A beginner bassist's foray into the unknown

I figured out the modes of the Major Scale

If you’re a beginner on bass (like me) read this.

I was gearing up to write an entry about one of the modes of the major scale that I’ve been practicing. It was either going to be the Locrian or Mixolydian mode. While I was deciding how to approach it (should I use the same template that I did for the major and minor scales, or abbreviate it and just focus on the differences) I had an epiphany.

I’ve read that all of the major scales are the same and that the modes are variations of the major scale. By that line of reasoning, all of the modes are variations of each other. I’ve also read somewhere that there really is just one major scale.

None of that really made sense to me.

Today, after staring at a fretboard chart and lamenting the fact that I don’t know all of the notes on the neck by heart yet, I began to see patterns, and then it all clicked.

This is the difference between the scales and the modes:

  1. A scale is defined by its pattern.
  2. A mode is defined by its notes.

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Here’s how I came to that conclusion:

This is the C major scale:

We can see that there is a definite pattern which it follows: Root-Whole-Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Whole-Half. Based on that pattern (and because we’re starting on C) the notes are C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C.

This is the D major scale:

D Major follows the same pattern as C Major. This means that it adheres to Root-Whole-Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Whole-Half. Since its D Major, we start the scale on D. When we start on D and follow the pattern of the major scale, we play the notes D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#-D.

So, start on D and go up a whole-step to E, another whole-step to F#, a half-step to G, and so on. The pattern is key here. This is why the folks on TalkBass always say that its important to learn the intervals between notes in a scale. It makes sense to me now.

Now, here’s the D Dorian Mode:

Dorian uses the same notes as the major scale, but not the same pattern. The C Major scale is made up of the notes C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. D Dorian is made up of the same notes, only it begins on D instead of C. This is how they look, next to each other:

  • C D E F G A B C – (C major)
  • D E F G A B C D – (D Dorian)

See? Its the same letters. The difference is just that the starting note (and because of that, the ending note) is displaced by one. Now, because of this the pattern of the Dorian mode is different from the major scale. This is because in Western music (and maybe all over the world, I’m not sure yet), all of the notes except for B-C and E-F are separated by a whole-step (2 frets – or a black key on a piano). Those two pairs (B-C & E-F) are separated by a half-step (1 fret – no black key between them on a piano).

Using the same notes, but starting on a different one, changes the pattern. We end up with Root-Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Whole-Half-Whole. This is because in the musical alphabet, nomatter what, certain notes are a whole-step (2 frets) apart and certain notes are a half-step (1 fret) apart. Those notes never change. Going from A – B is always 2 frets, regardless of what scale or mode you’re in. Likewise, going from B – C is always 1 fret.

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Lets illustrate this stuff:

Look at this image of the fretboard (it goes up to the 12th fret). I copied it from a post by MalcolmAmos on TalkBass a while ago:

Use the following diagrams and trace out the letters for each of these scales/modes in the chart above. Its the same scales & modes from above, but I placed it close to the fretboard chart for easy comparison:

Just use the letters (2nd row). You’ll see that when you compare the C major scale and the D major scale, the movements are the same. When you compare the D major scale and the D Dorian mode, the movements are different. Here’s another example, using fingering patterns. The numbers show what frets to play on. Play from the A string, to the D string and then the G string – play each of these strings left-to-right:

(Here’s a link to the major scale pattern, for those of you unfamiliar with fingering charts. Yeah, that does sound dirty.)

Notice that you play the C major scale starting on the 3rd fret of the A string. The D major scale follows the same pattern, but starts on the 5th fret of the A string, because it starts on D instead of C.

The D Dorian mode also starts on the 5th fret of the A string, but the pattern is different from the first two. It has the same notes/letters as the C major, but because we started on D and used the same notes, where we reach for them on the fretboard gives us a different pattern than the regular major scale.

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In a nutshell, remember this:

  1. A scale is defined by its pattern.
  2. A mode is defined by its notes.

Ok. I hope that the above was illuminating for someone. Writing this out helped me cement things in my head. Now, just like you can play the major scale starting on any note/letter (C-major, D-major, etc.), you can play the mode patterns starting on any note as well. I’m not sure as to the vernacular for that just yet, but I believe that it would probably be called C-Dorian, D-Dorian, etc. I’ll research that and update this post later.

[edit 11/18/11] Before I ran off to Florida to help with some family stuff, I started a thread on TalkBass to make sure that what I wrote in the above post was accurate. Remember that this blog has a lot of me thinking stuff through, and if you ask my wife, that doesn’t always land me in the right place. Well, it looks like I was headed in the right direction with this post, but not everything is necessarily correct. I’ll address this in a future entry and link to it here, once my head wraps around whatever it is that I might have misunderstood when I wrote this. Damned false epiphanies. :/

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2 responses

  1. Pingback: I’m back from Florida « Ugly Bass Face

  2. Pingback: I’m starting that IIB class on Monday (and I’m sick) « Ugly Bass Face

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