Writing Music 101: Scales & Modes | Jason Rivera | Skillshare

Writing Music 101: Scales & Modes

Jason Rivera, Composer

Writing Music 101: Scales & Modes

Jason Rivera, Composer

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8 Lessons (40m)
    • 1. Introduction

      1:22
    • 2. Defining Scales

      1:51
    • 3. Major Scales

      8:23
    • 4. Natural Minor Scales

      5:20
    • 5. Harmonic Minor Scales

      3:04
    • 6. Melodic Minor Scales

      3:26
    • 7. Modes

      9:59
    • 8. Class Assignment

      6:37
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About This Class

Gain an understanding of musical scales and modes with composer Jason Rivera. This 40-minute class covers the essentials of how to build and use scales and modes in your music—walking you through the process step-by-step with demonstrations on the piano.

The main topics covered in this class are:

  • Defining Scales
  • Major Scales
  • Natural Minor Scales
  • Harmonic Minor Scales
  • Melodic Minor Scales
  • Modes

For your class assignment you will complete a short series of written exercises designed to help solidify your new knowledge of scales and modes.

Anyone interested in cultivating their skills as a songwriter and/or composer can benefit from this class. This class is designed for beginner to intermediate songwriters and composers. Basic knowledge of music notation, an understanding of the fundamentals of music theory, access to and the ability to play scales on an instrument is recommended.

Once you’ve taken this class on scales, check out my beginner's classes on writing melodies, Writing Music 101: Composing Melodies and Writing Music 101: Composing Melodies II where you’ll learn how to put your knowledge of scales and modes into practical use.

Meet Your Teacher

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Jason Rivera

Composer

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Hi!

I'm Jason Rivera. I compose music and teach from my studio in Los Angeles, CA. You can check out my music on my website and you can join my email list for updates.


“Excellent class!!! He made concepts that have been difficult to understand previously so clear and concise. Really got a lot out of this class. This is foundational to becoming a good composer. Can't wait to try doing the assignments!!!”

- Mona Lisa P, Skillshare Student


“Things I have been confused about for years finally made sense to me through Jason's instructions. I can't thank you enough, Jason.”

