Musician’s Corner Part II

In Part I we discussed three different ways to look at the relationships between the notes in the C major scale. Let’s do a quick review. The first way of looking at the relationships assessed the distance between each successive note in the scale. From this we found the formula for the major scale. The second way assigned an index number to each note (scale degree) and then examined the distance between the root of the scale and each note (interval). The third way looked at the relation between each note in the scale and the root of the key that we were in.
These three relationships are the key to understanding what is happening harmonically and melodically in music. It can get a bit confusing, but the better one is able to figure out these three relationships simultaneously, the more successful one will be at navigating harmony/melody. This ability will also keep the musician grounded and confident, which is of the utmost importance for delivering a moving performance.
Let’s get started with Part II. Today we are still going to be looking at the C major scale, but we will look at it from a different perspective. This will be the beginning of the discussion of modes. Much has been written about the modes and most of it is down right confusing. There is lots of information about what they are, but much of what I have read concerning their application is either misleading or taken out of context. Unfortunately, much of music education is presented to students in a rote manner. “Use X scale over Y chord.” Although this type of statement can be based in sound music theory, there is practically never a discussion of WHY to use X scale over Y chord. This was always my question. I wasn’t satisfied with just doing as I was told. I needed to know how my teachers came up with the idea to use X scale over Y chord. What I will give you is a way figure out this answer for yourself, instead of just doing what you are told.
For a good history of the modes read:

This article discusses the evolution of the modes. For our purposes, the most important section of the article is under the heading Modern. This will be our starting point, but I will give a bit of the back-story as well.
In Part I we examined the C major scale. It looked like this:



Today we are going to look at the same scale but start if from a different place, the second degree. If you remember from part one, the second degree of the C major scale is D. Our new scale, D Dorian, will look like this:



Before we examine the three types or relationships, let’s make sure we understand where this comes from and it’s relation to C major. Below is the C major scale juxtaposed with the D Dorian scale.







From this the relationship should be clear. D Dorian is the C major scale, but starting from D and ending on D. It is exactly the same notes, but this will change what our three important relationships look like. Let’s examine those.

Relationship #1, distance between notes (in steps):

From this we get our distance-based formula for Dorian mode:



Relationship #2, scale degree and interval from the root:



Here we see for the first time altered scale degrees. So why would I call the third a flat third and the seventh a flat seventh. Well, to answer this let’s look at the table that shows us the number of steps each note is away from the root.

Note → NoteNumber of StepsInterval
D→E1major 2nd
D→F1+½=1½minor 3rd
D→G1+½+1=2½perfect 4th
D→A1+½+1+1=3½perfect 5th
D→B1+½+1+1+1=4½major 6th
D→C1+½+1+1+1+½=5minor 7th
D→D1+½+1+1+1+½+1=6perfect Octave


So when we look at our original C scale the distance between the first and third scale degrees (C and E) was 2 whole steps. In our new scale, D Dorian, the distance between the first and third scale degrees (D and F) is only 1½ steps. Since we are looking at the distance between the first and third scale degrees the resultant interval is still a type of third, but we must acknowledge that it is slightly smaller than the interval of a third we examined in the C scale. Therefore we will call it a b3rd (flat third). This same logic will apply to all of the scale degrees, hence the b7th (flat seventh).

Relationship #3, relation to root of the key:


Our key in this example is still C major so each degree of the D Dorian scale still has a relationship to it’s parent key. The top D note is shown as 2 and 9 because the scale can be viewed as repeating or continuous. This will become important later when we get into the discussion of chords. For now it is simply important to recognize these two ways of viewing scales.
Ultimately, the musician should be able to conceptualize all three of these things at the same time and see the secondary scale’s relationship to it’s parent key for any given musical passage.

By now, you should have a clear idea of where Dorian mode comes from. From the above tables we can choose any note and know many things about how it relates to other notes. For example, the note F. F is the fourth degree of the C major scale. It is also a perfect 4th above C. F is also the third degree of the D Dorian scale. Since its distance from the root of the scale is 1½ steps, we will call it a minor 3rd, or flat third. We can then say that F is a minor third above D. F is also the fourth degree of the key of C. We can then figure out that the third degree of D Dorian is the fourth degree of the C major scale and the fourth degree of the key of C. This may all seem like a fancy way to say that F=F, but that would be missing the point. We are not naming F in and of itself. We are naming F as it relates to all the other notes that it is involved with.
At this point, many instructional books simply say, “Now just do that with every mode in every key and you will get it.” I know that most students, including myself, do not have the focus to continue all these tables myself. On top of that, when each step of it is presented to me, I am better able to retain it. Stay tuned for the next installment: E Phrygian mode.

