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


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:


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 switches between major and melodic minor scales:

Or take a look Andrew Wasson’s thorough explanation of melodic minor from

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:


What it looks like as a C scale:


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:


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:


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:


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 Try the scale ear training exercises and see how well you do!

Next post:  Identifying Basic Chords


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.


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


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:


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:


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:


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:


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.

Playing the Fingerboard – Introduction


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.


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:


Order of flats:


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.


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.


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!

How to know which chords to play

Let’s say that after learning the basic chords on the guitar, your other guitar-playing friend invites you to a jam session. You show up with your cheap starter acoustic guitar and sit down to play, head held high with confidence that you can play any chord your friend needs. That’s when your friend says, “alright, let’s jam in C. You play chords first”, then proceeds to count off, expecting you to start strumming whatever comes to your head. If all you’ve ever done was learn separate chords, you will most likely jump to the C chord that you practiced, then proceed to draw a blank as to what to play next. If you read this post and put some effort into learning the content, I assure you that will never happen again.

In order to strip this down to the fundamentals, let’s take a look at the C major scale written out on a staff.

Now, if you’ve read my post on chord theory (or just know the basics of chord theory already), you know that basic chords contain a root, a 3rd, and a 5th. Let’s add those to each of the notes above, but let’s make sure we use only notes from the C major scale (which we know, from basic scale theory, contains no accidentals).

The chords that each group of three notes produce are written on top of the staff in the image above. C, E, and G make a C major chord, while E, G, and B make an E minor chord (it is minor because of the G. If it were a G#, it would be an E major chord. At some point I’ll make a post that talks more about what notes are in each key). For those of you who have trouble reading music notation, here is a list of what is shown above:

Measure 1: Contains C, E, and G, making a C major chord

Measure 2: Contains D, F, and A, making a D minor chord (D major would be D, F#, A)

Measure 3: Contains E, G, and B, making an E minor chord (E major would be E, G#, B)

Measure 4: Contains F, A, and C, making an F major chord

Measure 5: Contains G, B, and D, making a G major chord

Measure 6: Contains A, C, and E, making an A minor chord (A major would be A, C#, E)

Measure 7: Contains B, D, and F, making a B diminished chord (B major would be B, D#, F#)

The roman numerals at the bottom of staff are used to indicate which scale degree the chord is attributed to, as well as the quality of the chord. Upper-case numerals represent the major quality while lower-case represents minor. For example, the numeral “IV” can be interpreted as “the major chord built off of the fourth scale degree”, and the numeral “vi” can be interpreted as “the minor chord built off of the sixth scale degree”. The quality of chords built off of a standard major key will always follow this pattern. Learn it, memorize it, love it, live it:

Major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, diminished

To further prove this, let’s look at the key of Bb major, which contains the two accidentals; Bb and Eb (I’ll explain how I know that in a future tutorial. For now, if you don’t know what accidentals are in each key, refer to my post on basic scale theory to get yourself started). First, like the example above, we will begin with the scale written out on a staff:

Now let’s stack those thirds on top of each note. Remember, since we are in Bb major, any B or E encountered must be flattened!

Amazingly, the chords that are produced follow the exact same pattern I showed you above. The three chord (iii) is minor, the five chord (V) is major, the one chord (I) is major, etc.

So what does all of this mean?

Let’s say you’re jamming with your friend. He is improvising in the key of Bb major. As long as you have the order of chord qualities memorized for a major key, you can whip out any of those chords during the jam session. Start at a Bb, then move to a Gm, then an Eb major, then an F major (I just outlined a very common chord progression known as I-vi-IV-V, or 1 6 4 5). It makes sense when you think about it. We build these chords using only notes from that particular key, so scales being played in that key should sound good* on top of them. Or let’s say you want to write a song. Remembering this order of chord qualities will greatly help you with coming up with a chord progression for the song.