- Ronja B, Skillshare Student


“Great work, with engaging visuals and great audio and video... See full profile

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Transcripts

1. Introduction: My name is Jason Rivera. I'm a music composer and multi instrumentalist. I've played on countless professional recordings have toward the U. S. As a performer, and I've written music for and conducted some of the best musicians in the world. Here in Los Angeles, I teach many classes on song writing and composing. For me, this is a way of sharing what I've learned with you and hopefully guiding you on your own music writing journey. This class is a deep dive on scales and modes. Why learn scales? Well, scales provide you with an organized palette of notes that you can then use to write melodies. My goal with this class is to provide you with a practical grasp of skills that I think is essential for you to begin writing your own melodies. In this class, we will cover defining scales, major scales, natural minor scales, harmonic minor scales, melodic minor scales and the seven main modes. By the end of these video lessons, you will be ready for your assignment, where you will complete a short series of writing exercises that are focused on solidifying your new understanding of scales and moans. All right, so let's dive in and get started with our class 2. Defining Scales: Okay, let's start out by defining a scale. A musical scale is a series of notes in an organized succession all scale start on one note an end on that same note, an octave higher. For example. The C major scale starts on the notes, see and ends on the note C an octave higher. The first note of a scale is called the tonic, or first degree of the scale. So in the case of the C major scale, the tonic is the note. See, the second note of the scale is called the second degree of the scale, and so on until you reach the tonic note again, but an octave higher. Any scale has specific relationships between the different scale degrees, and these relationships are what defined the sound of the scale. For example, a major scale has different intervals between specific notes from those in the minor scale . A scale can start on any note, but no matter what no, you start on. Each scale has its own particular combination of intervals. Between the notes, there are many different types of scales. There are major scales, three different types of minor scales, chromatic scales and modes it's useful to understand scales and how to use them because they're the building blocks of writing melodies. The scale that forms the basis of most melodies is the major scale, so our next video lesson is going to be focused on major scales. 3. Major Scales: Okay, here's our lesson on major scales. As a quick prepped for this class, I want to make sure you understand what half steps and whole steps are. The shortest distance from any note in its nearest neighbouring tone is 1/2 step, for example, from seeing to see Sharp is 1/2 step and from C Sharp to D is 1/2 step. So if you go straight from C to D, that would be a whole step. So all of the scales we're gonna look at in this class or specific combinations of whole steps and half steps now that we have that covered, let's talk about major scales. The major scale is known as a diatonic scale, meaning that it contains all seven notes of the musical alphabet arranged in a specific pattern, starting with the tonic note and going up to the tonic note at the next octave. Higher. The pattern for the major scale is an A sending Siris of whole steps in half steps. This specific Siris of whole steps and half steps doesn't change in the matter what you're starting notice. The formula for the major scale is whole step whole step half step, whole step, whole step, whole step half step. You'll notice that the half steps occur between the third and fourth degrees and the seventh and eighth degrees of the scale. Again, this pattern of whole steps and half steps is the same, no matter the tonic or starting noted the scale or the key that you're working in. So the great thing about this is that this pattern could be transposed to any key and still have the overall same sound and feeling. Let's take a listen and look at the major scale played in the key of C major. You'll notice that in the C major scale, you end up playing all white keys on the piano, and the half steps occur between the notes E and F on A B and C. And again you'll notice that these notes don't have black keys in between them. The C major scale is the only major scale that uses on Lee White Keys on the piano. If we were to play this scale in the key of G major, we would have to apply the Sharps in that key signature to the scale so that we can maintain our major scale, whole step half step pattern. The key of G major has one sharp f sharp. So when we get to the note F, we play it as an f sharp. Let's take a look at the major scale played in the key of G major. Whenever you play a G major scale, it always has this f sharp. You can start to see that in order to play the major scale in different keys, you have to know your key signatures. And if there are any sharps or flats in the key signature this way, you know what notes to play to maintain the whole step half step pattern of the major scale . Since this class is focused on scales, I don't want to take too much time discussing key signatures, but I do want to bring a useful chart to your attention. This is the circle of Fifths. You'll find this chart in the attached file section of this class. If you start at the very top of this chart at C major, you'll see that there are no sharps or flats, so the C major scale would have no sharps or flats in it. Like I