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Use Different Scales To Create Unique Melodies

11:30 am Songwriting

The subject of scales and musical modes is complex, and deserves an entire article or book chapter to cover it properly.  (For example, Wikipedia offers this lengthy discussion of musical modes.)  But you don’t have to understand this rather arcane subject in any depth at all to take advantage of it in your songwriting.  Let me walk you through a quick (well, fairly quick) exercise that may just open your eyes.  (For best results, follow along on a piano or keyboard.)

Working For Scale

Let’s start by pretending that the keyboard has only white keys.  We are not going to touch the black keys at any point in this exercise.  Beginning at C (any C), play all the white keys from that C up to the next higher C, then back down.  Congratulations!  You have just discovered the C major scale (also known as Ionian Mode).  Notice the pattern of full- and half-step intervals that occur as you go up the scale from C to C: full, full, half, full, full, full, half.  Let’s call it FFHFFFH for short.

OK.  Now, while playing basic C chords with your left hand, improvise a melody using only the white keys, treating C as the main (or tonic) note for the melody.  It should sound fairly cheery, like a major scale should.  Note that the notes comprising the left-hand C chords (C, E, and G) all occur in the scale (i.e. are on white keys), so this is an “allowed” chord.  So far, so good.

Here’s where it starts to get interesting.  Go ahead and play another scale, this time starting in D and moving up the white keys to the next D, then back down.  Hmm.  It sounds like a minor type of scale, which is basically what it is.  This is called Dorian Mode.  As you can see, the interval pattern is FHFFFHF.

Try out this mode by playing basic D minor chords with your left hand while improvising melodies based on the white-key scale starting with D.  (Note that the accompaniment chord cannot be D major, since the F# note is not part of the scale.  Hence, we use D minor chords.)  The melodies you get with Dorian Mode are quite distinct from the ones for Ionian Mode, but in a sort of familiar way.  But now hold onto your hat!

Play Like A Phrygian

When we move up to the white-key scale starting with E, we start to get into some really weird stuff.  This is the Phrygian Mode you occasionally hear about, with an interval pattern of HFFFHFF.  The accompaniment chord must be E minor, since the major third, G#, is not part of the scale.  If you play E minor chords with your left hand and improvise white-key melodies starting on E, you will immediately detect the odd, “foreign” sound of the resulting melodies.  Pretty cool, I’d say!

I think you get the idea here.  If you continue with this pattern, you will explore Lydian Mode (FFFHFFH), starting with F and accompanied by F major chords, then Mixolydian Mode (FFHFFHF), starting with G and accompanied by G major chords, and then Aeolian Mode (FHFFHFF), starting with A and accompanied by A minor chords.  (Aeolian Mode is in fact the familiar natural minor scale.)

Each of these scales, together with their accompanying chord(s), has its own unique “sound,” and using one instead of another can make a huge difference in the melodies you write for your songs!

Odd Man Out

I know, I know, what about the white-key scale starting with B?  Well, this is the really weird one.  It’s the dreaded Locrian Mode, with an interval pattern of HFFHFFF.  Any scale that starts with a half-step is sure to be strange, but the real problem here is the accompanying chord.  It can’t be B major (B-D#-F#) or B minor (B-D-F#), since both use black keys and hence are not “in the scale.”  Instead, it has to be a B diminished chord (B-D-F), which makes for a very unusual melodic sound.  If you write a song using this mode, it will either be the best thing you ever wrote, or just the oddest!

Of course, if you do write a song using one of these special modes, you will not have just a single chord throughout the whole song (although you could).  Feel free to use other chords normally associated with the basic accompaniment chord, as long as none of the chords in the song use black-key notes.  For example, a Phrygian Mode song in E minor could use Am7 chords and G major chords and even C major chords, but not a B7.  As long as you follow this rule, your Phrygian melody should “work.”  (If certain notes sound dissonant with certain chords, just avoid them!)  Remember that all of the instruments on the song have to use the same scale - no black-key notes in the bass or vocal lines!

A side note here.  You can use any of these modes in any key, but you may need to use “black-key notes” to maintain the desired interval pattern.  So, the Phrygian Mode scale (HFFFHFF) in the key of C would be C-C#-D#-F-G-G#-A#-C.

Finally, this discussion has been entirely in terms of the keyboard for clarity, but if you play guitar, all you need to do is learn the finger positions for playing the “white-key scales” discussed above.  These scales all use the same series of notes; the only difference is which note is considered to be the starting point for the scale.  To play in other keys, just translate the fingering patterns you have learned up or down the neck the required number of steps.  This will preserve the interval structure while allowing you to play in the new key.

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