Train Your Ears: Identifying Scales (Part III)

We’ve discussed the major and natural minor scales, as well as the harmonic minor. It’s time for another variation of the minor scale.

Melodic Minor

The melodic minor is created by raising the 6th and 7th scale degrees of the natural minor.

C Natural minor:  C   D   Eb   F   G   Ab   Bb   C

C Melodic minor:  C   D   Eb   F   G   A   B   C

melminor-1

It sounds like this:

Now I must admit that I’ve already lied to you. The scale written above is technically only the first half of the melodic minor scale. That is only how you play the scale while ascending. While descending, you play the natural minor scale. Therefore, the proper melodic minor scale in C is written as:

melodicminorfull

The ascending portion of the scale is better known as the jazz minor scale, which is the portion of the melodic minor that we primarily use today, whether we play it ascending or descending.

“Woah, woah, woah…why is the full version different depending on which direction you’re playing the notes?”

I don’t personally know the precise story behind this (perhaps someone can comment with a reliable source), but from my understanding this concept was developed in the classical music era. Composers found that the interval between the 6th and raised 7th of the harmonic minor scale was a little awkward to sing, so they decided to either raise the 6th or lower the 7th by a half-step in order to provide a smoother transition between the notes. The raised 6th was found to work best when the scale was ascending, forming the ascending melodic minor scale (or jazz minor). The lowered 7th worked better for descending melody lines, forming the descending melodic minor scale (which is identical to the natural minor).

That being said, the use of the ascending or descending patterns in classical music differs from composer to composer, and in most modern music the jazz minor is often referred to as the melodic minor, and is played whether the melody is ascending or descending. So in other words, don’t worry about it.

“Okay, well now I’m bored and this scale doesn’t seem to be much fun.”

Yes, the idea of the melodic minor scale is a bit confusing, and when you listen to the audio example above it may sound kind of strange, but that’s the beauty of it. If used in the right context this scale can sound incredibly interesting and unique. Here are a few videos to both inspire you and get you more familiar with the sound of the scale.

Listen as Tom Quayle from http://www.infiniteguitar.com switches between major and melodic minor scales:

Or take a look Andrew Wasson’s thorough explanation of melodic minor from http://www.creativeguitarstudio.com:

To me, the melodic minor scale has a mysterious and ambiguous sound. At first it clearly sounds like a minor scale with it’s lowered 3rd, but the rest of it sounds incredibly major. It sounds like a scale that is trying to be two things at once, giving it a sense of ambiguity.

Scale Summary

Okay, so I’ve covered four of the most common scales used in modern music, how they’re formed, and what they sound like. Here’s a real quick summary in case you’ve forgotten:

Major

What it looks like as a C scale:

Untitled

What it sounds like as a C scale: 

My personal keywords: Happy, standard, basic

What to listen for: Think about solfeggio (do re mi fa so la ti do).

Natural Minor

What it looks like as a C scale:

Untitled

What it sounds like as a C scale: 

My personal keywords: Sad, melancholy, sigh

What to listen for: It can be thought of as the major scale starting on the 6th note (or in solfeggio: la ti do re mi fa so la). You hear it begin with a major 2nd interval, which is the same as the major scale, but then you hear the lowered 3rd. Once you hear the lowered 3rd, you know it’s some sort of minor scale, at which point you listen to the 6th and 7th notes. If both the 6th and 7th notes sound lowered, it’s the natural minor.

Harmonic Minor

What it looks like as a C scale:

harmonicminor-1

What it sounds like as a C scale: 

My personal keywords: Dark, intense

What to listen for: The gap between the lowered 6th and natural 7th note is very obvious, giving the scale a distinct sound. The 7th note will lead back to the root nicely because it is only one half-step away. This creates a more intense sound than the natural minor scale, which isn’t as powerful.

Melodic Minor

What it looks like as a C scale:

melminor-1

What it sounds like as a C scale: 

My personal keywords: Mysterious, ambiguous

What to listen for: At first it sounds like a minor scale, but the second half sounds like a major scale.

Once again, please check out the exercises at http://www.musictheory.net. Try the scale ear training exercises and see how well you do!

Next post:  Identifying Basic Chords

Train Your Ears: Identifying Scales (Part II)

In my last post I discussed the standard major and natural minor scales and what they sound like. Now I’d like to focus on the harmonic minor.

Harmonic Minor

The harmonic minor is made by raising the 7th scale degree of the natural minor.

C natural minor:   C   D   Eb   F   G   Ab   Bb   C

C harmonic minor:   C   D   Eb   F   G   Ab   B   C

harmonicminor-1

It sounds like this:

This is done to build tension within the scale, making the resolve back to the root more powerful. It’s fairly easy to identify due to the large, minor 3rd gap between the 6th and 7th notes. It’s very often used while playing the V chord in a minor key.

“Why? And what do you mean by the ‘V’ chord?”

When talking about chords built off of certain scale degrees, we usually use roman numerals. I go over this topic in How to Know Which Chords to Play. In that post, I talk about building chords off of each scale degree in a major scale, in order to determine which chords “fit” within a particular key. The example I use in that post is a C major scale, which has a G major as it’s V chord. If you were to play a G major chord whilst playing in the key of C, it will sound like it really wants to be followed by a C chord. When you look at the notes in a G major triad, it makes sense.

G   B   D

The B is one half-step below C. Since your brain processes the note C as the foundation of the key, you get a sense that you’re almost there. This is what we like to call tension. If you were in A major, the same thing would go with an E major chord.

