— 2012 — Jul 10

How to Think about Scale Modes

by Anton Schwartz

How often have we heard this?

Teacher: Do you know what the C lydian scale is?
Student: That’s the same as the G major scale, right?

It’s useful to know that a C lydian scale has the same notes as a G major scale.
But I find it much more useful to know that a C lydian scale is a C major scale with its fourth note raised a half step… and a shame that many people focus on the first way of thinking at the expense of the second.

After all, if your goal is to make melodies that sound like they’re in the key of C, doesn’t thinking in G make that difficult? By contrast, thinking of C lydian as C major with a raised fourth not only lets you keep the correct root in mind, but tells you about the sound of the scale—namely, one notch “brighter” than major, because the sharp eleven replaces the natural four.

I thought of a slogan while I was teaching a student this evening:

There’s a reason why Bach didn’t name his B Minor Mass
“The D Major Mass Starting on B”

What do you think? :)

9 Responses

  1. Jeff Taylor says:

    I totally agree and ths has taken some time for me to apply, at least in the more esoteric sounding modes like Lydian augmented or phrygian natural 6 ugh. Or espeically where there is some “latitude” in what one calls something depending on who you are talking to or what you are reading. I try to at least base the name on the Root name as it relates to the major mode names (Mick Goodrick approach) and then reason out the alterations along the way within the name (Dorian b2 is simply a “real” dorian sounding scale but with the second degree flat).

    I certainly used the former technique to at least get me the notes I needed to convey the sound but it’s true, I find just KNOWING how a mode sounds (lydian is now second nature as is melodic and harmonic minor, et al) is better in the heat of performance battle.

  2. Alexander Olsen says:

    Definitely true and your way is more accurate and powerful way of thinking about it. But the relief students feel when they realize that they ALREADY KNOW their modes utilizing their major scale is such a huge sigh of relief most the time and motivates them to experiment. That way when their muscling through learning their modes they don’t need an extensive chard of the IDPhLyMiAeLo reference chart of altered chord tones, they can logic through it themselves in the woodshed.

    First mode lessons usually goes something like, I’m going to play an Aminor chord, run your Gmajor scale…but it does not function like Gmajor. Let your ear take over and let the notes speak to you, see what you can find. Also gets through to the idea that sometimes students try to practice modes without chords behind them, and their ear and muscle memory pulls them back to major scales most of the time.

    Approaching melodies from the tonic seems like it would restrict the student somewhat to creating tonic, not modal, melodies and treats the rest of the interesting modal notes like frosting instead of substance, good for early-solo consonance and tiptoeing on the edges of dissonance, but not so good if you really want to jump off the deep end in a mode and take people places in the mid-solo/dissonance stage where such insanity is allowed. Sometimes it’s interesting to demolish all concept of tonic melody and create them from within the mode; but their ear will usually keep them just enough in check.

    One step further once the “Gmajor over Aminor chord” and is treat the mode like it is entirely juxtaposed to anything you know, you can dip into it for embellishments but if you really want to freak people out go full modal and demolish any idea of conventional western melodies, it will take on a life of it’s own, and then slip back into consonance to end the solo.

    After all they were modes before they were major and minor right?

    I really enjoy your posts thanks so much for the free lessons.

    Kind Regards from South Dakota,

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Alexander! But you propose that recognizing the tonic note in a chord relegates the other notes to frosting instead of substance, and I just don’t see it that way at all. When I work with beginning/intermediate students I actually devote a fair amount of time to helping them be less dependent on the roots of chords in their soloing. To me, an awareness of a chord’s tonic is important, and it in no way means you have to favor the root of the chord in your playing… any more than, say, if you’re talking to a six-year-old, you need actually say to them, “you’re only six” just because you’re keeping that fact in mind. :)

      Say, what do you mean by “After all they were modes before they were major and minor right?”


  3. George says:

    It’s interesting to note in this day of mode/scale music education that Stan Getz never knew chord scales or modes. Hopefully, you’ll agree he created wonderful melodies regardless. It’s also helpful to remember that any chord/scale system is imperfect.

    • I couldn’t agree more that Stan Getz was a brilliant musician and, as you point out, so poignantly melodic. But what makes you think he didn’t know chords, scales & modes?

      As for harmonic systems being imperfect… I’m not even sure I know what that means. By itself a well defined system is as perfect as, say, the number five. It’s when a person starts to make claims about systems describing the aesthetics of the music or explaining the art that they all fail. But they’re extremely useful as imperfect ways of describing the things we hear.

      • George says:


        Regarding Stan Getz, i heard Gary Burton say that he discovered Getz didnt know chord scales while he played with Getz for 3 years early in Garys career. I thought it was interesting and perhaps i remembered because I love ve Stan Getz’ playing.
        As far as chord/scale systems, you probably know that there isnt just one. One obvious example is George Russells Lydian Chromatic concept. What would necessitate that if the more conventional derivative approach satisfied his musical needs. Beynd a full blown system, there are different approaches to the same material. You have mentioned them in your great articles. The derivative approach is something like Fmajor is can be derived ved frm the key of C’ fourth mode whereas one think of it as F lydian. Hopefully, that makes sense to you


      • Thanks for the followup, George. I’ll definitely ask around about Stan! When I used to play gospel music in a church, I more than once encountered organists would could play the %#^&@ out of the instrument, by ear, but literally didn’t know C major from G minor. It’s very eye opening!

        Sounds like we’re on the same page regarding theory – different systems capture different aspects of the music, and none can describe it all.

        best regards,

      • George says:


        I should add that, for me, having chord/scale knowledge is very useful. Jimmy Raney said Getz might have had perfect pitch. Getz, at the very least, had ears like an elephant and was gifted. If you search for Gary Burton lesson on Youtube you can find the lesson where he mentions Getz if youre interested. Thanks for sharing your musical insights – great stuff!

  4. Daniel Verberne says:

    I’m a guitarist and a fan of the playing of Joe Satriani.
    Some of Satriani’s pieces make prominent use of particular modes, such as ‘Flying in a Blue Dream’, which revolves around C Lydian.
    Satriani as a guitar teacher used a concept called the ‘pitch axis’ in his lessons to students. It is from Satriani that I developed a handy means of practising the modes – utilising a pedal tone, a drone in a particular key, under which players can then cycle through the various moods created by the modes!
    Thank you for your stellar lessons, Anton.

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