Train Your Ears: Identifying Scales (Part I)

Learning how to distinguish one type of scale from another by ear is a great skill for any musician. It allows you to better understand the purpose of each scale and how they fit into the music you like to play.

Most scales can ultimately be boiled down to one of two foundations:  major or minor, with minor having three fundamental variations:  natural, harmonic, and melodic. For your exciting leap into scale ear training, I suggest you start with these four scales.

Major

The major scale is usually the first scale you learn while learning an instrument. If you play all of the white keys on a piano from one C to the next C, you play the C major scale. You can refer to my post on basic scale theory for more detail about constructing this scale, or you can just trust me these notes make a C major scale:

C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C

Which looks like this on sheet music:

Untitled

And sounds like this: [audio http://danflorio.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/majorscale.mp3 ]

Fun fact:  That little “8” below the treble clef means that all of the notes actually sound an octave LOWER than how they’re written. This is common for written guitar music. I plan on going over written music in a future post, so don’t feel horribly sad if this confuses you.

In theory this should be the easiest scale to identify by ear. Think of when vocalists warm up using solfeggio (Do re me fa so la ti do). In fact, singing along with the scale using solfeggio is a great way to solidify its sound in your head. Try it (while no one is listening).

Natural Minor

The natural minor scale is usually the second type of scale you learn. It is created by lowering the 3rd, 6th, and 7th notes of the major scale by one half-step. Here is the C natural minor scale:

C   D   Eb   F   G   Ab   Bb   C

Which is written as:

Untitled

And it sounds like: [audio http://danflorio.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/minorscale.mp3 ]

Notice the distinct change in emotion from the major scale. Most people would agree that the minor scale has a sad sound to it, where a major scale has a happy sound (I posted my own thoughts on why in this post).

What’s cool about the natural minor scale is that you can play one by starting on the 6th note of the major scale. In fact, if you read my post on modes you would already know that the natural minor scale corresponds with the aeolian mode. So for example, if you begin your C major scale on the 6th note, A, you will be playing A natural minor.

“I don’t believe you”

No? I can easily prove it to you by rewriting that C major scale while starting and ending with A.

A   B   C   D   E   F   G   A

The key of A major should have three sharps, which would be F#, C#, and G# (I talk about how to determine this in my post on the circle of 5ths). Keen observers will notice that there are no sharps in the scale written above. They are all natural notes, which means that those three sharps that should be there have been lowered. Do you notice where those three notes are in the scale?

A   B   C   D   E   F   G   A

How about that! They are the 3rd, 6th, and 7th notes. This right here is an A natural minor scale, and we got to it by writing the C major scale starting from A. Please remember this:

***Every major scale has a relative natural minor scale starting from the 6th scale degree***

Knowing this will help form a bond between major and minor in your head. It also helps for improvising music. If you’re jamming with your friend and they’re playing chords in the key of C major, you know you can play A minor over it and it will work nicely.

In solfeggio terms, you sing this scale by starting on the la in “do re mi fa so la ti do”. So the solfeggio for a natural minor scale is “la ti do re mi fa so la”. Again, I highly suggest trying to sing the scale using the solfeggio, as it really helps in solidifying the intervals and overall sound of the scale.

Relative minor exampleListen to the above example and really try to compare the two scales. It will climb up the C major scale, then drop from C to A to begin the A natural minor scale:

[audio http://danflorio.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/relativeminor.mp3 ]

For now, focus on these two basic scales. If you play an instrument, try playing them in different keys. Really compare the sounds, feelings, and emotions they produce. Again I have to recommend www.musictheory.net. Go to the scale ear trainer (http://www.musictheory.net/exercises/ear-scale) and change the settings so that ONLY the major and natural minor scales are involved. It will play either a major or minor scale randomly, and you’ll have to guess which one it is.

Next post:  Identifying Scales (Part II)

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Train Your Ears – Introduction

1032418_69630195Have you ever wondered what people really mean when they say someone has a “good ear” for music? Is that someone that they’re talking about never you? Do you change keys 14 times while singing Happy Birthday? Well, my friend, I believe this mini-series of mine will be of service to you.