E   G#   B

The G# is one half-step below A. These “almost there” notes are called leading tones. Technically, any note is a leading tone to the notes immediately surrounding it, but this term is generally applied to the 7th scale degree leading back to the root.

Note: This effect is magnified when you add the 7th to the V chord (G   B   D   F), but that’s for another post.

In minor land, it’s a little different. Take a look at the chords built off of a C minor scale. Remember, all you do is stack thirds on top of each note, and add the accidentals that occur in a C minor scale (which are Bb, Eb, and Ab).

minorchords-1

Notice that the v chord is minor instead of major (remember, lowercase roman numerals are used for minor chords). It’s made up of:

G   Bb   D

Bb is a whole-step below C, so you don’t really have the same, “almost there” kind of feeling. Because of this, composers will often opt to play a G major in place of the G minor by raising the Bb to a B.

Listen to the difference between the two examples below. In the first example, a C minor chord is played, followed by a G minor, then back to C minor. In the second example, the G minor is changed to a G major.

C minor – G minor – C minor: 

C minor – G major – C minor: 

They both work musically, but the chords in the second example sound darker. The extra tension adds a little more intensity.

I’ll leave you with the second example above, but with the harmonic minor scale played on top of it. Pay attention to the raised 7th note, and how well it resolves when the C minor chord is played the second time. This is the harmonic minor sound. Get it in your head!

Move on to part III!

Playing the Fingerboard – The Monster Scale

Hopefully, the last few posts have taught you about modes and helped you understand how to see the different modes in actual guitar scales. Now it’s time to bring everything together.

All I ask of you in this post is to memorize three scale patterns. These three patterns will then connect to each other like a jigsaw puzzle in order to form the monster scale (as I like to call it). Guess what, if you’ve read the first two posts, you already know one of the three!

Yes, the first pattern to memorize is this Ionian pattern.

ionian

The second is a phrygian pattern. Remember, the phrygian mode takes the same form as a minor scale with a lowered 2nd.

phrygian

Before you learn the third pattern, focus on those two. When you feel comfortable playing them both, it’s time to combine them. Phrygian is the mode you get by starting a major scale from its 3rd scale degree. Therefore, if you start the above phrygian pattern on the 3rd note of the above ionian pattern, you get this:

ionianphrygian

Do you see where I’m getting at here yet? By memorizing certain mode patterns you can piece them together like a puzzle.

Disclaimer: Please don’t get confused by the frets with two dots in them. No, the fret is not divided into micro-notes. I only included both dots to show that those notes are shared between the two patterns.

If you want to play in the key of G, all you have to do is position the first note of the ionian pattern on a G on the low E string. Once you do that, all of those above notes are fair game because they’re all in the key of G! Practice this combination of patterns as much as your brain can handle. Try playing up the ionian section of the pattern, but after you hit the last note play down the phrygian pattern. Come up with your own exercises, there are too many to count.

Yes you guessed it, once you have that under your belt it’s time to add another mode pattern. Now, you could start the next mode pattern from the note furthest to the right on the low E string, which corresponds to the 5th note of the major scale (which would be the mixolydian pattern). However, for visualization purposes I personally recommend skipping that one and adding the aeolian pattern. Don’t worry, the mixolydian scale will still be in there, but the aeolian pattern provides a more distinct way to divide this huge scale up in your head (you’ll see what I mean). Aeolian is also known as “natural minor”, and should be familiar to those of you who have practiced your minor scales. Since we’re connecting our notes on the low E string, we want an aeolian pattern that starts on the low E string. Here you go:

aeolian


Start this pattern to the right of the 5th note on the low E string of the previous pattern. This is what it looks like:

ionianphrygianaeolian

Oh man, we’re getting serious here. So many frets! Every one of those colorful dots can be played in any one key.

“It’s like a whole new world!”

You didn’t think it ended there, did you? We now reach the best part of this whole mess of information. You know what’s cool about the musical scale? It’s cyclical! Once you get to the 8th note of the major scale, you begin playing that exact same scale in the next octave. Notice how on the low E string we have already covered eight notes. Do you know what this means?!?!? You can start this humongous pattern all over again:

monsterscale

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the beauty of the monster scale pattern. That black line on the bottom shows one place where the pattern repeats.

Hint hint:  Do you see how many frets that black line spans? The notes on the guitar repeat every 12 frets. That’s why the 12th fret is almost always marked with a special inlay. This means that if you know where all the playable notes in a key are up to the 12th fret, you know where those notes are across the ENTIRE fingerboard!

If this huge bunch of notes is intimidating to you, just break it down into the different mode patterns. Remember, this isn’t a scale pattern that you have to memorize and play from left to right, bottom to top. The idea is to get away from the mentality that you have to play a confined scale pattern that spans 4 frets while you’re improvising. Think of it as all of the “playable” frets on the fingerboard lighting up for one specific key. You are free to play any of those notes!

Remember, this pattern can be started from anywhere on the fretboard. Whatever note you begin that ionian pattern on represents the major key in which you are playing in. If you want all of these notes to correspond with G major, place the first ionian note on a G! Remember, guitarists read these scale diagrams from left to right, bottom to top. When I say the “first” note in a pattern, I’m talking about the bottom-most, left-most note of that pattern.

Whew. I did my best to explain that as clearly as possible, but if you’re confused about anything please let me know. I’m happy to answer any questions or respond to any issues you may have. I suspect I’ll work a little more on this topic in the future.

Until then, let your fingers run free.