Scales And Patterns And Modes, Oh My!

I wrote this article a while back, for, but I thought I'd revisit it. I've been doing some improvisation practice recently, and I wanted to refresh my memory on this quick way to find the scales for different modes.

This little chart gives you an easy fretboard pattern that'll help you quickly remember the scale for any of the modes listed below:

  • Min – natural minor
  • Dor – Dorian
  • Ion – Ionian (major)
  • Loc – Locrian
  • Mix – Mixolydian
  • Lyd – Lydian
  • Phr – Phrygian

First, you need to know the major (Ionian) scale patterns – you need to know how to play a major scale anywhere on the neck, given the root note. Take your time and come back when you know how to do that. It shouldn't take long: there's only one scale to learn.

Ready? Good. What the chart gives you is a way to find out which major scale contains the same notes as the mode you want to play. Confused? Let's try and explain it this way.

The Ionian mode (the major scale) starts at the root note and progresses up in steps as follows: tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone. So the Ionian mode of C contains C (root), then a tone up to D, then a tone up to E, then a semitone to F, a tone to G, a tone to A, a tone to B and a final semitone to C again. So C Ionian contains the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B.

Conveniently enough, those same notes also form the Aoelian (natural minor) scale for A, though you'd start with A as the root note, giving A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Those same notes also form the notes of the D Dorian scale: D, E, F, G, A, B, C. Get the idea? If you want to know the notes that make up a modal scale for a given note, they'll be the same as the major scale for another note.

For example, here are some more equivalents:

  • C Mixolydian has the same notes as F Ionian (major)
  • C Lydian has the same notes as G Ionian
  • C Phrygian has the same notes as G#/Ab Ionian
  • C Dorian has the same notes as A#/Bb Ionian
  • C Locrian has the same notes as C#/Db Ionian

The chart gives you an easy way to remember these. See the C note? To find the scale for, say, the Mixolydian mode, you look to see where Mix is (it's on F, one string above). That tells you that the Mixolydian scale for C has the same notes as F major. So to play your groovy mixolydian improv, just play the notes in the F major scale.

Learn the pattern on the chart (it's easy, only two strings to think about). Remember the names (I use the order in which they occur if you played the notes ascending): "Mix, Lyd, Phryg, Dor, Ion, Loc". Or Mixolydian, Lydian, Phrygian, Dorian, Ionian, Locrian. Of course, the Ionian in there isn't that useful: it tells you that to play C Ionian, you play, er, C Ionian. I left it there because it makes the pattern easier to remember.

Of course, you can move the pattern up and down the fretboard. For example, if you do it based on D (two frets up from where it's shown), it'll tell you that D Mixolydian is G Ionian, D Lydian is A Ionian, etc.

For an extra trick, if you know the natural minor scale patterns, you can use those to give you alternate ways to play the modes. For this, you need to know how to find the relative minor for any major scale. For example, the relative minor of C is A (the Am scale has all the same notes as C). If you look at the chart, you can see the Min, which gives you a way to work out the relative minor: the chart shows that for C, the relative minor is Am.

So, if you want to play in, say C Dorian, you can play (look at the chart) either Bb Ionian, or its relative minor, which would be Gm. They both contain the same notes as C Dorian.

This plays a lot better than it reads.  If you truly want to get it, find yourself a backing track that's all on one note (if you have a keyboard, pick a note, hold the key down and let it play).  Then try different scales over the top and get used to how they sound.  Then you can go out and start playing improv jazz…

The Care And Feeding Of Songs

It is a truth universally acknowledged that some songs are better than others. And it ought to be pretty widely acknowledged that there are some people who can take a perfectly good song and perform it in a way that makes you wish you were temporarily deaf.

The second thought came to me this morning. Our neighbour on one side is a perfectly nice old Aussie bloke who likes music from a certain period and/or genre. The genius of the Shadows frequently features on his playlist. Top hits of the late 60s and early 70s can often be heard, especially since he’s a little deaf and likes to turn it up a bit. But this is all fine… or was, until he played Richard Clayderman whilst we were eating breakfast.

To be fair, it may not have been Mr Clayderman. I’m sure there are other instrumentalists who make their livings by reducing good songs to feeble elevator muzak… in any event it got me thinking about what makes a good song. Or rather, a good “track”, and by that I mean a performance of a song, rather that just the song itself.

Here’s my theory: in order to be listenable, a track has to have at least one of:
(a) an interesting melody that’s balanced between predictability and surprise
(b) interesting lyrics that mean something to the listener
(c) a genuine and moving performance

Time for some examples. Let’s take (c) first, because I’m feeling perverse. The Sex Pistols ‘God Save The Queen’ has no real melody and the lyrics aren’t all that hot (“potential H-bomb”? What?). But it works (for me) because it’s played with a sneering, raucous enthusiasm that makes a very simple song work. The same’s true of, say, Iggy Pop’s ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’: four chords, not very many words and yet it can grab some people by the scruff of their brain. Or (c) can be achieved by just a voice; personally, I could listen to Cerys Matthews reciting the digits of pi for hours just to hear her voice.