When it comes to listening to, writing, or playing music, your ears are kind of an important factor. Believe it or not, they can be trained to be more helpful (and believe me, a good ear for music is one of the most helpful things you can have as a musician).

“What exactly does a ‘good ear’ for music get me?”

There are several benefits to having a good ear, including the ability to distinguish the distances between two different notes, name chord qualities, and identify scales. If you are a singer, it will also help you sing in key. For example if you know the distance between the note you’re singing and the next note in the melody, you can hit that next note with far better accuracy. If you’re playing guitar, you may be able to tell when it’s out of tune, quickly figure out which strings need tuning and adjust everything on the fly.

Most importantly, in my opinion, are the benefits a good ear has for improvising. Melodies will pop up in your head effortlessly when you hear chords being played, and you’ll really feel like you have control over what you’re playing.

“I think I can do some of those things already. Do I REALLY need to train my ear?”

If you’ve never sat down and specifically trained your hear, but you feel like you already have some of the mentioned skills, that’s great! Some people have naturally good ears for music, but everyone, no matter what level, can benefit from ear training. Trust me, I thought my musical ear was as good as it would ever get until I took a couple of ear training courses in college. I was pleasantly surprised with how much it helped, and I realized that there was a lot more to learn than I thought.

As far as upkeep goes, ear training is something you should absolutely revisit every now and then. In fact part of the reason I’m even writing this is because I haven’t been keeping up myself and I’ve noticed quite a difference.

I’ll link to each post below as they come out, so check back soon!

Part 1:  Identifying intervals (Part I)

Part 2:  Identifying Intervals (Part II)

Part 3:  Identifying scales (Part I)

Part 4:  Identifying scales (Part II)

Part 5:  Identifying scales (Part III)

Part 6:  Identifying basic chords

Part 7:  Listen

Playing the Fingerboard – Modes on the Guitar

Now that you know about what modes are (and totally didn’t skip through that entire post), it’s time to apply that knowledge to the guitar itself. Keep in mind, the goal of this post is to get you to begin thinking in terms of modes on the guitar. Don’t get too caught up in the theory behind it, as the post following this will bring everything together.

The beauty (or curse) of stringed instruments is that there are multiple ways to play any given scale. This is a very important concept to understand if you want to play across the whole fingerboard. Certain scales span across more frets than others, and all scales have their place. Either way, let’s take a look at one of the most common major scale patterns. Again, let’s assume the key of C.

C major

Diagram of a common major scale pattern on the guitar.

The letter names for C major are included for demonstration purposes, but this shape can be played anywhere on the neck to play in any key.

For those of you that are confused at what you’re looking at, this is a scale diagram meant for the guitar. Imagine that the grid is your fretboard, where the horizontal lines are strings and the vertical lines are the frets. The bottom horizontal line is the low E string, then the A string, D, G, B, and finally the top line represents the high E string. The C’s are highlighted in red because they represent the root note of the scale.

As I mentioned before, if you know how to play this basic major scale, you can play ANY of those modes I mentioned in the last post. It all depends on what your starting note is.

For you visual people, I’ll highlight all the D’s in the pattern instead of the C’s. Remember, the highlighted circles are your root notes.

D Dorian

Diagram of a C major scale on the guitar with D’s as root notes.

By playing this scale with the D’s as your root notes, you’re playing the D dorian mode.  I could go on to highlight the E’s, F’s, G’s, A’s, and B’s, in order to show you the other modes, but I think you get the point. Here, let me drill it into your head even more, this time using pretty colors:

If you start the pattern from the first scale degree (in this case, ), it’s C Ionian.

If you start the pattern from the 2nd scale degree (in this case, D ), it’s D Dorian.

If you start the pattern from the 3rd scale degree (in this case, E ), it’s E Phrygian.

If you start the pattern from the 4th scale degree (in this case, F ), it’s F Lydian.

If you start the pattern from the 5th scale degree (in this case, G ), it’s G Mixolydian.

If you start the pattern from the 6th scale degree (in this case, A ), it’s A Aeolian.

