Scales Within Scales

Feb21

I will admit up front that I have never been overly keen on scales. Oh, I know that they are important and they are valuable tools for soloists, but I’ve always been much more interested in chords and harmony. It wasn’t until I started listening to music from other cultures that I developed an appreciation of what scales could teach me. Do yourself a favor… don’t wait as long as I did. But don’t obsess about it either.

Going Modal

When we talk about the key of a song, we will normally speak of it being in “this” major or “that” minor. This is an easy and useful reference that will normally alert us to the flats or sharps are likely to be used as well as which chords we are most likely to encounter. But the “key” of a song is simply a starting point of a song’s overall tonality.

By now you’re all bored to tears with the C major scale, but since a lot of my funding comes from the “C Major Scales Are Our Friends” Foundation, I’ve got to show it to you one more time:

C Major Scale

Okay, now the fun stuff starts. We know that for every major key, there is also a corresponding minor key. We also know (if we remember our discussion on relative minors in Happy New Ear) that, since C is the VI in the key of Eb major, C minor is the relative minor of Eb major. What you may not know is that there are three traditional minor scales for any given minor scale. Let’s take a look at them:

Natural minor scale
Harmonic minor scale
Melodic minor ascending scale
Melodic minor descending scale

The natural minor scale, as you can see, is simply the C major scale written in the key of Eb major. It incorporates all the flats one finds in that key (Bb, Eb and Ab). If you can figure out what major key your relative minor belongs to, then you should be able to write out the natural minor scale without a problem.

And harmonic minor scales as well. The only difference between the harmonic minor scale and the natural minor scale is the VII note. In the example, you can see that the “B” (which is the normal VII in the C major scale) is used in the C harmonic minor scale, while the “Bb” is used in the natural minor scale. The striking thing about this scale is the interval between the VI and the VII, now a step and a half. This gives the scale an eastern feel to it.

Melodic minor scales muddle things even further by having the gall to be totally different depending on which way you are going. The ascending scale is just the C major scale with a minor third instead of the regular third (Eb instead of E). The descending melodic minor scale is the same as the natural minor. This may sound silly, but I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that the step by step (or half step in some cases) intervals in a descending natural or melodic minor scale are the same as the intervals in the ascending major.

In addition to these three minor scales, there are also quite a number of modal scales. “Modal” is one of those theory terms that gives people the willies. If you want a much more scholarly approach, I suggest you check out Jimmy Hudson’s column entitled Modal Thinking or pick up your favorite textbook. For me, it is easier to think in terms of food. Your C major scale is your steak or chicken or soup stock or whatever you decide to start out with (hey, I never said this was going to be a great analogy…). The various flats and sharps that you can throw in are simply spices that will gives different flavors to your scale depending on the combination of spices you decide to use.

Here, again in the key of C, are a few of the more popular modal scales used throughout history:

Dorian
Phrygian
Lydian
Mixolydian
Aeolian
Pentatonic
Whole Tone
Hungarian

Now, you should take the time to listen to these scales and appreciate the different feels each of them offers. You can figure them out yourself step by step, or you can use a few shortcuts:

Dorian Scale: You see in our example that a C dorian scale has two flats – Bb and Eb. These are the same flats one would use if in the key of Bb major. So, if you wanted to write a G dorian scale, then you would start with a G scale (G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G) but you would write it out in the key of F, which is one full step lower than the G. It would look like this:

Dorian scale

Phrygian Scale: In the example the C scale is written as if in the key of Ab. Therefore a phrygian scale is written in whatever key is two whole steps below your root (or in the key of the minor VI, if you prefer).

Lydian Scale: This C scale is written as if in the key of G, so a lydian scale is in the same key as the fifth of its root.

Mixolydian Scale: Right, it’s in the key of the fourth (in this case the C scale is in F).

Aeolian Scale: A C scale in the key of Eb? You guessed it… this is just a fancy name for the natural minor scale.

Pentatonic scale: As the name implies, this is a scale of five tones: I, II, III, V and VI. The fourth and seventh have been eliminated.

Whole tone scale: one of my favorites. Each note is exactly one whole step from the next. As the name indicates, there are no half steps in the entire scale.

“Hungarian” scale: An interesting scale which incorporates a minor third and sixth which is then followed by a step and a half to the next note. You can hear this a lot in the melody lines of Eastern European music.

Okay, let’s take a big leap. You may not realize it just yet, but these scales can help to show why some chord progressions work even when they look like they shouldn’t! Look at a song like the Rolling Stone’s Gimme Shelter. When you look at the chord charts, it looks like this:

Gimme Shelter

If I’d never heard the song before, I could easily think that the song is in E or A, simply judging by the TAB. But I have heard the song and I know that this is not the case. Part of the difficulty of figuring out songs, rock songs especially, is that the guitar can be a master of disguise. When I play this song (and I learned from watching others) I tend to only play the fourth, fifth and sixth strings with these fingerings:

Chord fingerings

Notice that there are no thirds in these chords. To the ear, they are neither major nor minor because the third is not present to define the tonality. There is no such thing as “neutered chords,” but this is what I call these voicings. The proper term is C#5 or C#5 (no third) but that implies a major tonality.

Anyway, if you look at this chord progression as being part of a natural minor progression (or even a phrygian, for that matter) they make perfect and (pardon the pun) natural sense. The chord progression for these songs stems from a different modal scale and not the simple major scale.