Moving away from tracks to songs: it’s easy to find examples for (b). And it’s this that Mr Clayderman’s performance was making me ponder this morning. Since there were no words, all you could hear was the melody and when he performed Foreigner’s ‘I Wanna Know What Love Is’, it showed up just how boring the melody of that song is. Not that it’s a song I particularly like anyway, but if it works at all, it only works with the words. As a piece of music, it’s tedious.

Or we could go back a generation or two: the first verse of Cole Porter’s ‘Night And Day’ is all sung on one note. The words are what’s important. Or take almost anything by AC/DC: there’s more melody in one bar of any of Angus’s solos than in any verse, but (especially when Bon Scott was writing them) the lyrics carry the song. Or for an example that’s a whole subculture: rap. No melody, all words.

So finally, we come to (a): songs with melodies that can lift even simple lyrics. This is what (for me) separates real musicians from wannabees. Example one: Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’. Now, I quite like Ms B’s music, but I wouldn’t argue that the words make the song. Or even that the words make sense half the time… but you could play the melody of that song without any words and it stands up as a damn good piece of music.

Example two (and this is going to date me): any one of a whole bunch of tracks by Yes. Let’s take ‘Close To The Edge’: the lyrics are incomprehensible stoned-hippy trash, and yet (assuming you’re ok with progressive rock) they’re carried by interesting music.

And then there are the exceptions that prove the rule: tracks with none of the above. Well, you could turn on the radio and wait ten minutes and you’re bound to hear an example or two. Anything by Good Charlotte would do: worthless, lazy songwriting. Churning out ‘product’ with as much attention as the average burger-flipper pays to the hundredth Big Mac of the day.

But then again… there are the tracks with two or even three of the Key Attributes. In the 70s you could have heard Carole King produce a whole album of them (Tapestry). In the last few years, Elbow have done the same. The art of songwriting is far from dead, and one great song can remind me that music is worth persevering with.

Of course, these are my examples. Yours will be different. But I reckon that in every track you really love, there will be at least one of (a), (b) or (c).

Posted via LiveJournal app for iPad.

Sometimes, The Point Is To Have No Point

It occurred to me last night, as I examined the calluses and blisters on the fingertips of my left hand, that I’ve been playing the guitar for thirty years.

This is an approximation; I don’t remember exactly when I started, but it would have been around age 12 or so. The fact that I don’t remember starting probably means that it snuck[1] up on me and gradually became, at first, something I did and then later, a part of my self-definition. Interestingly, it would have been around the same sort of time that I began to see myself as a programmer, and then an engineer. Thus are sown the seeds of one’s own self-limitation, or something along those lines.

Part of what interests me about music is the complexity. It’s like trying to understand a fractal; every part of it that you open up reveals yet more to learn. On the other hand, as Sid Vicious said You just pick a chord, go twang, and you’ve got music, so it’s both complex and accessible in one easy measure. It slices and it dices. That fractal complexity[2], though, can be intimidating. It’s a sort of endless challenge, a mountain range that always has a higher peak. Nobody can be best at every single aspect of music; for all musicians, there is always someone else who is better than you at some part of what you do. You can become dispirited by that, or you can learn to set your own goals and measure your progress by them.

To do that, I think it’s important to understand who it is you’re playing for. Most of us have our own internal critics (and when I played in bands I wished, on occasion, that some people had more of them) but it can take a degree of introspection to work out whether those critics are worth impressing. For example, at some point in my twenties I became aware that I was judging my playing by whether my father would be impressed. As soon as I realised this, it was evident how ridiculous it was: my dad’s an talented, intelligent man of towering achievements, but he can’t play a note on the guitar and our tastes in music overlap only slightly at best. The worst internal critic, though, is myself, at around age sixteen or so. For him, what matters is being able to play better than someone else; faster, using fancier fretboard tricks, and so forth. It’s taken much longer to get rid of him than it should, and to accept, finally, that the only person who need judge how well I can play is me. The same me who sets myself goals to achieve, for no other (or better) reason than I think that they would be fun to do.

Which lets me segue towards some sort of point; the reason that you’re doing something, whether it’s playing the guitar or building software, is easy to forget and yet vital to keep in mind. This is a simple and obvious truism, captured in the endearingly bluff American aphorism When you’re up to your ass in alligators it’s difficult to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp. Simple and obvious, yet there are still those moments, usually at a pause in the meeting, when someone[3] says “hang on a minute, let’s get back to why we’re doing this” and thus short-circuits a deep and inwardly-spiralling argument (which is usually very technical).

Anyway, getting back to playing the guitar (which is far more interesting than actual work); since I realised that there is actually no point to it, that there is no final grade to be given or accolade to be awarded, it’s become far more enjoyable. My latest goal is to be able to play the guitar parts from Pink Floyd’s Money, Shine On You Crazy Diamond and Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2), including the solos, to my own satisfaction. In this I will be ably abetted by the excellent backing tracks available from LickLibrary[4]. Should you also be of a guitar-playing frame of mind, you may find it a Good Site To Visit.

Let there be Rock…

[1] A far nicer past participle than “sneaked”, even if it is American.
[2] An excellent name for a geek jazz band, if anyone fancies it.
[3] Occasionally this someone is actually me, but not often enough for me to feel superior about it.
[4] Anyone else get a frisson of Spinal Tap when you hear that name?