Ultra Simplified theory of Scales & Modes

Scales & Modes are 2 biggest hurdles faced by someone entering into music theory. These are also one of the most confused upon and misunderstood concepts.

My take on explaining these is to first get an intuitive feel about them and then go to the real “THEORY” part. To start with lets us first understand what a scale is, given that the reader has already understood the concepts of Note Circle & Intervals.

Getting the Intuitive Feel

We know that due to the intervals between different note if they are played in time one by one, they express a mood, hence if we select few notes at certain fixed intervals then irrespective of the starting note they will express one type of mood and will sound similar BUT IN A MELODIC MANNER. Take time to understand this and even experiment this. You can pick any note and say minor second and major third, these three notes play one by one. Now repeate same with different starting note or root note. Both will sound different in pitch of course BUT They’ll be very similar in the expression of mood or feel.

Cracking the Theory

…well there is intuition in theory as well…

Recall the NOTE CIRCLE concept, as every note repeats after 12 semitones they get arranged in a circular manner. It somehow tell that there must be symmetric relation to any rule we define to choose notes. This precisely is the genesis of scales & their modes.

Let us not look at what is considered as THE PIVOTAL SCALE in MUSIC – THE MAJOR SCALE!

The Famous Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti or Sa-Re-Ga-Ma-Pa-Dha-Ni what most of us are familiar with is nothing but major scale.

How its made or how does it work?

We know that as notes are arranged in a circular manner, we need to choose one starting reference or root. For our understanding lets us choose C note.

Formula for Major Scale

2-2-1-2-2-2-1 read as “two two one triple two one”, simple pnemonic to remember.

Let us understand what it is.

Here 2 or denotes the number of semitones higher than the starting root. Obviously, we can then denote the same as, 2 being Tone hence T and 1 being semi-tone hence S, so the formula becomes, T T S T T T S.

For reference, see the image below and note that each note is one semitone or one half-step apart from the adajcent note:

Referring this diagram or from your memory, Try to find out notes using the formula 2-2-1-2-2-2-1 for C as reference.

This will yield following:

No. of Semitones C
2 D
2 E
1 F
2 G
2 A
2 B
1 C

This is one of the most useful deductions in entire music theory and We will shortly realize why!

Note: Looking at the notes you can note that all the white keys on keyboard will be in C major Scale.

Let us now choose another reference note and find out the scale, this time, lets choose G Major Scale.

You will get, G, 2 semitones higher is A, further 2 semitones higher is B, then 1 semitone higher is C, then 2 semitones higher is D, 2 semitones higher is E, 2 semitones higher is F#, 1 semitone higher is the octave G.

Let us go back to the C Major scale and its notes as they are simple letters with no sharps or flats. We can highlight these notes in the note circle as below.

C Major Scale Notes

Mode

Ironically, despite the symmetric nature of music and the note circle, some of seemingly simple concepts which are supposed to be simple and easy to learn can get and they do get complicated. One such concept is the “MODE”.

The dictionary meaning of MODE is “a way or manner in which something occurs or is experienced, expressed, or done.”

in the musical context its all about scale, now if we take the above dictionary meaning only and impose that on the major scale we just learned above, it may be translated as, “Modes are ways or manners in which “a SCALE” is played” … pretty simple, isn’t it.

What do we mean by it?

Till now, we have seen that, in all of our learning, for chords, intervals, scales etc, we chose a starting note called as root note and then go ahead to find other notes using a formula. This is what we did to arrive at C Major scale, leading to the 7 notes which are C, D, E, F, G, A, B. If you go ahead and play these note on any instrument, you’ll typically start in the order of the notes as we derived and since these notes are a fixed interval they will have a typical overall sound, in terms of expressiveness and feel or mood. BUT, if you choose not to start from C but from anywhere else and follow the circle then you will end up sounding something else, becase the relative intervals will change.

Lets understand this by choosing to play from note A not C. So you’re going to play A then B then C then D then E then F then G. If you look at the intervals now, you see that, rather than having, 2212221, you have now 2122122. But you still played the same notes from C Major scale. BUT THE MANNER OR WAY you played got changed. recall the dictionary meaning of mode, actually, you changed the mode of playing.

Actually modes are as simple as that, the only hurdle is as there are 7 notes there can be 7 modes and you need to learn the names, thats it!

Let s now look into how to remember these.

Mode Tonic relative to major scale or distance from Major scale root Interval sequence Example
Ionian I T-T-s-T-T-T-s C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C
Dorian II T-s-T-T-T-s-T D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D
Phrygian III s-T-T-T-s-T-T E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E
Lydian IV T-T-T-s-T-T-s F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F
Mixolydian V T-T-s-T-T-s-T G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G
Aeolian VI T-s-T-T-s-T-T A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A
Locrian VII s-T-T-s-T-T-T B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B

Modes & Moods

Given the fact that all the modes are actually an ordered set of SAME notes as a major scale, hence they will have same characteristic tonality. To bring out the expressiveness or mood of a mode, one has to look at the use of modes in the music context. For example if a music is composed in C major, this means that the harmony & melody of the music will normally be centered around the root note C but if a lead instrumentalist or vocalist emphasizes the note D (for example), then the contrast will sound modal which is Dorian mode and this contrast due the difference in tonality build a tension which would want a resolution in some manner. This is precisely the reason why modes are associated with mood as well. Take a look at the table below:

Mode Mood
1. Ionian or Major Scale Happy, Neutral
2. Dorian Sophisticated, Jazzy, Blues, Rock
3. Phrygian Exotic, Middle Eastern
4. Lydian Dreamy
5. Mixolydian Rock, Ambient, Psychedelic
6. Aeolian or Minor Scale Sad
7. Locrian Evil, Metal

Chords made Easy

A chord, in music, is a kind of harmonic set of two or more pitches or notes sounding simultaneously (together). If notes were colours a chord can be a mixture of “Any Color You Like” … however in a musical context, some might suit better than others, it all depends on the artists’ visualization or interpretation.