If you start the pattern from the 7th scale degree (in this case, B ), it’s B Locrian.

Got it?

Uh, alright…but I’m still playing over a span of 4 frets. Eddie Van Halen uses more than 4 frets. How can I be Eddie Van Halen with 4 frets?

Baby steps. I know all I’ve done so far is make your pleasant little major scale more complicated, but don’t worry, you’ll thank yourself for understanding this concept later. If you want to cover more frets in one scale, you’ll have to play more notes on each string. Let me introduce you to another major pattern that I personally use the most. Are you ready to stretch your fingers a little?

My personal favorite major scale pattern. Remember, by starting on the red notes, you're playing in the Ionian mode.

My personal favorite major scale pattern.

Side note:  Whenever I learn or show someone a new scale or scale pattern, I always imagine the music from Ocarina of Time after you learn a new song on the Ocarina.

linknewsong

You’ve learned Dan’s Favorite Major Scale Pattern!

Sorry if you don’t get that reference. ANYWAY, the idea of this pattern is to play three notes on each string, which successfully covers a whopping six frets when played over two octaves. Again, each red circle represents the root of the scale. If you’re playing a C major scale, each red circle is a C. If you’re playing an F major scale, each red circle is an F.  It all depends where you are on the fretboard. Again, all of that mode stuff applies to this pattern as well. If you start it on a D, it’s D dorian, blah blah blah.

Okay, that pattern covers more frets, but it’s annoying to play and sounds exactly the same as the first pattern!

Well, the purpose of this pattern isn’t just to be annoying and look more impressive to play. Think of this scale as the foundation, the starting point, or home base when playing across the whole fingerboard. I’ll explain in the next post, but for now I strongly encourage you to practice this scale. Here is my suggestion for which fingers to use where.

Major form with numbers

Major scale pattern with numbers to indicate which fingers to use. 1 = index finger, 2 = middle finger, 3 = ring finger, 4 = pinky.

If you aren’t used to playing scales like this, you will most likely have trouble with those first 6 notes on the bottom, where you have to stretch apart you index and middle fingers. Just keep at it and it will feel natural in time. Check the next post where I explain why this is my favorite major scale pattern, and how you can piece it together with the patterns of other modes to cover the entire fretboard!

Playing the Fingerboard – Scale Modes

When it comes to learning a musical concept on any instrument, I’m all about laying down the foundation with a little music theory. Love it or hate it, breaking something down to basics is almost always the more profitable method in the end. For this particular lesson, the theory concept I’d like to go over is modes.

What are modes? Explain!

First, let’s state the obvious. In music you have scales, which are patterns of notes played in ascending or descending order (COUGH, Basic Scale Theory). Normally when you practice a scale you play the notes in order, starting and ending on the note that the scale is named after. If it’s C major, you start and end with C. If you forgot what a C major scale sounds like, listen to this clip:

The notes you’re hearing are – C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C

That’s all fine and dandy, but let’s say you’re feeling rebellious. You’re tired of starting and ending the C major scale with C, and you want to play the scale starting and ending with D. Ever wonder what that would sound like? Check it out:

The notes you’re hearing are – D   E   F   G   A   B   C   D

You’re using all of the same notes from C major, but it doesn’t quite sound the same anymore. It sounds kind of….off. It’s almost like trying to read a sentence by starting with the second word and ending with the first word. Don’t worry, you didn’t break the C major scale. You are hearing one of the seven modes within the scale. If you compare the notes of this mode with the D minor scale (which are:  D   E   F   G   A   Bb   C   D), you will notice that the 6th scale degree is raised one half step. So, if you play a C major scale by starting and ending with D, you are hearing a D minor scale with a raised 6th. This type of minor scale is also known as the dorian scale. In the sound clip above, you are hearing the D dorian mode.

Interesting, but why do you call it a “mode”? Isn’t it still a scale?

In my experience, people use the terms “mode” and “scale” almost interchangeably whilst speaking in music geek jargon. To me, it’s all about reference. D dorian itself is a scale, but it happens to contain the same notes found in C major. Therefore, D dorian is a mode within the C major scale. Both terms are correct, but one is more specific than the other.

