Scales and Modes Every Musician Should Know

This is a list of the top six scales that every musician should know. These scales can be used in an improvisatory or compositional context, but they are also useful to know from a theoretical perspective. Scales are an extremely important aspect of harmonic and melodic expression. These scales will surely come in handy for any musician, beginner or master.

For some people who may be new to scales and modes, a musical scale is an organized collection of musical notes or pitches that evokes a specific sound or feeling. Modes are like subsets of these scales. The scale can be started from any note that it is comprised of, meaning that each scale can be arranged to make many totally different patterns of notes. This aspect of scales makes them extremely useful tools in creating musical phrases and melodies.

1) Major Scale

The cornerstone of all western tonal music, the major scale is the basis of many of the scales we are talking about today. It is probably one of the most important scales anyone could learn.

c major scale notation

In the key of C

The major scale can be further divided into seven different modes. The modes of the major scale are known as:

  1. Ionianionian major
  2. Doriandorian
  3. Phrygianphrygian
  4. Lydianlydian
  5. Mixolydianmixolydian
  6. Aeolianaeolian-minor
  7. Locrianlocrian

Each of the modes represents a form of the major scale starting on a different degree. The modes are useful to add variety to any type of music making, as they enact very different imagery. The Aeolian scale is a much more somber and serious sound, compared to the Mixolydian, which could be described as cheerful or joyous. The Major scale is very regal and stern, where the Lydian is almost more airy and open. These are of course my interpretation of how the scales sound. Everyone will have their own ideas of what kind of feelings that certain scales or modes will evoke.

Playing around with the different modes of the major scale can add variety to any musician’s pallet of sounds; creating depth and interest. You will be able to start any of the scales that we talk about today on any one of their notes, which allows for a modal perspective on any scale. Thinking about scales from a modal perspective will give you more dimensions to work from when engaging in any sort of improvisation or composition.

2) Major and Minor Pentatonic Scales

The Major and Minor Pentatonic Scales are another very common scale used in many types of music, but now predominantly in lots of pop and rock melodies. The major pentatonic scale is a reduction of the major scale. All you have to do to find the pentatonic scale in any key is to take the first, second, third, fifth, and sixth notes, and you will have the major pentatonic. You can also think about it by excluding the tension tones of the major scale, the 4th and 7th. This is a great scale for beginners because there are no tension tones, so it is very consonant sounding.

major minor pentatonic

Minor Pentatonic is often used in a jazz, rock or blues setting, but is also used in many different types of world music, such as Chinese, Balinese, Native American, and Japanese musics. The Minor Pentatonic scale is a mode of the major pentatonic scale, which is a reduction of the major scale. To figure out this scale, just take the 6th, root, 2nd, 3rd and 5th notes of a major scale. Alternatively, you can start from a minor scale, and use the 1st, b3rd, 4th, 5th, and b7th degrees of the scale. The C Minor Pentatonic scale works on a number of chords, including C minor, G minor, F minor, Bb minor, Eb major, Bb major, Ab major, Eb7, Bb7, F7, C7 and more. Just like the major scale, you can play this scale in any of its modes as well.

3) Minor Scales

The natural minor scale is the same scale as the Aeolian mode of the major scale. This is one scale with many uses, as it can be altered to become the harmonic or melodic minor scales. As discussed before, the Aeolian mode contains the same intervals as the major scale, but it starts on the major scale’s 6th degree. For example, an A minor scale will be the same key signature and order of notes as a C major, but it will start on the A note.

natural minor

From there, you can sharpen the 7th degree of A minor to create the A harmonic minor scale, or the 6th and 7th degree to create the A melodic minor scale.

melodic and harmonic minor

Natural minor scales are usually associated with minor chords, but can also be played over their relative major. Learn more about using relative majors and minors in this guitar chord progressions post. Harmonic minor is usually associated with a V7(b9) chord built on the 5th degree of the scale. Melodic minor scales can be used in relation to an augmented chord built on the 5th degree of the scale. Again, you can play this scale from any of its modes.

4) Diminished Scale

The diminished or octatonic scale is a symmetrical scale consisting of alternating intervals of half steps and whole steps. There are two different forms of this scale: one starting with a half step and one starting with a whole step. The diminished scale can be summed up as a diminished seventh arpeggio with passing tones. Since there are three diminished 7th arpeggios, there are only three different representations of this scale. However, the position can be changed depending on whether your first interval is a whole step or a half step.

diminished scale 1

Notice how the C-Half-Whole Diminished scale is the same as the C# Whole-Half Diminished scale, but they are starting on different notes:

diminished scale 2

You can start this scale on any one of its notes, but the only thing that will change is whether the first note is a half step or a whole step.

5) Whole Tone Scale

Another symmetrical scale, this scale comes from a pattern of endlessly repeating whole tones. This scale, when heard, sounds like you’re trapped inside of it, like a dream sequence on a TV show. Since they are all whole tones, there is no internal “gravity” between any of the notes that half step intervals would usually provide. This makes it the most tense of all of the scales we’ve talked about today. All it would take for the scale to resolve would be one semitone, so it’s easy to build tension using this scale before resolving it by a half step.

c whole tone

As mentioned before, the whole tone scale is a six-note symmetrical scale, and because there are only twelve notes in our musical system, there are only two whole tone scales: one of them containing half of the notes of the chromatic scale, and the other scale containing the remaining half.

b whole tone

6) Lydian Dominant/Overtone Scale

The Overtone Scale is like a combination of the Lydian and Mixolydian modes. It contains the #4th of the Lydian mode, and the b7th of the Mixolydian mode.

overtone scale

This scale can also be thought of as the 4th mode of the melodic minor scale. This is a bit more of an advanced scale, and would typically be used when soloing over a 7(#11) chord, or a Minor/Major7th chord starting on the 5th degree of the scale. Because of the b7th and #11th, this scale creates a lot of tension that will need to be resolved. Be sure to resolve the #4 UP, and the b7th DOWN.

I hope you found this article on scales and modes interesting and informative. Using all of these scales and modes, you should be able to find lots of different ways to express yourself musically, as there are enough intervals in here to keep anyone busy for a lifetime!


About the Author: Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.

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