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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 8

Additional Exotic Scales

In addition to what composers have done, theorists have provided us with many scales. In an earlier installment I outlined Heinrich Glaren’s theory of modes; he found that the existing church modes and secular scales could all be seen as the major scale “starting from” different notes.

The harmonic minor scale had the formula 1-2-b3-4-5-b6-7 compared to the major scale. If we’re starting from A, the A harmonic minor scale will be A-B-C-D-E-F-G#-A.

If we shift the starting point, we can construct a scale of B-C-D-E-F-G#-A-B. We can think of this as a “˜mode’ of the harmonic minor scale.

Because any scale can be shifted this way to make an entirely new scale, we can quickly get lost in the permutations. The easiest way to deal with this problem is to think of each new scale as one of the scales you already know with one note altered. This scale is our B Locrian scale with the sixth note raised – in other words, you can think of this as the Locrian #6 scale. It’s often called the Locrian 13 scale. To understand why it’s called that, we’ll take a quick look at extended chords.

Chords are built in thirds – that’s every other note of the major scale. If we take a B major scale as our starting point:


We can take every other letter and build chords:

B-D#-F# = B major
B-D#-F#-A = B7 (dominant 7th chords have a lowered 3rd; this has A instead of the scale’s A#)
B-D#-F#-A-C# = B9 (notice that the 9th, C#, is the same note as the 2nd scale note)
B-D#-F#-A-C#-E = B11 (E is the 11th; it’s also the 4th note of the scale)
B-D#-F#-A-C#-E-G# = B13 (G# is the 13th; it’s the same note as the 6th of the scale)

Because the “˜modes’ of the minor scales are often used for improvising over extended jazz chords, calling the scale “Locrian 13″³ tells us it’s going to work over an altered minor 13th chord. It’ll work because it’s got the 13th; it’s going to work better over minor 13th chords because it’s got a b3 – the scale has F instead of F#; and altered chords change either the 9th or 5th… in this case, the scale has a b5. By naming these scales using altered odd numbers, we can sort of key in their use to particular chord formulas.

Starting from the next note, we get C-D-E-F-G#-A-B-C. This is our major scale with a raised 5th, or the Ionian #5 scale.

Moving on, we get D-E-F-G#-A-B-C-D. This is our D Dorian scale with the 4th note raised. Since the 4th of a scale is also the 11th of a chord, this is called Dorian #11.

The next scale would be E-F-G#-A-B-C-D-E. This looks a bit like E major, because of the G#, but it doesn’t have any other sharps – E major also has F#, C#, and D#. Lowering the 7th note of a major scale gets us a Mixolydian scale, so this is E Mixolydian with TWO notes altered – the 2nd and 6th notes are lowered. In keeping with our chord/scale labeling system, this is called E Mixolydian b9 b13.

Next we get F-G#-A-B-C-D-E-F. That’s our F Lydian scale with the 2nd note raised, so we call it Lydian #9.

And finally, we get G#-A-B-C-D-E-F. This one gets ugly for naming, because there’s no G# major scale. In theory there could be, but it would have a double-sharped F, so it’s not practical for everyday use. But we’ll take it as our starting point – the symbol for a double sharp is “˜x’ – here’s the G# major scale and our latest mode:

G#-A#-B#-C#-D#-E#-Fx-G# = G# major
G#-A-B-C-D-E-F-G# = 7th mode of the harmonic minor

You can see that this scale changes just about everything! A is the b2, and D is the b5 – both are found in the Locrian scale, along with the B. But we’ve also lowered the 4th, and we’ve lowered the 7th TWICE! Because this one is so heavily altered, it’s not going to work over any common chords, and we simply call it Locrian b4 bb7 (yes, that’s a double flatted 7th).

We can do the same thing with the melodic minor scale, but we’ll only form “˜modes’ from the ascending pattern (because the descending pattern is already a mode of the major scale – the Aeolian, so the “˜modes’ are the same as the other major scale modes). Here’s the A melodic minor:


The first mode will be B-C-D-E-F#-G#-A-B, which is the Dorian scale with a b9.

The second mode is C-D-E-F#-G#-A-B-C. The F# makes this a Lydian scale type; the G# means it will blend well with augmented chords (major chords with a raised fifth), so it’s called the Lydian Augmented.

The third mode is D-E-F#-G#-A-B-C-D. G# makes this another Lydian scale type; the C is lowered compared the D major scale, so this is the Lydian b7.

Next we have E-F#-G#-A-B-C-D-E. The first five notes match the E major scale. But E major has a D#, so this has a lowered 7th – that’s a Mixolydian type scale, but with the C also lowered; we call this Mixolydian b13.

Then we have F#-G#-A-B-C-D-E-F#. In our major scales, F# is the key of G; the F# scale built from G major notes would be Locrian. But F# Locrian would have G natural, so we call this the Locrian 9 (meaning we’re using the 9th/2nd from the major scale).

Finally, we have G#-A-B-C-D-E-F#-G#. If you go back to our theoretical G# major scale (G#-A#-B#-C#-D#-E#-Fx-G#), you can see that this is G# major with EVERYTHING lowered – in other words, scale formula 1-b2-b3-b4-b5-b6-b7. This one is simply called the “˜altered’ scale. You can also think of this as the Locrian scale (1-b2-b3-4-b5-b6-b7) with the fourth lowered, or Locrian b4.

Perhaps at this point you can see how useful it is to name scales by altering a note or two from more common scales. Many other scales can be identified this way – and created this way. You could play E-F-G-A-B-C#-D-E, and think of it as the Phrygian #6. You could play F-G-A-B-C#-D-E-F, and think of it as Lydian #5. Any and all combinations of basic (or not so basic) scales with altered notes are possible.

So when you hear someone talk about the “Lydian dominant” scale, you can think of it as a Lydian scale – that’s the major scale with a #4 – combined with a dominant chord, which has a b7. 1-2-3-#4-5-6-b7 is the Lydian dominant. The “Phrygian major” scale is just the Phrygian (1-b2-b3-4-5-b6-b7) with the third raised, or 1-b2-3-4-5-b6-b7.

Another scale created by theory before it was ever used in music is the “two semitone tritone” scale, created by Nicholas Slonimsky. Focusing on the fact that altered chords in jazz make use of the b5, 5, or #5, he started there – with the series F#, G, and Ab. Those tones are each semitones (or half steps) apart; duplicating that pattern a tritone away gave him C, Db, and D. So the two semitone tritone scale is C-Db-D-F#-G-Ab, or 1-b2-2-#4-5-b6. It’ll work over any altered dominant chord in jazz.

Theorists even create scales just for the fun of it – an Italian music journal in the 1800s posted a scale as a challenge to composers to find a way to harmonize it; Opera composer Giuseppe Verdi answered the challenge, composing “Ave Maria (sulla scala enigmatica)”, naming the scale in the process – the enigmatic scale contains C-Db-E-F#-G#-A#-B going up, and substitutes F natural for F# going down. It’s been used by a few other composers since then, including Joe Satriani in the tune “The Enigmatic”.

There are still other scales in our twelve-tone system, but the ones I’m leaving out really haven’t been used in music (at least not yet). They’re still in the theory books waiting for composers to try them out.

Tom (“Noteboat”) Serb is a longtime Guitar Noise contributor and founder of the Midwest Music Academyin Plainfield, Illinois. This advice first appeared in Volume 4 # 21 of Guitar Noise News. Sign-up for our newsletter to receive more free tips like this by email.

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1 Comment

  1. Norm
    April 17th, 2012 @ 11:44 am

    Thank you for posting complicated information in a digestible form. It’s a rare talent that can handle that with such clear wording.