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).

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