Wow, great explanation! So what are the other six modes?

Thanks. As I mentioned, there are seven modes within a scale, one mode for each note in the scale. The modes made from the major scale are called major modes. There are other sets of modes out there that are based on different scales, but let’s focus on the major modes for now as they are the most widely used and easiest to start with.

Here is a list of each mode found within the C major scale, along with quick descriptions and audio clips.

Ionian:  C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C

– Also known as C major

Dorian:  D   E   F   G   A   B   C   D

– A D minor scale with a raised 6th (it would normally be Bb)

Phrygian:  E   F   G   A   B   C   D   E

– An E minor scale with a lowered 2nd (it would normally be F#)

Lydian:  F   G   A   B   C   D   E   F

– An F major scale with a raised 4th (it would normally be Bb)

Mixolydian:  G   A   B   C   D   E   F   G

– A G major scale with a lowered 7th (it would normally be F#)

Aeolian:  A   B   C   D   E   F   G   A

– Also known as the natural minor scale

Locrian:  B   C   D   E   F   G   A   B

– A B minor scale with a lowered 2nd and a lowered 5th

The best thing about this is that if you know how to play a C major scale, you technically know how to play ALL of the scales listed above. All you have to do is start and end the C major scale on different notes.

To make this a little more clear, let’s use a scale with a few accidentals. Here are the seven major modes in E major.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alright, so by starting and ending a scale on different notes, you make seven different modes that have cool sounding Greek names. How does this help?

This all may seem fairly pointless, but I can assure you that it’s very helpful for learning how to play across the entire guitar fretboard. I further explain how in this next post!

Playing the Fingerboard – Introduction

joe-satriani-one-corbis-660-80

Let’s say you’ve learned your basic scales and that you’ve been feeling more comfortable improvising with them. You start to feel pretty good about yourself as you fiddle around on one scale. That is, until you come across a video of a Joe Satriani and you notice that his hand is flying all over the place on the fingerboard.

But…the scales I know only span 4 or 5 frets. How am I supposed to play like that?!

This three-part mini-series will describe the methods I personally used to learn how to break out of that five-fret box and start utilizing the rest of the guitar fingerboard.

The first post will deal with a very useful music theory concept, modes. The second post will demonstrate how to utilize the “mode” idea on the guitar. Finally, the third post will connect the modes together in such a way that the entire fretboard lights up before your very eyes, displaying each note you can play in a particular key (well not physically, but it will in your MIND). I’ll link this little list of contents below to each post as they are completed, so check back soon!

Part 1:  Scale Modes (Useful for non-guitarists too!)

Part 2:  Modes on the Guitar

Part 3:  The Monster Scale

The Circle of Fifths/Fourths and the notes in each key (Part I)

One of the most important and helpful tools for learning music theory is the Circle of Fifths (also known as the Cycle of Fifths). There are many uses for it, but I will focus on how to use it to determine what accidentals exist in each key, and discuss some ways it can be used for practicing an instrument.

In order to construct the circle of 5ths, start with the note C.

C

Amazing. Now, add the note that is a fifth above C. In other words, add the fifth note from the C major scale. If you know your basic scales, you know that note is a G.

C   G

Next, add the note that is a fifth above G, which is D.

C   G   D

If you continue this pattern, you will find the following notes:

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

Did you notice that this collection of fifths contains all 12 unique notes from the musical alphabet? Did you also notice that you end up right where you started, at C? I know you’re dying to reformat those notes into a circle, like this:

Alright, so my version is more of a diamond, but it should still get the point across. One thing I should point out is that many people are familiar with the circle going in the opposite direction. If you notice, the cycle moves in fourths if you look at it counter-clockwise (C to F is a fourth, F to Bb is a fourth, etc…). Looking at it this way has it’s own advantages, which I will get to in a moment.