Read Chapter III

Musician’s Corner Part I


The best way to discuss music theory is to start from the beginning. The first thing that virtually every beginning student learns is the C major scale. It is presented is a very simple way and is very easy to grasp. It is simply all of the white keys on a piano, starting from C. Well, why are those notes tuned to those exact pitches? I am not going to get very deep into that but suffice it to say that each note contains an upper series of overtones and these overtones correspond to the notes in the scale. For a much more in-depth discussion of this check out this article:

What I want to talk about is the relationships that are derived from this most basic group of notes, the C major scale. I have found that much of the emotional impact of music comes not from the particular note that one chooses to play, but from which note one chooses to play next. A single note can be lifeless and empty, but playing another note after it creates a relationship between the two that affects the listener in a very deep way. The best musicians in the world can move us with a single note, but for the rest of us, we need to use a few more to get our point across.
I intend to keep each of my posts on this topic short. The information can get deep very quickly so I want to present it in a more natural way, akin to how a child is taught. These small lessons should be easier to process. Hopefully, the reader will only read one at a time and let some time pass before reading the next one. From my experience, to really learn this, your sub-conscious needs time to process these bits of information before your higher brain can organize it into a functional system of thinking. For more info, check this out:

The advantage I hope to give you is that I will present it to you in a coherent logical order that should make it easier to learn. I learned it in a rather haphazard format and it has taken me a long time to make it coherent in my own mind.
Lesson number one will present the C major scale and show the different ways of thinking about the relationships between the notes. Here is one octave of a C major scale spelled out:


The first way to think about the relationships is to look at the distance between these notes. This is expressed in musical steps (1) or half steps (1/2). This can be seen be looking at a piano and seeing how many black keys are between each note. One black key between notes equals one step, and no black keys equals a half step.


We have just deduced the relationships between each note in the major scale. This order of steps and half steps can be used to construct a major scale from any note. It looks like this:


The major scale can also be labeled with numbers that correspond to the degree of the scale that each note occupies. This basically is an indexing of the scale using a moveable reference, the reference being the first note of the scale itself. It looks like this:


Each note of the scale also has a corresponding number. I could refer to the note D or I could refer to the second degree of the C scale. In both cases, I am actually talking about the same note, just using a different way to name it. We have now extracted another way to formulate the scale based on the scale degrees. It looks like this:


This formulation also corresponds to the interval that occurs between the root (C) and the other note. To find the distance between two notes we can look at our diagram of the number of steps between each note. The distance between the root C and the note E is two whole steps. Two whole steps is an interval of a major third. This conveniently corresponds to the scale degree number. Therefore we can say that E is the third degree of the C scale and that it is a major third above C. Here is a chart that shows the interval between the root and each note using our diagram for number of steps between notes.

Note → NoteNumber of StepsInterval
C→D1major 2nd
C→E1+1=2major 3rd
C→F1+1+½=2½perfect 4th
C→G1+1+½+1=3½perfect 5th
C→A1+1+½+1+1=4½major 6th
C→B1+1+½+1+1+1=5½major 7th
C→C1+1+½+1+1+1+½=6perfect Octave

The third way that I want you to look at the C major scale is in relation to the key itself. In the key of C there are no sharps or flats. This is an indexing of the notes in the scale, similar to the above example, but in this case we are using a fixed reference point, C, the root of the key that we are in. This is what it looks like:


You will notice that the last two ways of identifying the notes in the C scale are identical. Do not worry, as this is the only instance in which these two reference points will be the same. In the next installment we will look at a different scale (D Dorian), but we will still be in the key of C, so the scalar reference point and the key reference point will be different.
I am fully aware that today’s discussion can bring up more questions than it answers, but that is the point. Music always begs further investigation and one is never finished learning. That is why it is so helpful to have an inquisitive personality. If this does not make sense, just read it again and sleep on it. Things will start to come more into focus in the next lesson. Until then, enjoy C major!

Read the Chapter II