Scale Construction – No Exploding Heads Guaranteed

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Ok, confession – I’m a music theory nerd. I’m a nerd in general, but particularly with music theory. I came from the classical and rock schools first and have sort swerved in to music production and game audio the long way round, so I’m a bit behind with the ol’ compuper music, but theory is one my strengths because of that.


I, like lots of people, unfortunately can’t do that Mozart thing where you hear a finished piece of music in your head before you even start writing; nor have I ever woken up with a new melody in my head ready to leap on the page – which is apparently the case for Jimmy Page with Stairway to Heaven. Unfortunately for me, and I think most of us, it’s a bit of a graft!


The maths behind the music is often my saving grace if I am really struggling to come up with something fresh. And I love that if I am stuck staring at a blank page I can just rely on my theory, do some music-y maths and end up with something…. Anything, just to get me started.


With this in mind I thought I would do a quick run down on scale construction and a short jaunt in to modes for any of you that have come at this from the opposite direction and trying to get to grips with tonality.


So, let’s start with the obvious first. The most popular tonalities are major and minor – these tend to be thought of as the ONLY two tonalities as they are used so often. Major sounds happy, minor sounds sad.


Now here’s the secret, the reason things ‘sound’ major or minor is because of the relationship between the notes within them. Let me try to explain:

Out of all the notes that we have available in the chromatic scale,

C  C#  D  D Eb  E  F F#  G  G#  A  Bb  B

we only want 7 for a tonal scale, either major or minor. How do we choose which seven are the ones we want?


Say we take a D major scale – the notes are:

D  E  F#  G  A  B  C#  D

What about E major?

E  F#  G#  A  B  C#  D#  E

Both of these are major scales, but without hearing them how do we know? Let’s try to do some quick maths with it, to see if we can work it out.

If we look at a piano keyboard (below) and count up the notes between the notes of the D major scale:


we end up with a pattern consisting of semitone and tone leaps.

D Eb  E  F F#  G  G#  A  Bb  B  C#  D

        tone                tone    semitone          tone                   tone                 tone       semitone

D  E  F#  G  A  B  C#  D


and we find the same thing if we try with E major, or in fact any major scale, they all have the same pattern:

F  F#  G  G#  A  Bb  B  C  C#  D  D#  E

      tone               tone        semitone        tone                  tone                 tone    semitone

E  F#  G#  A  B  C#  D#  E


therefore if we take our chromatic scale again and apply the TTSTTTS pattern to a note, you will end up with a major scale. Awesome!


Now for minor, the technique is the same but the pattern is different. A natural minor scale has the scale tone pattern TSTTSTT. So, a D minor scale has:

D Eb  E  F F#  G  G#  A  Bb  B  C  C#  D

     tone      semitone  tone                    tone          semitone       tone            tone

D E  F  G  A  Bb  C  D


And in E minor:

F  F#  G  G#  A  Bb  B  C  C#  D  D#  E

tone     semitone       tone                    tone       semitone     tone                tone

E  F#  G  A  B  C  D  E

Ok so summary so far:



Natural Minor = TSTTSTT


Where it really gets interesting, where my inner nerd really starts to surface … and sometimes where people’s heads start exploding … is when we look in to how these patterns are connected.

Let’s take a look at this from another point of few. So far we have been comparing two major scales together, and two minor scales together. How about we keep the root note the same this time and see what the differences are between major and minor tonalities with the same starting note.

D Major: D E F# G A B C# D

D minor: D E  F  G  A  Bb  C  D

We can see from this, that D major has two sharps (F# and C#), and d minor has one flat (Bb). If we write this out in terms of the degrees of the scale we can say that compared to the major scale, the natural minor scale has a flat 3rd, flat 6th and flat 7th, because we have flattened the F#, the B and the C#. the same happens with E major and e minor; to get from Emajor (E F# G# A B C# D#) to e minor (E F# G A B C D) we have to flatten the 3rd (G), 6th (C), and 7th (D) degrees of the scale. Ok so that’s a great way of knowing how to modulate between a major key and its parallel minor key-  e.g. C major to C minor.


Ok so that wasn’t so bad between just the major and minor, and if you want to stop there, that’s cool – I would say that 90% (if not more) of current music being written every day is written in either major or minor tonality so that is a great base for building your scales and keys. However, I think to understand this technique fully, it is useful to understand what is in the gaps between those two.


Introducing modes. Modes are basically scales, tonalities or however you want to think of them, whose construction also rely on these patterns that we have been discussing – much like major and minor, but woefully underused in mainstream music. Guitarists seem weirdly drawn to modes, more than any other instrumentalist – and that is how I got involved with them. Outside of technical metal and jazz however, these juicy morsels seem to have been left behind. I am not going to go into how modes are related to major and minor keys harmonically in this blog as that could cause our brains to suddenly mutate to the point that we have to go and join the X-men – information overload. But I am going to show you these patterns so that you can construct any of the 7 major modes, start to familiarise yourself with them and how they sound and maybe have a go at introducing them in to your music.


Here is a table of all 7 major modes in C (ps don’t worry about the Greek names!):


Mode Notes (C root note) Degrees compared to major Pattern
Ionian (Major) C  D  E  F  G  A  B Ermm.. it’s the same, obviously TTSTTTS
Dorian C  D  Eb  F  G  A  Bb Flat 3rd and 7th TSTTTST
Phrygian C  Db  Eb  F  G  Ab  Bb Flat 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 7th STTTSTT
Lydian C  D  E  F#  G  A  B Sharp 4th TTTSTTS
Mixolydian C  D  E  F  G  A  Bb Flat 7th TTSTTST
(natural minor)
C  D  Eb  F  G  Ab  Bb Flat 3rd, 6th and 7th TSTTSTT
Locrian C  Db  Eb  F  Gb  Ab  Bb Flat 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th and 7th STTSTTT


The important thing to be aware of if you are new to this is which pattern you are using. Start with any note from the chromatic scale, pick a mode and construct from the root note upwards using that mode’s scale pattern.

Let’s do a few random examples:

F Lydian

F  F#  G  G#  A  Bb  B  C  C#  D  Eb  E  F

tone                 tone                   tone       semitone     tone                 tone       semitone

F  G  A  B  C  D  E  F


A Mixolydian:

Bb  B   C#  D  D#  E  F#  G  G#  A

tone                tone       semitone        tone               tone      semitone       tone

A  B  C#  D  E  F#  G  A


Bb Dorian:

Bb  B  C  Db  D  Eb  E  F  F#  G  Ab  A  Bb

tone      semitone        tone                 tone             tone         semitone       tone

Bb  C  Db  Eb  F  G  Ab  Bb


Please have a go at trying these out, play them on your instrument of choice just to get to know how each different mode has its own flavour; notice the variety of the emotions that you are able to tap in to, other than just the standard ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ of major and minor, bit it the Egyptian sound of the Phrygian mode, the wistfulness of the Lydian mode, or the straight up bad-assery that is the Locrian mode.

Try to memorise those patterns so that you are comfortable with each mode on its own and try to learn how each mode relates to the major mode in terms of the degrees of its scale, as laid out in the table above.

I would love to hear how you get on, and any music that you have written using these major modes, so please do get in touch either in the comments below, or on Twitter.

I realise this is just a whistle stop tour, and has probably raised more questions than it has answered, but I wanted to focus first on how these collections are constructed first In a future blog, I will be delving deeper in to how the modes are related harmonically and how we can move between them smoothly, so that you can be on your way to being a music theory ninja!

Cheers for now,


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