How to know what notes are in each key

Okay, so why should we care about this? Well, let’s say you are told to play an E scale on the fly, but you never actually memorized how to play all of the scales. Sure, you could follow the “whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half” pattern that I discussed in Basic Scale Theory, but you can also use the Circle of Fifths to determine the exact notes to play. Let me start with a new and improved diagram.

All of the red numbers indicate how man sharps are in each key, while all of the blue numbers indicate how many flats are in each key. Remember, Gb and F# are the same key in terms of what you hear, but they are written out differently on sheet music. Now, none of this will make any sense until you understand the order of sharps and flats.

Order of sharps:

F C G D A E B

Order of flats:

B E A D G C F

I’ll explain what these mean in one moment, but just take a second to understand how I obtained each set of notes. To get the order of sharps, start with the note F and go up in fifths until you reach the note B. To get the order of flats, start with the note B and go up in fourths until you get the note F. There are plenty of awesome acronyms you can use to remember these, but I personally use the following:

For the order of sharps:  Fat Crabs Go Deep And Eat Bait

For the order of flats:  Betty Eats And Drinks Good Chocolate Fudge

Of course, you can come up with your own or try to find some online. Either way, memorize these two patterns, for they are vitally important and will get you far in life.

Now to put it all together and find the notes that make up an E major scale. If you look at the Circle of Fifths you can see the number 4 next to the note E. This means that there are 4 sharps in the key of E. What 4 sharps are they, you ask? Simply take the first 4 notes of the order of sharps.

F C G D

This means that every note in the E major scale is “natural” except for F, C, G, and D. Therefore, you can quickly write out the E major scale as:

E   F#   G#   A   B   C#   D#

Do you get it yet? Let’s do an example with flats. Take the Bb major scale. By referring to the Circle of Fifths, we can see the number 2 next to the note Bb, meaning there are 2 flats in the key of Bb. Since we are dealing with flats now, we take the first 2 notes from the order of flats.

B E

Now we can write the Bb major scale as:

Bb   C   D   Eb   F   G   A

Two more examples:

Key of D major:  D has 2 sharps, which are F and C, so the notes in the key are:

D   E   F#   G   A   B   C#

Key of Eb major:  Eb has 3 flats, which are B, E, and A, so the notes in the key are:

Eb   F   G   Ab   Bb   C   D

Right now this might seem like a lot of work, but I can assure you that if you memorize the order of sharps and flats, as well as the circle of fourths and fifths, you will be able to do this process in your head in a matter of seconds. This can also be used to explain key signatures, which I will go over in part 2 of this post.

Using the Circle of Fifths/Fourths for practicing

Not only is this cycle useful for determining the notes in each key, it can also be used as a convenient tool for practicing your instrument. For example, say you are a guitar player and you want to drill through all of the major scales. You can use the cycle to nail every single scale in one seamless, non-stop exercise. Since the interval between guitar strings is a 4th (except from the G to B string), cycling around the circle of 4ths works out pretty well. Here is an example exercise video:

You can apply this method to any exercise you may be working on. It helps you become familiar with the fretboard and it is an efficient way to apply a single pattern to all twelve keys back-to-back. While you could also practice a pattern on all twelve keys sequentially (start on C, go to D, then E, then F, and so on), this method forces you to think a little more, and helps you memorize what notes are a fourth or a fifth apart, which is extremely helpful for a number of reasons, which I may go over in another post. For now, I think this is enough information for one article, so I will leave you to your practicing. I hope this introduction to the Circle of Fifths/Fourths was as mind-blowing for you as it was when I first learned about it. Stay tuned for part 2!

Basic Scale Theory

Hello all. This is the first of (hopefully) many educational posts about music theory. Whether you know nothing about music theory and want a place to start, or you just want to brush up on the basics, this post will fulfill your needs. I promise. So pull up the grand piano that I’m sure you have sitting next to you, and read on.

The Musical Alphabet

Before you can begin to really understand concepts such as chords and scales, you have to familiarize yourself with the musical alphabet. First, write the standard English alphabet from A to G like so:

A   B   C   D   E   F   G

Like magic, you have already discovered all of the natural notes within the musical alphabet. They are called “natural notes” because they are not flat or sharp, and they make up all of the white keys on a piano. Notes that are “flat” (indicated by a “b” next to the note) or “sharp” (indicated by a “#” next to the note) are called accidentals. You can think of them as “in-between” notes, and there are five of them hiding between those natural notes, making up the black keys on a piano. I will reveal them for you below.

