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Help Understanding What Scales To Use?

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Active Member
Joined: 10 years ago
Posts: 4
Topic starter  

I've learned all of my modes, now I need help understanding when to use them

i know that the chord number on the scale will help decide which scale to use
for example a iii chord would sound good with a phrygian, or a V would be good with mixolydian.

I wrote a quick sequence of chords i want to practice over:

its rather fast paced around 105bpm

so from my understanding it is mainly in Am, except for when i switch to the Bmin7 which would be in Gmaj

i know that Aeolian, Dorian and Phrygian fall under the minor scale category because of the flat 3rd and ionian, lydian and mixolydian fall under the major scale category because of the 3 is unchanged

so what scales could i use over this? and why?

Joined: 21 years ago
Posts: 5342

Things aren't always what they seem. If you start this thinking you're in Am, then you're missing the opportunities. Am7 uses the notes A, C, E and G; Cmaj7 uses C, E, G and B; Bm7 uses B, D, F# and A; and Bdim7add4 uses B, D, F, A and E (it's early here so I might not have got that spot on).

Put them all together and strip out the duplicates and you've got: G, A, B, C, D, E, F, and F# - with the exception of the F, it's G major.

The Am7, Bm7 and Cmaj7 all work in the key of G (Am is ii, Bm is iii and C is IV), so the only chord that's really got to be dealt with is the diminished where I'd be tempted to use either the diminished half/ whole step scale to use the F and make an easy F->G melodic movement as you go back into Am7, or just chord tones.

For the rest, why not start with A Dorian? It ties in nicely with the Am7.

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Active Member
Joined: 10 years ago
Posts: 4
Topic starter  

Hey man thanks for the help! I rarely have any free time nowadays (med school+part time job) but I'll give it a shot when I can!

Illustrious Member
Joined: 20 years ago
Posts: 4921

In terms of modes, you're way over-thinking it.

First, when you solo, you're trying to create a MELODY. Scales and modes are a great way to organize the notes you use for that melody (and an even better way to decide which notes not to use!), but they're only a tool - they're not the finished work.

Second, modes/scales and chords work together - but it's not a 1:1 relationship. If you solo over a blues progression using a minor pentatonic scale, you use that scale over the entire progression. That's how you want to use scales and modes... over longer stretches of chords. Doing anything else requires far more effort, and gives you NO tangible results.

The fact is, nobody will know what mode you're "thinking" over a chord. They'll only hear what comes out. And if you think too much, what comes out won't be a great melody.

I'll give you an example: you can solo over a 12 bar blues progression using the pentatonic minor scale. You can improve the sound of your solo by "targeting" chord tones - the 1, 4, and 5 are all in the scale, so you can land on those notes when the I, IV, and V chords appear. But it won't improve things any further to think that over the I chord you'll play the 1-b3-4-5-b7 of the chord root, and over the IV chord you'll play the 1-2-4-5-b7, and over the V chord you'll play 1-b3-4-b6-7.

In essence, that's what you're already doing... you're just not thinking about it in those terms. It's not worth the effort to keep mental track of all those different scales - you just let your ear fill things out, as you focus on a single scale, the pentatonic minor of the I chord. That allows you to keep your tool set to a minimum while you focus on the melody.

When people approach something like a ii-V-I progression in C and say "play D Dorian over the ii, G mixolydian over the V, and C Ionian over the I", they're complicating things - just like using three different scales over the the blues progression would. All those modes contain the notes of C major - just think in terms of C major, be aware of your target tones, and then worry about the main thing... the melody.

The progression you gave uses notes of C major, except for the F# note in the Bm7 chord. But you're not in C major - your progression is clearly minor. You're in A minor tonality, which has the same notes.

You have many options for scales that will work, but the simplest is the A melodic minor scale - that's a 9 note scale containing F natural, F#, G natural, and G#. Use your ear to guide when you should use those tones and you'll make the scale part of your real tool kit, the one that builds melodies. (By the way, the melodic minor is always taught as F# and G# going up and F and G natural going down - but if you look at the actual melodies that composers and improvisers create, you'll discover that's not the way it's used... it's a good way to organize the learning of the scale, but you can use them with good effect in the opposite directions too.)

Once you've got the melodic minor under your belt, try A Dorian over the whole progression. The F# will sound good over everything except the Bdim7/11 (you misnamed the chord - you can only "add" 9 or 11 in chord theory, regardless of how you see things named on the internet). So... use your ear and avoid the F# over that chord.

Just my two cents.

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