*Disclaimer: “Good” in the sense that they technically work. What sounds good musically to someone is rather subjective, but most people will agree that a major scale played over the chords extracted from the scale sound “correct”.

I realize that this is an oversimplification of this topic, but I think it is a good place to start if you are new at improvising chords. I will certainly make expansions to this tutorial in the future (talking about the different modes, chord movement, specific scales that sound more “in” on top of each chord, adding sevenths to each chord, etc) and I may also re-vamp and improve this post, so stick around.

All feedback, positive and constructively negative, is welcome!

Basic Chord Theory

For my second music theory tutorial, I’ll be talking about the wonderful, amazing, mystifying world of chords!

(This post assumes you have the basic knowledge of scale theory. If not, maybe my scale theory post can help!)

A chord, in its simplest form, is made up of three different notes played simultaneously. This is also known as a triad and it contains a root, a 3rd and a 5th. “What is a root, 3rd and 5th”, you ask? Let’s take a look at the C major scale to find out. This is the most straight forward scale as it contains no sharps or flats. If you know your alphabet from A to G, you know the C major scale.

C   D   E   F   G   A   B

Since the musical alphabet stops at G, we circle back to A once we get there. Trust me, there is no “H” note, no matter how hard you listen for it.

We can number each note in this scale, starting with C as the root (fancy name for the first note of the scale), D as the 2nd, E as the 3rd, and so on until we get to B, which is the 7th. As I stated before, we need the root, 3rd and 5th to construct a simple chord. If we extract those notes from the C major scale, we get:

C (the root), E (the 3rd), G (the 5th)

Count it out yourself if you don’t believe me. This is what it looks like on a piano:

A root position C major chord highlighted in blue on a piano keyboard

If you were to play all three of these notes at the same time on a piano just as they are highlighted above, you will hear a C major chord. Amazing!

So we have just completed the daunting task of composing a C major triad. Now, how do we make a C minor triad? Simple. All you have to do is lower the 3rd by one half step. Doing so yields an Eb. Now we have:

C (the root), Eb (the lowered 3rd), G (the 5th)

Check out the visual!

A root position C minor chord highlighted in blue and red on a piano keyboard

If you play these notes simultaneously, you will hear a C minor triad. Fantastic.

The four types of triads are major, minor, diminished and augmented. Here are examples of each in the key of C major:

Major: C E G – (root, 3rd, 5th)

Minor: C Eb G – (root, lowered 3rd, 5th)

Diminished: C Eb Gb – (root, lowered 3rd, lowered 5th)

Augmented: C E G# – (root, third, raised 5th)

There you have it. Let it all soak in. Now if you play a chordal instrument (an instrument that allows you to play multiple notes at once, such as the piano or guitar) and you know where to play these notes individually, you can start composing beautiful music in no time. Try writing out triads in every key. Here are the same four triad types for D to get you super pumped and excited:

Major: D F# A

Minor: D F A

Diminished: D F Ab

Augmented: D F# A#

Check back often for more theory related posts. I may edit them or add multiple parts to further expand the material. If you have something specific you want me to cover, yell at me!

The Emotion Behind Chords and Scales

I’ve always wondered why certain chords and scales evoke certain emotions. What is it that makes a minor chord “sad” sounding and a major chord “happy” sounding? How can a combination of musical notes actually affect us emotionally? It is one of those topics that never really comes up because it is so engraved in our brains. No one ever sat me down as a kid and said, “when you hear a major chord you will feel happy, but once you lower the third of that chord, you’re gonna cry”. It was almost as if I naturally associated those chord qualities with those feelings.

For now let’s focus on major and minor chords, as these are the most common and the easiest to associate with emotion.

Take a listen to these two melodic lines.

Example 1:

Example 2: In example 1, an A major chord is arpeggiated, leading to a D major chord. Example 2 uses the same melody, but now minor chords are being used. Think about what emotion you feel as you listen to them. Does either one make you happy? Sad? Enthusiastic? Shameful? Envious? Enthralled? Sympathetic? Hungry?