How to create chords

We know that notes are distinct pitches having some frequency content in them depending upon instrument and its range. Chords hence can be made by combining any two, three, four, five, … notes together and playing them at once. However, some of the most famous chords are made by combining 3 notes together and hence they are called as Triads. We will start with understanding these basic types of chords.

There are 4 fundamental Triad types: Major, Minor, Diminished & Augmented

Pick any note and choose it as the reference called root then go on to find the intervals as per the rule below:

major triad: M3 and P5 from the root

minor triad: m3 and P5 from the root

diminished triad: m3 and d5 from the root

augmented triad: M3 and A5 from the root

Typically the Root (Reference) is the lowest (bass) note in the chord and the other intervals are higher. Any change from this arrangement by bring the root or any other note either lower or higher leads to the same chord but called an INVERSION.

Practical Approach

Its often difficult to remember the interval names especially the symbols, following table will tell you how to choose notes to create chords by translating the chord formula in a practical manner. This can be implemented on any instrument.

Chord Type Root – First Note Second Note Third Note
Major 0 4 Semitones 7 Semitones
Minor 0 3 Semitones 7 Semitones
Diminished 0 3 Semitones 6 Semitones
Augmented 0 4 Semitones 8 Semitones
Example Root – First Note Second Note Third Note
C Major C E G
C Minor C D# G
C Diminished C D# F#
C Augmented C E G#

Further

Now that we know the chord mechanism and formula, it will intuitively appear how other complicated chords are made and of course how adding more and more notes to basic chords can bring in more harmonic flavor. It should be noted at this stage that triads are so commonly used and are so fundamental because of their inherent tonal qualities which makes them expressive of a mood.

Suspended Chords

A 2 note chord typically doesn’t sound FULL and this is the precise reason they are known as Suspended chords as they suspend the emotion and do not give the resolving feel. Remove any note other than root from a triad and you get a suspended chord. Because of their open sound they usually fit in easily in diverse musical contexts.

Exotic Chords

If we term suspended and triad chords as vanilla chords then any more addition of notes in them may be called as exotic chords as they’ll become richer, sophisticated & more complex sounding.

Going back to the NOTE CIRCLE, if we add the last note (the 7th from the root) they become the seventh, similarly for the 9th its just one note from root because the 8th note is the root itself but one octave higher, so on for 11th etc.

Intervals – where the music lies!

There 2 famous quotes by 2 musicians pretty relevant in the context of the subject:

“Music doesn’t lie in the notes but in the silence between!”

another one goes like this… “A note is a wrong note only depending upon what is played next to it!”

Coming to the subject its very relevant to first understand and imbibe the meaning of MELODY and HARMONY – the 2 key concepts of music.

Melody can be defined as a memorable series of pitches. Simply speaking, it’s the tune of the song, whereas Harmony is the simultaneously sounding notes that bring support and context to the melody. When someone is strumming a guitar what you hear is a kind of harmony while when a lead guitarist is playing a selective set of notes progressing with time, its called a melody.

The distance between any 2 notes is called as interval and of course depending upon which notes we are talking about there can be different intervals. Let us tabulate those now.

No. of semitones Intervals Symbol Example
0 Perfect unison P1 C
1 Minor second m2 C#
2 Major second M2 D
3 Minor third m3 D#
4 Major third M3 E
5 Perfect fourth P4 F
6 Diminished fifth or Augmented Fourth F#
7 Perfect fifth P5 G
8 Minor sixth m6 G#
9 Major sixth M6 A
10 Minor seventh m7 A#
11 Major seventh M7 B
12 Perfect octave P8 C

Note that, one fret on a guitar or any two adjacent key on a keyboard are at one semitone or one half step or are at minor second interval.

Intervals & Music

It is the relative tonal difference between the notes at different intervals that leads to a feel or mood of the music.

A particular combination of notes at certain intervals may sound, sad, neutral, or happy, as we will see, these combinations will form what is known as scales or modes.

Notes- Theory & Fundamentals

 

Now that we know there are 7 fundamental notes defined keeping one note as a standard reference (A4 @ 440Hz). We can derive all other notes from this. Its important to remember and understand two interchangeable terms in the context of notes that are 1. Tone/Semi-tone & 2. Full-Step/Half-Step. Let Us first look at the note name we know: starting from A they are, A-B-C-D-E-F-G then back to A but one octave higher.

The term used to represent the intermediate notes between two adjacent notes is called a semi-tone or a half-step. Lets understand this.

From A to B its a distance of ONE TONE or ONE FULL STEP.

Between A & B is a note which is higher (of course) than A and written as A# and read as A Sharp, naturally it is also equivalent to a one semitone or one half step higher than A or Lower than B which is denoted as B♭ and read as B flat.

All the note pairs EXCEPT E-F and B-C have one intermediate notes between them.

If we understand the above three rules we can quickly arrive & appreciate the diagram below. Undoubtedly this single diagram is the CORE FUNDAMENTAL of Music.

We immediately note following facts about notes as we study this diagram:

  1. There are a total of 12 notes
  2. There is a total of 12 half step or 12 semitone distance between one note & its octave
  3. There is no intermediate note between E & F and B & C
  4. E & F and B & C are one semitone apart or one half step apart

These rules MUST be kept in mind FOREVER.