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What Scale Am I Writing In?

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I tend to just mess around and play things by ear a lot when I'm writing, rather than thinking about music theory (which I have trouble with, not being very mathematical), and sometimes I end up using exotic scales. And then sometimes I have no idea what scale I'm using at all, but the way something sounds fits my mood at the time. Here's a progression of drawn-out notes (harmony?), played on an organ, that I can't really figure out. Do I need to know what scale I'm using? I suppose I do, for the sake of my band, right? This has a sort of melancholy sound. I use each note to figure out how to sing each short line of lyrics, as a guide. The lyrics are more of a melody. The actual keyboard player in the band embellishes what I write, so that it's not so droney, but I like to start out with a sort of background drone as a guide. Would this drive you crazy if you were a musician?? She's been very patient so far...


I'm probably doing this backwards, right?? It's just that when I write a song using the vague rules I've learned about chord progressions, I end up being bored with it, or it sounds exactly like something else...

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The right method is the one that's productive and satisfying for you. I do think it's good to have some vocabulary for scales and chords exactly so you can communicate with the band... I would probably find this method of writing an interesting challenge if the songs were good and my input valued, but some people would definitely prefer a more structured method. Probably something you should discuss with her...

The melody-over-drone thing you describe can tend to lend itself to an eastern sound, but at the same time, the notes you have work perfectly in common practice western music as well, there are many possibilities.

To wit, the melody could possibly change key according to each note, in which case the drone wouldn't actually describe a single scale at all. OTOH, if the melody notes all belong to a single scale, then I would expect these four notes to belong to that scale as well... I notice that these four notes all belong to the D Major scale, and since the final note is B, and you say it sounds "sort of melancholy" I would say a good guess for the scale would be B minor, which is a mode of D Major...

I hope that helps! :)

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  • 1 month later...

You're either in D major/B minor with a G# accidental or in A major/F# minor with a G natural accidental.

Edited by Gijs
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It's simpler than that... A, F#m & E7 clearly indicate A Major. Even the upper notes of Gadd9 (B,D,A) indicate the iim7 of A Major, Bm7. Chances are this progression sounds cyclical, with no real resolution... the natural G makes the bassline seem smoother, and together with the E7sus4 avoids having a true dominant sound. Just make sure you don't use G# in the melody over that Gadd9.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Hi noob,

Music theory is not necessary for inspiration. But after inspiration comes the real work : structure, harmony, modulations, arranging, orchestration...

In this case music theory could help you understand what you are doing, and helps you going faster into your project.

Duke ellington used to say : if it sounds good...it's good. So trust your ear.

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Talking about Modes. I want to incorporate using modes in my songwriting. Is it true that each mode follows its own pattern of whole and half steps, just as a scale does ? eg, if I apply W W H W W W H (W is whole step and H is half step) to my Ionian scale/mode, will this be correct no matter what note I initially start on? Apparently (according to some written information I have, from what source I'm not sure), this is the correct pattern of whole and half steps for the Ionian Mode starting in C. To explain myself more clearly again. Can I apply this pattern, start on 'any' note and still call it Ionian ?

Thanks very much.. ♪

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  • 4 weeks later...

I frankly suspect that the "differences" that you are feeling ... the "what key am I in?" question ... probably has mostly to do with your intuitive sense of what are called "modes."

Let me quickly and simply illustrate modes ... using the all-white keys of the keyboard throughout my brief example which now follows.

Start playing a melody, say, Merrily We Roll Along, and begin it on-or-about "C." In other words, the melody emphasizes the notes "C", "E, and "G" such that they clearly become the "1st, 3rd, and 5th" notes of the scale that you are playing.

Now, shift your hands one position to the right, and, without playing any black keys whatsoever, play Merrily again. Give the same emphasis that you did before to the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of where you are now.

Do the same thing again ... six more times.


Now, stop and consider the seven very different "songs" that you just played ... all of them Merrily ... all of them played on just the white keys of the keyboard. Some of them sounded odd; some, minor; some, a bit melancholy; at least one, avant garde; the rest, just plain weird. Some of them felt "okay," but some of them might even have tricked your hands into inserting a black note or two just to relieve the tension.


So... what actually happened?

Well, if you look closely at "all white keys," you'll notice (of course) that there are black keys in-between some of them and not others. If you count the intervals between the keys, "from 'C' to shining 'C,'" you'll find this pattern: W-W-H-W-W-W-H. (W=Whole, H=Half.)

(There's a black-key between C and D; hence a "whole" step, but there's no black key between E and F; hence a "half" step and so on.)

(Pick any other key you like and play it: the same pattern emerges: W-W-H-W-W-W-H. Play the "G"-major scale and ... if you sharp the "F" like you're supposed to ... guess what: same pattern!) In other words, as long as you play the same pattern of whole and half steps, it doesn't matter where you started. But, when you kept "all white keys" the same while you shifted your hands ... you were, in fact, doing something else entirely!

Look closely. When you shifted your hands, you shifted the pattern, e.g. W-H-W-W-W-H-W (one shift); H-W-W-W-H-W-W (two...), etc.

Even though, throughout, you were playing "all white keys," and even though the song you were playing was Merrily, the intervals between the notes that you were playing changed every single time. And they didn't change randomly: they changed according to a very specific pattern that was shifted. Had you played other songs that involve more notes of the scale (Merrily of course involves only four), the difference would have become more pronounced. You can do the same thing without moving your hands at all using the "Transpose" feature of some keyboards.

And that is what "modes" actually are. They are shifts, or perhaps rotations, in the standard pattern of intervals.

Probably the most noticeably different of those "all white keys" scale was the sixth one, which sounds unmistakably minor, and which in fact is called the relative minor. All white keys, but it starts and ends with "A."

(Strictly speaking, any consistently-used pattern of intervals constitutes a "mode." The pentatonic (five-step) scale used in oriental music is a sort of mode. The whole-tone scale is another sort of mode. Musical purists might disagree as to terminology, strictly speaking, but the essential notion is the same.)

This is the very very simple notion behind "modes." And you have just demonstrated for yourself just how profound a difference it actually makes in your music.

Now, all you need to do ;) is to assign bizzare-sounding names to each one, prompting generations of music students to remember mnemonic phrases such as, "I Don't Pet Little Monkeys After Lunch." :hang:

(Yup, there exists not one simple concept that a music professor cannot make infinitely more difficult ...)

Yeah, we naturally think about music as being all about notes, but it's probably far closer to the truth to say that it is all about the intervals between those notes.

There are, of course, two ways that we can think about "shifting the pattern." The way that I described is, "keep the color of the keys the same, but shift your hands." The other way is to keep your hands still and then figure out what changes you need to make here-and-there to produce the shifted pattern. Trust me, the latter approach is much the more disturbing approach to demand that your students must use on your Music Theory 101 final exam. "Bwa-ha-ha-hahahaha!"

Edited by MikeRobinson
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