Alright so maybe you don’t experience anything too deep from these two tiny, simple melodies, but if you are like most people, you would classify example 1 as “happy” and example 2 as “sad”.

The question then arises, why? Please note, I understand that this topic has been studied and discussed amongst people who have done far more research than I have. I am simply stating what I am aware of and theories that seem plausible to me.

We’ve heard it before:

This is the first theory that pops into my head, but it seems to bring up more questions than answers. Simply put, we attribute such emotions to certain chords and scales because those particular chords and scales are used in songs we’ve heard that evoke a certain emotion. In other words, we hear songs that are about sad subjects, most of which utilize that minor sound, and therefore associate the minor sound with sadness. However, why was the minor sound chosen for those songs in the first place? This is similar to the “chicken or the egg” scenario. Did minor chords get the sad stigma because they were used in sad songs, or were minor chords originally chosen for sad songs because those chords already sounded sad by themselves? Perhaps it is something that slowly evolved over time?

It’s all in the notes:

As another theory, we can examine the notes that make up the chords themselves. Could there be a link between the actual intervals contained in the chord and our emotions? (Warning: Haters of music theory should only skim this segment)

In its simplest form, a chord is composed of three notes played simultaneously, which is also known as a triad. These three notes include the root, some sort of 3rd and some sort of 5th. By altering the 3rd or the 5th, we can make four different qualities of chords. The four qualities are major, minor, diminished and augmented. A major chord contains no alterations to the 3rd or the 5th. A minor chord is made by lowering the 3rd by one half step. A diminished chord is made by lowering both the 3rd and the 5th by one half step. Finally, an augmented chord is made by raising the 5th of a major chord by one half step.

Let’s focus on the difference between major and minor. We will simplify things by using C major and C minor as examples.

C major is composed of the notes C, E and G. C to E is a major third and E to G is a minor third. If we look at C minor, which is composed of C, Eb and G, we will find the opposite. C to Eb is a minor third and Eb to G is a major third. Both contain a major and minor interval, but they sound like completely different chords due to where those intervals are placed. The third can essentially be viewed as the center point of the chord, which can be why it has such an effect on the way the chord sounds. Take a look at this visual representation.

As you can see from the clever picture, both chords contain the same amount of “space”, but if we focus on the positioning of the notes with respect to the lowest note, the major chord just looks more…confident than the minor chord, which looks almost droopy. Could this actually have anything to do with the common emotional association of each chord? Perhaps not, but it is thought provoking none-the-less.

Of course once we begin talking about chord inversions, this theory gets a little more complicated. In fact the visual diagram of a first inversion C major triad would look shockingly similar to the root position minor triad shown above. So surely it cannot only be the shape of the chord. Perhaps it is the shape PLUS a specific combination of intervals. This leads to my next thought.

By the way, if you know nothing about music theory but are dying to learn about it, check out my basic scale theory post!

Your brain + frequencies:

Without getting too technical and drowning this page with numbers and graphs, I’ll just generalize this theory. Could it be possible that the actual combination of frequencies in major and minor chords actually trigger these emotions in our brains? In other words, could the combination of notes in a minor chord generate a frequency which, after being processed by our brain, naturally triggers a negative emotion? I would like to point you to another site that discusses the link between sound and emotion:

Wisdom of Sound

The idea that sound, be it as specific frequencies or as music, can effect a persons health is a science in itself. Just ask anyone in the field of music therapy.

Since I’m too lazy to continue I meant for this post to be only a small taste of the matter, I think it’s time for me to stop writing. I’m sure I’ll come back to this topic more than once in the future. Hopefully people will get involved and express their own knowledge and opinions on the subject, giving me more content to discuss in future posts. I didn’t even begin to talk about how the most commonly used chords and scales differ depending on what part of the world you’re in. That puts a whole new spin on the topic.