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.
These scales have a major third (E in the key of C), which makes them feel happy or bright.
Happy; can be majestic or sentimental when slow. The white keys on the piano. Examples: “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”
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.
Exotic, Middle Eastern, Jewish. Same pitches as F harmonic minor. Example: “Hava Nagila.”
Harmonic major scale
Majestic, mysterious. “Lord Of The Rings” feeling.
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.
Harmonic minor scale
Tragic, exotic, Middle Eastern.
Spanish/Flamenco. Same pitches as A-flat major.
Very dark and unstable. Use over C half-diminished chords. Same pitches as C-sharp/D-flat major and B-flat natural minor.
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.
Use over a C7 chord to make it sound very intellectual and jazzy. Same pitches as C-sharp/D-flat melodic minor.
Pentatonic scales have five notes. The blues scale is the minor pentatonic plus the flat fifth.
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.
These scales are based on regular, symmetric patterns.
C chromatic scale
All of the piano keys. Freefalling, anxiety-producing.
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.
Dark, mysterious. Same pitches as E-flat, G-flat and A octatonic scales. Examples: movies about Dracula.
Alternating minor third, half step. Wonderfully exotic.
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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