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. They’re shown in the way you’d program them into Auto-tune. Click each image to go to that scale’s Wikipedia page, where you can hear it, see it in traditional notation and pick up fun historical facts.
These scales have a major third, which makes them feel happy or bright. See them side-by-side.
Happy; can be majestic or sentimental when slow. The white keys on the piano. Examples: “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”
Ethereal, dreamy, futuristic. Same pitches as G major. Example: “Possibly Maybe” by Björk (from the line “As much as I definitely enjoy solitude…”)
Exotic, Middle Eastern, Jewish. Same pitches as F harmonic minor. Example: “Hava Nagila.”
These scales have a flat third, which gives them a darker and more tragic feel. See them side-by-side.
Sentimental, tragic. Same pitches as E flat major.
Tragic, exotic, Middle Eastern.
Hip, sophisticated, jazzy. Same pitches as B flat major. Example: “So What” by Miles Davis.
Spanish/Flamenco. Same pitches as A flat major.
These scales are based on regular, symmetric patterns. See them side-by-side.
All the piano keys. Freefalling, anxiety-producing. Same pitches as every other chromatic scale.
Dreamy, underwater. Every other 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.
Dark, mysterious. Same pitches as E flat, G flat and A diminished scales. Examples: movies about Dracula.
Pentatonics and blues
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.
Rock; widely used in 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.
Blues, obviously. Works great over major and minor chords. Minor pentatonic with flat fifth added.
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.
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