demonstrated earlier. Now moving clockwise from C major. If you count up five notes from C, you get to the key of G major and you'll see here that G Major has one sharp f sharp. So if you start your G major scale on the new G and adhere to the pole step half step pattern that we've already discussed your note, F would have to be in aft sharp, just like I demonstrated. And if you count up five note names from G, you land on the major. So as we move clockwise, we're adding in one additional sharp to our key signature. So D Major has two sharps in it, half sharp and C sharp. So to play the D major scale and conform to our step patterned, you'd have to play an F sharp in a C sharp. Let's take a look at the major scale played in the key of D major. Ah, uh, ah, uh, let's go back to our circle of fifths. You can keep adding sharps to your key signatures as you move clockwise for your sharp keys . If you start at C major at the top of the chart and move counterclockwise, you're counting five note names downwards, and this time you're adding and flats to your key signature. So to play the F major scale, you'd start on the note F. But when you get to the fourth scale degree, the note B, you play it as a B flat. In order to maintain the major scale step pattern, let's take a listen to the major scale played in the key of F major. Here's our circle of fifth. Start again as you continue to move counterclockwise through the flat keys, you count down five note names and you add in another flat so you can see that the key of B flat major has two flats, B flat and e flat. I highly recommend spending some time studying this chart. It's a really brilliant way of getting familiar with key signatures. I can't take credit for this chart, though. From what I understand, the composer and music theorist Nikolai that lets Key first introduced the Circle of Fifths in the late 16 seventies, and it's been a tool used by music makers ever since. If you play a musical instrument and I really hope you do, since it's so helpful for writing music. Then you can take this circle of fifth, starting at C major at the very top and work your way in both directions, clockwise or counterclockwise, and play the major scale in each key. This is an awesome way to get familiar with the major scale in different keys and also get familiar with your key signatures to help you with this. I've also created a table where I've laid out all 15 of the major scales in notation. So again I would recommend playing these 15 major scales on any instrument. Looking at musical notation on paper and reading about theory is important, but actually, hearing the theory played on an instrument takes your learning to another level. So I urge you to spend some time playing all 15 major scales on your instrument. You're probably not going to master playing all of these major scales in one sitting, but by playing through them, you can get familiar with them and start to get the sound of them in your ear. Please make note that on this chart, several of the scales are and harmonic, meaning that they sound the same but are spelled differently for example, be major and see flat major sound the same, but there are two different ways of describing the same notes. 4. Natural Minor Scales: Okay, so we've covered the major scale. Now let's dive into analysis of minor scales. In broad terms, there are two main emotional qualities and music, major and minor. The major scale has emotional qualities of happiness and cheerfulness and the major scales at the heart of a lot of melodies. The minor quality and music is perceived as dark or somber, and you can hear this quality and minor scales. There are three main different types of minor scales, but the essential difference between the major and minor scales lies in the third scale degree. The major scale has a major third degree, and minor scales have a minor third scale degree. This might seem like a small change, but the impact on the sound of the scales is huge. Now, with minor scales, there are several different types. I'm gonna cover the main types that are used widely in music writing. Let's start out with the natural minor scale, just like the major scale. The natural minor scale is made up of a series of whole steps and half steps. The formula for the natural minor scale is Holst, up half step, whole step, whole step half step whole step Whole step in the natural minor scale, the half steps or between the second and third and fifth and sixth scale degrees. Let's take a look at the natural minor scale played in the key of a minor. Uh, you'll notice that the A natural minor scale has no sharps or flats in it. So on a piano you play all white keys, just like with the C major scale. This is a good point to go back to the circle of fifths chart. You'll see up at the very top of the chart that the keys of C major and a minor both have no sharps or flats in them. So this means that the C major scale in the a natural minor scale share the same tones. Let's take a look at how they're related on a piano keyboard. So if you have a C major scale, the six scale degree is the note. A. Now, if you start your scale on A and use the same notes that used in the C major scale, you now have a natural minor scale. Now, instead of going up to the six scale degree in C major, you can also go down. Three notes. Uh, and you get to that A as well. So looking at the circle of Fifth Start make note that just as each major scale has a corresponding major key, each natural minor scale has a corresponding minor key signature and noticed that just that C major and a natural minor are related in that they both use the same pitches. Each of the other keys in this chart are major keys with