Scales and emotions

See also a post about the major scale modes and an intro to minor keys.

So maybe you want to write a song or an instrumental in a particular mood or style, and you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the scales. Here’s a handy guide to the commonly used scales in western pop, rock, jazz, blues and so on. I show each scale in two views: on the chromatic circle, and the circle of fifths.

Chromatic circle and circle of fifths

Major scales

These scales have a major third (E in the key of C), which makes them feel happy or bright.

Major scale
Happy; can be majestic or sentimental when slow. The white keys on the piano. Examples: “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

C major scale


Mixolydian mode
Bluesy, rock; can also be exotic/modal. Play over C7 chord. Same pitches as F major. Example: “Tomorrow Never Knows” by the Beatles.

C Mixolydian mode


Lydian mode
Ethereal, dreamy, futuristic. Same pitches as G major. Example: “Possibly Maybe” by Björk (from the line “As much as I definitely enjoy solitude…”)

C Lydian mode


Lydian dominant mode
Also known as the overtone scale or acoustic scale, because it is close to the first seven pitches in the natural overtone series. Same pitches as the G melodic minor scale and the F-sharp/G-flat altered scale.

C Lydian dominant mode


Phrygian dominant
Exotic, Middle Eastern, Jewish. Same pitches as F harmonic minor. Example: “Hava Nagila.”

C Ahava Raba


Harmonic major scale
Majestic, mysterious. “Lord Of The Rings” feeling.

C harmonic major scale


Minor Scales

These scales have a flat third (E-flat in the key of C), which gives them a darker and more tragic feel.

Natural minor scale (Aeolian mode)
Sentimental, tragic. Same pitches as E-flat major.

C natural minor


Harmonic minor scale
Tragic, exotic, Middle Eastern.

C harmonic minor scale


Melodic minor scale
Mysterious, jazzy, very dark. Example: sixties Coltrane. See a blog post about melodic minor.

C melodic minor scale


Dorian mode
Hip, sophisticated, jazzy. Same pitches as B-flat major. Example: “So What” by Miles Davis.

C Dorian mode


Phrygian mode
Spanish/Flamenco. Same pitches as A-flat major.

C Phrygian mode


Locrian mode
Very dark and unstable. Use over C half-diminished chords. Same pitches as C-sharp/D-flat major and B-flat natural minor.

C Locrian mode


Neither major nor minor

C blues scale
Bluesy, obviously. Works great over major and minor chords. C minor pentatonic with sharp fourth/flat fifth added.

C blues scale


Altered scale
Use over a C7 chord to make it sound very intellectual and jazzy. Same pitches as C-sharp/D-flat melodic minor.

C altered scale



Pentatonic scales have five notes. The blues scale is the minor pentatonic plus the flat fifth.

Major pentatonic scale
Joyful; widely used in world and folk music. Major scale with 4th and 7th removed. Same pitches as A minor pentatonic. Here’s a blog post about playing pentatonics on guitar.

C major pentatonic scale


Minor pentatonic scale
Widely used in rock, world and folk music. Minor scale with 2nd and 6th removed. Same pitches as E-flat major pentatonic. Here’s a blog post about playing pentatonics on guitar.

C minor pentatonic scale


Synthetic Scales

These scales are based on regular, symmetric patterns.

C chromatic scale
All of the piano keys. Freefalling, anxiety-producing.

C chromatic


Whole tone scale
Dreamy, underwater. Every alternating key on the piano. Same pitches as D, E, F-sharp, G-sharp and A-sharp whole tone scales. Example: Background parts in the Simpsons theme song.

C whole tone scale


Octatonic scale
Dark, mysterious. Same pitches as E-flat, G-flat and A octatonic scales. Examples: movies about Dracula.

C diminished scale


Hexatonic scale
Alternating minor third, half step. Wonderfully exotic.

C hexatonic scale


Making chords

To make basic chords from the major and minor scales, start with the first note, then skip to the third, then the fifth. Using C Dorian, that’s C, Eb, G. This is called a triad, and it’s the simplest type of chord.

To extend the chords, add in the seventh, the second/ninth, the fourth/eleventh, and the sixth/thirteenth. Using C Dorian, that’s Bb, D, F, A. The more notes you add, the more complex and dense the chord becomes.

You can also skip or leave out notes: C, Eb, Bb, F for example. Also, you can double notes (especially the first/root.)

Don’t put fourths/elevenths into major chords unless you leave the third out, it sounds very dissonant.

Have fun!

Update: thanks to the enthusiastic users of Stumbleupon, this is by far the most-read post on this blog. Thanks for all the Stumbles, folks!