Most people learn various modal scales in order to develop different style for leads and solos. Me, I prefer to use them in order to spice up my songwriting. Bass players can utilize them to create astonishingly beautiful bass lines. Anyway you look at it your knowledge of minor and modal will augment your abilities.

There’s A New Borg In Town

Another way to analyze strange chord changes is to look at a chord as a moving object. Bear with me, you know I get in these moods…

Whether you read music or TAB, you do realize that music is indeed a foreign language. But unlike most languages (and I say “most” because I do not know all of them and I’d like to be surprised one day), you must read it vertically as well as horizontally. There may be notes stacked up on top of one another, as chords or harmony lines. And while you’re looking up and down, you must be constantly read left to right, from the beginning of the song to the end.

Last column I briefly mentioned the song Hey Joe. Let’s take a look at one of the verses of this song:

Hey Joe

Now, as I pointed out last time out, this song spends virtually the entire introduction establishing itself in the key of E (and this is another one of those songs that people will always argue about whether it’s major or minor. For our purposes, that doesn’t really matter and we’re going to use major chords just to make our lives easier). Then, after taking all the trouble to settle into the key of E it starts out with a C chord. Insane, huh?

Well, not really. In this case we have to look where we’re headed. Every line of every verse follows the same chord progression, which ends up with E. The E chord brings a feeling of finality to the line, a sense that the line is over and it’s time to start up a new one. But how did we reach this ending place? Let’s work backwards and see.

First, let’s look at the primary and secondary chords in the key of E major:

E major chords

Immediately before the E chord we play an A. Easy enough to explain – it’s the IV chord in the key of E. Before the A we play D and we could explain that as being the VII of E major, but how are we going to explain the G and the C which precede the D?

Remember what I said about a chord being a moving object? In this song, the purpose of all these chords, from the C to the A is to bring us to the E (as in “E”nd of the line). We also know that chords serve more than one function. The A that serves as the IV chord in this key is also the V chord in the key of D. The D that we’ve labeled as VII here is IV in the key of A. Wait a minute! Did I say IV? Would it strike you as an incredible coincidence if I pointed out to you that G is IV in the key of D and that C (you’ve guessed, haven’t you?) is the IV in the key of G?

Now I’m going to have to do a quick confession. What I’ve been referring to as “VII” should really be called “IV of IV.” What I mean by this is that we are taking the IV chord (in this case the D) from the chord chart of the IV chord (A). We are borrowing from that key in order to move from one key to another. If we look at all the chords in this progression, this is what we would see:

IV of IV

(If this is too confusing, do as I do and work backwards. It helps. Really.)

This is a very common use of chords in songs. It allows the tonality of the music to wonder all over the place while still marching onward to its final point, in this case the E chord at the end of the line.

So when we were discussing songs that used the progression I … VII … IV … I, such as Taking Care of Business or Sympathy for the Devil I should really have said that the progression was really I … “IV of IV”- IV- I.

Another very common use of what I’ve taken to call “borg chords” is the “V of something.” V of V is the one with which you’re probably most familiar (even if you don’t know it yet). V of II, V of III, V of IV and V of VI are also used a lot. Let’s use the key of G for this examination. Here are our primary and secondary chords in G major (notice I’m not even looking at “VII” anymore):

V of something

Here are the “V of …..” chords in G:

V of something chords in G

Now, I’d like you to remember something I said in passing last time about how the progression V to I (and particularly V7 to I) really stamps the tonality on a musical phrase. If you’re in the key of G and you’re going from the G to the C chord, this is usually either done straight from G to C or via a G7. This makes sense now, doesn’t it?

Think of how many times you see an A or A7 chord in a song in the key of G. Nine times out of ten, what is the next chord? Right, it’s D. An E or E7 chord usually heralds the coming of an A minor.

Of course, there are exceptions to all of this, but the reasons they are exceptions is because, more often than not, chord progressions do tend to follow certain patterns.

One of the more prominent exceptions is the I … V of II … IV … I progression. In the key of G it would look like this: G … A (or A7) … C … G. It’s a very pleasant transition, used in songs on all ends of the spectrum (Paul Williams’ Old Fashioned Love Song, Donovan’s Atlantis and Brain Damage by Pink Floyd just to name a few).

You can now understand why all this “VII” chord analysis gets me skittish. Often what we decide to use as “VII” is simply something borrowed from somewhere else in order to take us from one place to another. The real thing to remember is that it is a decision. Ultimately what you decide upon as a chord progression should be what sounds good (or simply interesting) to you.

As always, I’d like to thank Paul for all the extra editing work he’s been doing for me at Guitar Noise and to remind you that you should feel free to send me any questions, criticisms, comments and suggestions either directly by email or on the Guitar Forums.

About David Hodge

Since joining Guitar Noise in November 1999, David has written over a thousand articles, lessons, interviews and reviews. He also serves as the site's Managing Editor, supervising all content in addition to the continued writing of his own lessons and articles. In April 2013, David joined the writing staff of Answers.com, heading up their Guitar Pages. And if that wasn't enough to keep him busy, David contributes to regularly Acoustic Guitar Magazine. He is also the author of six instructional books, the most recent being Idiot’s Guide: Playing Guitar.

Comments [2]

  1. You list the chords in the key of E major in a box. Why do you use D in the VII position instead of D#?

  2. Hi Ivar
    That’s definitely a mistake. Thanks for catching it. I’ll try to get it changed immediately.
    Peace

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