related minor keys. We call these relative major and minor keys, and they give us relative major and natural minor scales as another example. The key of F major is a relative major to D minor, and so the F major scale is the relative major scale of the D natural minor scale, and they use the same pitches and so on and so forth all the way around the circle. Let's take a look and listen to the B flat major scale, and it's relative natural, minor scale G minor. So here we have B flat major. Uh, the B flat major scale has two flats B flat and e flat. So now if we take the six scale degree of the B flat major scale. We land on the note G. So from this six scale degree will build the G natural minor scale. You'll notice that I'm using the same pitches from the B flat major scale and my two flats or B flat and e flat again. The best way to solidify that in your mind is to hear it and to play it for yourself to help you with this. I've created a table where I've laid out all 15 of the natural minor scales in notation. So again I would recommend playing these 15 natural minor scales on any instrument that you have available. 5. Harmonic Minor Scales: Okay. Next up is our lesson on harmonic minor scales. The most commonly used minor scale, The harmonic minor scale is similar to the natural minor scale that set that the seven scale degree is raised by 1/2 step. Some composers prefer this scale because the raves seventh note helps to lead into the tonic note of the scale and creates tension and release. The formula for the harmonic minor scale is whole step half step whole step, whole step, half step, whole step and 1/2 half step. Let's take a listen and look at the sea Harmonic minor scale. So if you refer to our circle of fifths tried, you know that the Sea Natural minor scale has three flats in it. B flat, e flat in a flat. So first, let's play that. See, natural minor scale. Okay, so now let's raise that seven scale degree by half step. So are seven scale degree is B flat, so we're going to raise that B flat up to be. So now let's hear what that sounds like, so thereby raising that seven scale degree. We now have a C harmonic minor scale. Another cool trick for figuring out A harmonic minor scale is by altering the major scale with the same letter name. For example, let's take the C major scale to convert the C major scale to a C harmonic minor scale. We lower the third and sixth scale steps. So we lowered the third note E t E flat. Uh, and we lower the six note A a flat. Uh, so let's hear what that sounds like. Uh, again, now we have created a C harmonic minor scale. So those are two different approaches to getting to your harmonic minor scale again, I've created a chart that shows all of the notes in the harmonic minor scales. Please refer to that chart and the attached file section of this class. And just like the other scale types, take a few minutes to play through all of them on an instrument 6. Melodic Minor Scales: okay for this lesson, we're gonna discuss melodic minor scales. The melodic minor scale was used mostly in vocal music in the 17th and 18th centuries. Vocalists found the interval between the sixth and seven scale steps of the harmonic minor scale hard to sing. So they raised the six scale step in addition to the seventh scale step of the natural minor scale by 1/2 step each. The formula for the melodic minor scale is whole step, half step. Whole step holds that whole step. Hold step, half step. Let's take a listen and look at the e melodic minor scale. So are you. A natural minor scale has one sharp f sharp again, if you need to please refer to the Circle of Fifths chart. So first, let's play the natural minor scale. Okay, So to turn this into an e melodic minor scale, we're gonna raise the six scale degree. The note C two, a. C sharp and the seven scaled agreed that note D to a D sharp. So let's take a listen to what that sounds like. OK, so that's our melodic minor scale. Now I want to point out a variation on this melodic minor scale. Some music writers like to use the melodic minor scale when going up the scale. This is called the A sending melodic minor scale and the natural minor scale. When going down the scale, this is called the descending melodic minor scale. So the sixth and seventh scale degrees air raised when a sending, but not when descending the scale. Let's listen to this version of the E melodic minor scale. So again I played the e melodic minor scale when I was a sending and then the e natural minor scale as a decent into scale. I hope that you can hear the difference between a sending and descending skills. So with the melodic minor scale, just know that you have the option to use the melodic minor scale both a sending and descending. Or you can use the melodic minor scale a sending in the natural minor scale descending again for your melodic minor scale. I've created a table that lays out all of the 15 melodic minor scales for you. Please download this chart and the attached file section of this class and again take the time to play them on an instrument, and then I'll see you in the next video lesson. 