more from Andrew in particular? And did you think this worked compared with our normal way of doing these episodes? Head on over to musicalitypodcast.com, and you’ll find the option both to contact us directly, but also to record an audio clip to share on the show. We love including those where we can. So don’t be shy, record a clip telling us what you thought of this episode. Or, sharing a bit about the scales you’ve encountered in your musical life.

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