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

I know, our beautifully simple series of letters has just been ruined, but fear not, as there is plenty more explanation to come! Notice how those red accidentals I just revealed actually look like two notes in one. That’s because, technically, they are. An A# is the exact same note as a Bb, a C# is the exact same note as a Db. They are simply given different names depending on their context. These two-for-one notes are called enharmonic tones. So, saying “D# and Eb are enharmonic tones” is just a nerdy way of saying “D# and Eb are the same note”. If you walked up to a piano and played an F#, then asked someone with perfect pitch (the ability to identify the letter names of notes simply by hearing them) to name the note they hear, they could answer with either F# or Gb, and they would be right.

Now that we understand that enharmonic tones can be used interchangeably, I will simplify things by only talking in terms of sharps. If we rewrite the musical alphabet using only sharps for the accidentals, it will look like this:

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

You are probably curious as to why there are no accidentals between B and C or E and F. I will talk about this after the next section, but for now, just accept it and memorize the fact that those accidentals don’t exist.

The distance between each of those twelve notes above is called a half step. You would say that A# is a half step above A, or D is a half step below D#. Don’t forget that the distance between B and C is a half step, as well as the distance between E and F. Two half steps make a whole step, which would be like skipping over one of those notes. For example, B is a whole step above A, E is a whole step below F#, and so on. Check out this handy picture to further your understanding:

Visualization of half steps and whole steps

In the above drawing, W stands for whole step and H stands for half step. You can see that from note to note, you have a half step, but between every other note, you have a whole step.

Alright, so now you know the twelve notes that make up the musical alphabet, and what accidentals, enharmonic tones, half steps, and whole steps are. Congratulations! Let’s move on to more interesting things.

Scales

A scale is simply a group of notes played one at a time in sequence. If you were to walk up to a piano and play each of the twelve notes of the musical alphabet in order, one after the other, you would be playing the chromatic scale. This scale has it’s own uses, but let’s talk about a scale that is much more common.

The major scale is the scale that most people are probably familiar with. When you hear a vocalist warming up with “do re mi fa so la ti do”, they are warming up with the major scale. The distance between the notes of a major scale follow this pattern:

Whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half

The best way to explain this would be to use the example of the C major scale. Take a look at the musical alphabet above and follow this pattern starting at C. The first word of the pattern is “whole”, which means to go a whole step above C to get to the next note of the scale. A whole step above C is D (a half step would have been C#). The next word in the pattern is also “whole”, so we find the whole step above D, which is E. Now it asks for a half step, which is NOT E#, but F (don’t forget that there are no accidentals between the notes B and C as well as E and F). Continue along with the pattern and you should end up back at C. The musical alphabet is cyclical, so once you reach the end you just continue from the beginning (a whole step above G is A, as shown below). Check it out:

whole ->  D  whole ->  E  half ->  F  whole ->  G  whole ->  A  whole ->  B  half ->  C

Did you notice that this pattern doesn’t include any accidentals? The C major scale is made up entirely of the natural notes of the musical alphabet, and you can play it with only the white keys on a piano. Remember how there are no accidentals between B and C or E and F? This explains why the keys on the piano look the way they do. Pianos are constructed so that the white keys will always be C major. If you play the above notes in sequential order, you will hear the C major scale.

You can start this pattern from any note in the musical alphabet. This is what it looks like for the E major scale:

E  whole ->  F#  whole ->  G#  half ->  A  whole ->  B  whole ->  C#  whole ->  D# half ->  E

So there you have it. I hope this was enough to at least get you started with music theory, or at least give you a better understanding of basic scale theory. I will put up more posts in the future that will continue this topic as well as cover different areas (such as basic chord theory). Take care!   🙂

P.S. check out my post on the emotion behind chords and scales if you’re bored!