7. Modes: Okay, Next up, we're going to discuss modes, modes or scales. In fact, the major scale and the natural minor scales are derived from ancient modes. You may have heard of modes referred to as Greek modes, church modes or jazz modes. The modes have been used for composing music for centuries and come from the music of ancient Greece. There are seven main modes. It's helpful to realize that each mode starts on the different scale degree of a major scale. For example, the Dorian Mode starts on the second degree of the major scale in relation to the C major scale. It sounds like this. So the Dorian Mode starts on the note D and then continues to the next e an octave higher modes air useful for riding melodies and for improvising when you write within a particular mode, has a specific sound and creates a very specific feel. Melodies that are based on specific modes. Air called modal melodies. Musicians and composers like to use modes because it gives them a way to break free from Onley, using the major and minor scales we've already looked at in this class. So let's jump into our first mode. Ionian. The great thing about Ionian is that you've probably already played it before because it follows the exact same pattern as the major scale. So the formula for the Ionian mode is whole step, whole step, half step. Whole step holds that whole step half step. Okay, so let me demonstrate the sea Ionian mode so you can see and hear. It's the exact same scale as the C major scale. The next mode is Dorian. Dorian starts on the second scale degree of a major scale. Here's the formula for the Dorian mode. Whole step half step whole step hold step, whole step, half step, whole step Let me demonstrate the d Dorian mode relative to the key of C major. So D Dorian starts on the note D and works its way up to the next D an octave higher using on Lee White notes on the piano, you can hear it sounds a little bit like a natural minor scale, but there is 1/2 step between the sixth and seven scale degrees. The next modus fridge. Ian, The fridge in mode starts on the third note of the related major scale. Like Dorian, it sounds a bit like a natural minor scale, but with a lowered second scale degree. Here's the formula for creating the fridge and mode. Half step whole step, whole step hold Step, half step. Whole step whole step. Okay, let me demonstrate E fridge and relative to the key of C major. So I'm going to start on the third note of the C major, scale the note e and play all white notes up to the next e An octave higher the fridge in mode, like the Dorian mode as a minor mode. And you could hear it used a lot in Spanish melodies. Among a lot of other music. The next mode is Lydian. Lydian starts on the fourth note of a major scale. Here is the formula for creating the Lydian mode Whole step whole step host that half step , whole step, whole step half step. Okay, let me demonstrate F Lydian relative to the key of C major. So f Lydian starts on the fourth scale degree of the C major scale and it only uses white notes and goes up in octave to the next higher f Lydian as a major mode which hopefully you can hear. It's very similar to the Ionian mode. It's up that it has a raise fourth scale degree. The next moment is mixed. Lydian Mix O Lydian starts on the fifth note of the related major scale. Here's the formula for creating the mix O Lydian mode. Whole Step holds that half step, whole step, whole step, half step whole step in the key of C major. The mix of Lydian mode starts on the note G and sounds like this. So mixer Lydian begins on the note G and rises up the octave using white notes mix. A Lydian is also a major moan. It's similar to a major scale, but it has a lowered seven scale degree. This is the only major mode that has a lowered leading tone mix. A Lady in is used a lot in jazz, blues, rock and Afro Cuban music. The next mode is alien, and it starts on the six note of the related major scale. The alien mode contains the exact same hole, step in half step pattern as the natural minor scale. Here is the formula for creating the alien mode, whole step half step, whole step, whole step half step whole step whole step. And here is the A a Olean relative to the key of C major. Starting on the sixth scale degree of the major scale, Uh, alien is used a lot in jazz and blues songs. The next and last mode is the locker and mode. The LA Korean mode starts on the seventh note of the related major scale. Here is the formula for creating the locker and mode half step whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step. Whole step here is be LA Korean relative to the key of C major and starting on the seven scale degree of the C major scale, La Korean is not used very much because it has sort of an unsettled sound to it. You'll find it in some jazz and contemporary classical music. Okay, Before I close out this lesson, I want to remind you that in my demo of the modes here they were all in the key of C major . So each scale degree of the C major scale produced a different mode but realize that the modes can be applied to every major key and they occur in the same order in every major key . So once you learn the names and the step patterns of the modes in the key of C, you can then transfer that to all the other major keys. Just remember to use the same key signature as the major scale from which the mod derives. What I would recommend doing, just like with the major minor scales that we've covered in this class, is to use a circle of fifths chart that I've provided you with and play the modes in each of the major keys. For example, take the key of B flat major, remember, and B flat major bees are flat and easier flat, so first you build your B flat Ionian mode. Uh, then you build your see Dorian. See, Dorian is built from the second scale degree of the B flat major scale. So you would use the key signature of B flat major to build the See Dorian mode and you continue on through the B flat major scale building the next successive mode on the next scale degree. So the next mode and B flat major would be de fridge in and so on and so forth one last tip on modes when you refer to the modes, used the letter name of the note on which the mode is built, along with the name of the mode. So, for example, the fridge in or G Mix O Lydian in the key of C major or B flat Ionian and see Dorian in the key of B flat major. 