Looking back over the columns I’ve written for the past two and a half years (wow, tempus fugit),
I’ve made some assumptions about note choices, scales, modes and the
relationship of notes to chords in general. While these concepts have
been and are covered in other Keyboard articles, I’d like to
share my take on this very important subject. We can then move into
analyzing specific players, their solos, and styles of playing.
Concepts for Soloing
While discussing synth soloing with Adam Holzman for last
month’s column he laid out a really good overview on tools for
developing a good solo. These include the use of scales, modes,
pentatonics, the blues, “cool licks,” outlining the harmony of the song,
superimposed triad shapes, and of course, the melody of the tune
itself. I’ll be using this as my guide for the range of articles to
Before we get into scales, here’s a very important point.
The study of scales and modes can lead players to just “run the scales”
up and down their instrument. This gets boring quickly and is often done
because after practicing them to master the fingering, players all too
often fall into “muscle memory” and just run scales when they solo.
Avoid that trap, and instead use conscious note choices to make good
These are all really types of scales, but you may not be
as familiar with the concepts of modes and pentatonic scales. For
simplicity, think of all of these as different groupings of notes, each
defined by a specific “construct.” They are good resources to find
different notes and groupings of notes to play that work well against
given types of chords, and key centers.
Everyone who learns piano learns the major scale (Ex. 1).
Seven notes are laid out in the familiar steps: whole, whole, half,
whole, whole, whole, and finally a half-step back to the root tone an
octave up. It’s important to understand scales in this way, since all
other scales and modes can be described by their whole- and half-step
Take this further and build seventh chords using only these scale tones and you get the chords shown in Ex.2.
It’s common to use Roman numerals to indicate each chord step: capitals
for major and dominant sevenths and lower case for minor, half
diminished, and fully diminished chords. The reason for using the
numbers is so you can discuss the concepts of harmony easily in any key.
We can see that the I chord is a major seventh
chord, and the major scale of the same name will work very well over it.
The notes from the scale that make up the chord (1, 3, 5, 7) are good
tones to land on for downbeats and for longer held notes, and some of
the other tones (the sixth, for example) also work well. The fourth
doesn’t fit the chord as well, so it is better to use in passing.
The fourth scale tone also creates a major seventh chord (Fmaj7 in this example), and we can still use the major scale based on the root name (C) to create melodies. But now we want to emphasize the tones that make up the chord, so this time we use the fourth (F), sixth (A), root (C) and third (E) of the scale. The other notes of the scale actually all sound good against the chord, with the seventh (B) sounding a bit exotic, but not as odd as the F did against the C
major. The way I just described it makes sense when playing a scale
starting with the root note, but if you start on a different note—say,
the fourth—it’s easier to describe the note choices as they relate to F, rather than C. That’s exactly what most musicians and educators do, which leads us to . . .
Ex. 1. The major scale.
Ex. 2. The scale tone seventh chords.
In the simplest terms, modes are major or minor scales
that start and end on another tone rather than the root. Sticking with
our IV chord (Fmaj7) we can play from F to F using the notes of the C major scale (all white keys) and see that the construction of the scale is slightly different (Ex.3a).
Comparing that scale to building the major scale starting on F (Ex. 3b), you’ll see that one difference is the fourth step. In the pure major built on the root tone it would be Bb (flat), and in this modal construction the fourth is raised a half-step to B natural. This scale is called the Lydian mode, and works well for major seventh chords when you want a little exotic color.
Moving back to the last major chord from Ex. 2, the fifth
step of the scale has a major triad, but the seventh is lowered to form
the dominant seventh chord. Looking at the C-based scale going from G to G versus the G major scale (Ex. 4a and 4b),
the seventh note of the major scale is lowered by a half-step. That
scale is called the Mixolydian mode, and works great for dominant
Ex. 3. The Lydian mode.
Ex. 4. The Mixolydian mode.
Things Begin To Make Sense
We can take those scale tone chords and use the root tone
scale for each chord for when you want to play and sound very much “in”
the key center (Ex. 5). You’re drawing from the same note pool to
play those three chords, but which notes match up to the chord and
which create some dissonance or tension is what changes.
Let me speed up the explanation as it relates to the minor chords that occur when you’re playing in a major-key tonality: the ii, iii, and vi chords (Dm7, Em7, and Am7 in the key of C). The D to D scale using the key of C
is called the Dorian mode, and can be thought of as starting a major
scale on its second step, or as a major scale with the third and seventh
lowered (Ex. 6).
Ex. 5. The I, IV, and V7 chords and their modes.
Ex. 6. The Dorian mode.
The E to E scale using the key of C
is called the Phrygian mode, and can be thought of as starting a major
scale on the third tone, or as a major scale with the second, third,
sixth and seventh lowered (Ex. 7). Finally, the A to A scale using the key of C
is called the Aeolian mode, and can be thought of as starting a major
scale on the sixth tone, or as a major scale with the third, sixth, and
seventh lowered (Ex. 8). It’s also called the Natural Minor scale. The seventh step scale tone chord is called a half-diminished chord (Bdim7, sometimes notated BØ7), or a minor seventh flat five (Bmin7b5). This seventh tone-to -seventh tone scale is called the Locrian mode (Ex. 9), and can be thought of as a major scale with lowered second, third, fifth, sixth, and seventh. Ex. 10 shows each of these modes applied to the root of C, so you can compare how each changes the steps of the scale.
Ex. 7. The Phrygian mode.
Ex. 8. The Aeolian mode.
Ex. 9. The Locrian mode.
Ex. 10. All the modes in the key of C (click to enlarge).
Next month we’ll put these these scale/mode concepts in
practice with some melodies and licks, and move on to the minor scales
and their modes and uses.