37 thoughts on “Scales and emotions

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  2. Hi Ethan,

    I found your blog only recently and I just wanted to thank you for addressing things that others don’t dare or like to address! I read a lot of interesting things over here! Loads of kudos to you!

  3. Hi Ethan,
    What happened to all the pics from Flickr that are not showing anymore? Any chance this can be fixed easily, as would love to read your older articles.

    • I batch-set my Flickr photos to private for various reasons, and have been slowly going through the blog manually changing the images back. I’ll fix this one immediately. Please flag any others I haven’t hit yet that you want to check out.

  4. I have a question what is a good mode to write hip hop in I write mostly in natural minor but if I want something not so dreery what should I do I hate the major scale every song sounds like a happy birthday type of melody

    • Yeah, major scale is pretty wack. For hip-hop, I recommend Dorian mode, it’s minor but with a jazzier and brighter feel than natural minor.

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  6. Music and Emotions

    The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can’t convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

    An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will “Yes, I want to…”. If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will “I don’t want any more…”. If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will “I don’t want any more…” with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words “I don’t want anymore…” the first time softly and the second time loudly.
    Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

    But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called “lead”, “leading tone” or “striving effects”. If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change – but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

    Further information is available via the free download of the e-book “Music and Emotion – Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration:

    or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:

    Enjoy reading

    Bernd Willimek

    • Thanks for your post! Congratulations for your work! It’s really the most inspiring and objective article I’ve read about music for years. Very scientific and the results are surprisingly precises considering issuing with emotions and musical perception. I will start composing as soon as I finish my creative protocol, but I can say that the Theory of Music Equilibration will be a fresh start for me. Thank you and Daniela so much!

  7. Yes, thank you! I’ve been looking for these! I like to play around in music making software like Cubase, and once in a while I would run into a combination of notes that just reminded me of ‘mysteriousness,’ or ‘egyptian.’ I played some of the scales above and it helps clear it up.

    AND I have more emotion-induced scales to play around with. This is a lifesaver–especially for the unknowledgeable music maker. =D


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  10. I think it’s easier to read scales if you simply write the scale degree numbers 1-7 and add inflections. For example, Ahava raba: 

    1 b2 3 4 5 b6 b7, which I would also normally call the Spanish Phrygian or Klezmer – what’s in a name….?

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  17. i remember when I was a young organist’s apprentice my teacher was improvising for a postlude in some strange harmony; after his virtuosic composition ended I told him I liked the mode he employed, to which he replied “oh, yeah that’s a Hungarian myxoldyian scale” or some shit like that, but he said it so nonchalantly that i always remembered that. Learning music is a Socratic knowledge; the more I learn the more I learn I do not know 

  18. So you’re saying that the melodic minor scale sounds dark? I would have said that the major 6th especially makes it sound bright! Obviously you’ve got the minor third there to balance it out a bit, but I disagree that it’s a “dark” scale…

    Also, the scale you’ve called “Ahava Raba” I’ve always known as the “Phrygian Dominant” as it resembles the phrygian mode but with a major third. So I was a bit thrown by that one!

    Those aren’t disagreements, this is a really informative post overall!


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  20. thanks for all these usedul informations about pentatonical music! as for a kinda add-on to your informations, african music as well as traditionnal asiatic music are pentatonical 😉

    • I omitted it because it’s not very widely used except in jazz, and then only in very specific contexts. I figured the jazz experts already know how it sounds and most people don’t need to know it.

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    • Glad you’re enjoying the blog. That article by your colleague sheds more than a wee little bit of light, there’s much food for thought there, another couple of blog posts worth at least. Thanks for writing!

  22. Hi there,
    I found your work while searching about the emotions that we associate to different scales or chords. This search is in the context of an academic research, in the field of affective computing and non-verbal communication.

    This is exactly what i was searching for, but it lacks references =) Could you please recommend me some literature where i can find the concepts you describe in this post? I would really love to know of a book or something that is, to music, what Goethe’s “Theory of Colors” is to color, however, i don’t know of such work. If you could help me out, I would appreciate it.

    Tiago Ribeiro

    • Hi Tiago. The post lacks references because I have no idea where you’d go in the literature to find these concepts. I learned them from experience with music — all of the descriptions here are my own best attempt at describing common practice usage of the scales. If you do find any books or anything, please post a comment, and I’d love to read what you’re working on.

  23. “Don’t put fourths/elevenths into major chords unless you leave the third out” Now where’s the fun in that?

    • Yeah, I know, really you should feel free to do whatever you want and I can cite a few examples where people use the third and fourth together and it sounds cool, but this is aimed at the mainstream.

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