8. Class Assignment: Okay, so that completes our class on scales and modes. I hope that you were able to pick up some new concepts and techniques, and I hope that now you feel like you have the confidence to jump in and apply these techniques to your own music. Your assignment for this classes to complete a short series of written exercises that I have created to help solidify the knowledge you've gained in this class. I've uploaded the class notes and the exercises to the attached file section of this class . Please download those materials and print out the sheet with the four exercises on it and grab a pencil and eraser. Yet we're going old school for these exercises. I think that there is great value and stepping away from the computer or tablet for a few minutes and writing things out by hand. Please note that I tried to fit all of the exercises on one page, So when you print out the scales and modes exercises sheet, you might need to tell your printer to fit the page and the page sizing options and the class notes. I've included a circle of fifths chart. If you're not familiar with key signatures. You want to keep this chart nearby so that you know how many sharps or flats there are in each key for exercise. One. You'll use the notes that I've already filled in and add sharps or flats to create each major scale listed to know how maney, sharps or flats toe ad and toe, which notes to add them to. You'll have to know your key signatures. If you don't know them by heart, just referenced a circle of fifth start so you write in the sharp or flat in front of each note. And remember, for you beginners out there, the sharp or flat symbol goes before, until the left of the note. Head of the note that you're adding it to for exercise to, you'll be practicing your minor scales. This time you'll be writing out the notes for the scales. I would recommend using quarter notes for the scale. Just to keep things simple again, you'll have to know which sharps or flats belong in each scale. I would recommend first adding in the notes of the scale, for example, for the D harmonic minor scale first adding the notes D E f G A B C. Indeed. Using quarter notes. Then ask yourself how maney, sharps or flats are in the key of D minor and add those in. Then you know that the harmonic minor scale has the raise seven scale step. So ask yourself, Do I have to add or remove any sharps or flats from the seven scale degree for it to be a race seventh and then right that in for exercise three. You're gonna name the natural minor scales related to the major scale listed and right in the notes for those scales. So, for example, the 1st 1 is the major. So ask yourself how maney, sharps or flats there's the key of e major half. If you're not sure or you want to double check than reference, the Circle of Fifths chart. Once you have that information, then count up six notes from E. Remember to find the relative minor scale, count up six notes from the tonic note of the major scale you're working in. At that point, you have all of the information you need to build a relative natural minor scale of the major so right that natural minor scale using quarter notes for exercise for your working off of the F major scale, and you're gonna build the modes that I've listed again. To complete this exercise, you need to know how maney, sharps or flats are in the key of F major and then think about the order of the modes. So Ionian is built off of the tonic note. In this case, F Dorian is built off of the second scale degree in this case G and so on, all the way out the F major scale. Once you have that figured out, you know which scale degree and no to start each mode on. So fill those notes and using quarter notes while filling in these exercises, it might be helpful to have your instrument in front of you. I think it helps to hear what these scales and modes sound like, and it adds another dimension to your learning. For the time being, I'm not gonna upload an answer key to these exercises because I don't want you to be tempted to look at that and just plug the notes in. That would be kind of pointless. So instead, when I want you to do is once you've completed all four exercises either scan or take a high resolution photo of your exercise sheet and upload that file to Dropbox or Google Drive and post a link to your file in the project gallery. I'm happy to check your work and give you notes on your assignment. Be sure to read the project description on the class page, where have listed out the specific steps for your assignment. And be sure to download the materials in the attached file section. Remember, the goal of this exercise is to build and solidify your knowledge of scales and modes, and then to share your results with your classmates so that we can learn together to get you inspired. I've created a Spotify playlist to complement this class. It has great examples of composers and songwriters that had a strong command of scales and modes and who are able to apply these concepts intelligently and creatively. Also, I want to mention that if you feel ready to put your knowledge of scales and modes into action, I have two classes in my writing music, one on one series that are dedicated to learning how to write melodies they are writing music one on one, composing melodies and writing music one on one, composing melodies to feel free to reach out to me with any questions that you may have by posting them to the community section on the class page, I'll do my best to reply to your questions as soon as I can. Thank you so much for watching this class, and I'm looking forward to seeing your work.