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Why Scales? Why Patterns?


According to Webster the definition of a musical scale is as follows:
a graduated series of musical tones ascending or descending in order of pitch according to a specified scheme of their intervals.

With a definition that broad almost any ascending or descending series of tones is a scale. That would include the chromatic scale, which in western music is the Universal Set. In other words, every tone used in western music is included in the chromatic scale*. *This doesn't account for less than 1/2 step bends.

Even those of you who claim not to use scales, therefore, are in fact using scales. I believe the more correct term is you are not using visual patterns.

With that fact established we can move on to more useful and interesting conversation.

Historical Background

Greeks created musical instruments using strings and noticed the mathematical relationship to length of string and pitch. They also noticed the tendency for strings to have 'modes' of vibration, which was the basis for the overtone series.

For instance dividing a string in half doubles the frequency or creates a tone with similar consonant characteristics to the fundamental tone. Various integer (1/2,1/3,1/5,2/3 etc...)divisions of the string created different pitches.

Through some experimentation and observation they came up with the overtone series, which was the basis for the major scale.

Later they classified and named the 'modes' of the major scale, for various provinces in Greece where presumably the music followed this particular modal form.

Throughout western civilization since the Greeks began the study of scales the Europeans used the Greek system as a basis for music.

The major scale is the chromatic scale with 5 missing notes. Interestingly enough the missing notes (the black keys of the piano in the key of C) form a major pentatonic scale starting on the b5 or a minor pentatonic starting on the b3. It is also interesting to note these are the first five notes in the cycle 4 starting at Eb (Eb Ab Db Gb Cb).


Everything is based on patterns of notes in music. The patterns of notes map nicely to a piano keyboard in C major, but actually map more perfectly to a string in any key, because a string is naturally divided up by the frets into half steps and because of the particular temperament used, all half steps are created equal.

It is for this reason the visual patterns are so favored by guitarists.

You can learn a pattern on any string (EADGBE) and easily transpose it to one of the other strings.

If the pattern spans three adjacent strings and is confined to the bottom four strings you can easily transpose it to the other set of three adjacent strings in the bottom four-string group.

Warp Refraction Thanks Jon Finn

This simple type of pattern transposition breaks down because of the odd tuning of the B string, however, if you play patterns on any or all of the E,A,D strings and B string the same pattern can be transposed to any or all of the A,D,G strings and E string because the intervals between the string groups match.

If you learn where all of the possible occurrences of a given note are by pattern, you can mentally shift this pattern around to find alternate ways of playing the same note in the same or in a different octave.

Learning patterns is a similar process to learning scales. The truth is you should learn to read music and write the scales out to begin the process of understanding its keyboard centric notation.

It will also give you some insight into the cycle of 4ths/5ths and the concept of transposition using the cycle.

Limitations Of Patterns

Learning patterns is not meant to be a cure all for your playing; it is just another way of organizing the knowledge you are gaining of the fret board.

One problem that occurs with this approach is you begin to not care about what the note's harmonic function is and treat all notes of a particular pattern or scale as equal.

A way around this problem is to learn the interval name from the root of the scale (or chord of the moment).

Something that is forgotten most of the time is the concept of listening and hearing the sound of the patterns and how each note sounds in relation to the root. Much time is spent in learning the patterns but not much is spent in listening to what they sound like.

Greek Modes

Once you have the basics down of the major scale patterns from each note, you should do exercises to connect the sound with the pattern. A convenient way to accomplish this is to study each pattern (starting on a different note of the scale) as a Greek Mode.

Most people have a mental block to this, because they reckon that once they have learned the major scale there is no need to further complicate things by studying modes (since modes are just the same notes as the major scale anyway! Right?).

The problem here is that the idea of modes is to hear how each mode differs in its sound (or interval structure), not to force the memorization of superfluous reiterations of the now familiar major scale.

Two solutions to this exist:
One is to learn the modes all based on the same root, another is to play each mode over a static root (not necessarily the same one for each mode).

I believe the best way to get a feel for this is to actually try to improvise melodies using each mode over a long two-chord vamp. Of course, the two chords must be carefully selected to give the proper 'flavor' to the mode.

An additional approach that should be attempted here is to use arpeggios based on the two chords in question to improvise melodies. This gives modal as well as chordal basis for improvisation.

Some chord changes could be chosen specifically to be ambiguous as to which modes will work over them. In this case the improviser has choices to make as to which modes to use, when.

So here, we are reinforcing the pattern with the sound of the mode.

In the second chord of each of these we have the P4.

Em D
ii I Dorian
vi V Aeolian

Em F#m
ii iii Dorian

Em Dm
iii ii Phrygian

Em F
iii IV Phrygian

V IV Lydian

E F#m
I ii Ionian
V vi Mixolydian

Edim F
viio I Locrian

Edim Dm
viio vi Locrian

In Closing

The guitar is a deceptively complicated instrument. It is easy to gain a simple understanding of it enough to be able to play simple songs. The logical layout of 1/2 step mapped up each string makes transposition much easier than for keyboard (or wind) instruments, but it is a double edged sword. The easy transposition makes it all too tempting to be lazy and move simple ideas around the fretboard with little or no thought about what it is you are playing and why it works, and gives us the false sense that all improvisation can be made by the proper scale/pattern choice. The reality is that you need to listen to what you are playing and decide what works, not just blindly follow some pattern and pseudo-randomly play notes from it. The patterns do help our memorization of chords, scales etc, but they are only one of many tools to help you organize the ideas that allow you to express yourself.

This article can be read online at http://www.iBreatheMusic.com/article/151
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