Notes, Scales and Modes in Music
Learn the alphabet of making music
Last Updated: October 2023 | Article Details: 1946 words (10 minute read)
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Welcome to the 2nd part of our basic music theory course for rappers, singers, songwriters and producers.
If you haven’t done so yet, read the first part of this series on time and rhythm in music.
Now that you know how music moves in time and how to read sheet music, lets dive deeper into the building blocks.
It can seem pretty complex and mathematical at times, but it’s really not that bad.
Once you understand the concepts in this course and put them to use in your compositions, songs and productions, it will become second nature in no time.
The Notes in Western Styles of Music
In this guide, we’re focused on western popular styles. Music is universal, but around the world people use different time signatures, pitches and naming standards when it gets made.
You might already know the basic notes in music but if not here’s a quick refresher.
In most western and popular styles there are 12 notes that can be combined in different ways to create music that actually sounds good via “scales” (more on these later).
These are the basic ones you’ll be working with all the time: A, B, C, D, E, F, G
And each of these can be “modified” to sound a bit different than the original – higher or lower in pitch. This is done by either making the note a “Sharp” (notated as a #) or a “Flat” (notated as a b).
So you can have a C note, an A Sharp (A#) note or a B Flat (Bb) note, etc.
One thing to note is this – some notes have different names, but are the exact same. For example, an A# (a sharp note) is the exact same note as a Bb (b flat note).
Confusing right? But that’s because of how music moves. It’s easier to describe when looking at a piano.
In the image above you see the main notes (A, B, C, D, E, F, G) laid out on the white keys of the piano. Now when you want to make a note a flat, you move down one key to the left. When you want to make a note sharp, you move up one key to the right.
This is called moving in half-steps (more on this below).
So now when you look at the black keys on the piano you see that they can have two different names. The first black key in the set of 2 (with circle around them) is either a C# or a Db.
That’s because when you start at C (the white key), you have to move up one key to the right to make it sharp (the first black key). But if you’re on the D (the white key) and want to make it flat, you move down one key to the left (the same black key).
Confusing, I know… But read all that again a couple of times and you’ll get it.
And use the chart above as a quick reference to which keys are which.
But now at least you know all 12 notes.
The same exist on the guitar, but it’s laid out as easily. This will be helpful when learning to read sheet music.
How to Play Music Scales
This is important. It’s how music moves so our brains can comprehend the changes in pitch in relation to certain feelings or emotions.
You can’t just sit down at a piano or pick up a guitar and play any notes one after another and expect it to sound good (of course, this is debatable depending on what you think sounds “good”).
Certain notes work well with others. And that’s why you need to know these.
What Is It?
A scale is a set of notes that sound harmonic when played one after another. They sound like they go together and they – even though they’re different – sound pleasing to the ear when played one after another.
It’s hard to describe in words, but when you play a scale on a piano vs. playing random notes you can hear the difference.
So how do you build one? Let’s talk about how they’re built.
Intervals (Whole Steps and Half Steps)
This movement is based on different intervals of HALF STEPS and WHOLE STEPS. A half step is moving along the keyboard (either left or right) from key to key WITHOUT any keys in between.
On the other hand a whole step is when you move along the keyboard to another key but you DO leave one key in between.
Here’s an image to help you visualize what I’m talking about:
So basically, whole steps skip a key and half steps don’t skip any keys. So, if we start at a C and move to a D, it’s a whole step. This is because there is a black key (a C#/Db) in between the two notes. But if we moved from C to the C#/Db it would be a half step, because there is no key in between the two.
The Two Main Types of Scales
So there are two main types in western popular music – the major scale and the minor scale. The major is a lot happier sounding while the minor sounds more dark and depressing. You can build both major and minor patterns for every note/key on the piano. How you build them all depends on the intervals you use.
So how do you build a major scale? Well it all has to do with the intervals you use. Remember the whole steps and half steps? Well here’s the pattern that EVERY major scale uses when moving along the keyboard, no matter what key you start on. (W = whole step, H = half step)
W – W – H – W – W – W – H
So for example I’m going to build it on the note of C. This is the root note. You can start on any key and use the above pattern but the C major scale is easy to remember.
So here’s how we’d build it:
Start at C –> Move to D (“W”) –> Move to E (“W”) –> Move to F (“H”) –> Move to G (“W”) –> Move to A (“W”) –> Move to B (“W”) –> Arrive back at C (“H”)
So we started at C and to move a whole step, we end up at D (there is one key – C#/Db – between the two. When we get to E, we need a half step. This would move up to F because there are no keys in between. Simply use the pattern above and you can build any major scale on any key on the keyboard.
Here’s an image of the C major scale:
So similar to it’s major counterpart, you can build a minor piano scale using a set pattern of steps. This pattern is:
W – H – W – W – H – W – W
So to build the minor for the note C we would start at C and use the pattern above to move to the next notes. Here is what it would look like:
Start on C –> Move to D (“W”) –> Move to E-Flat (“H”) –> Move to F (“W”) –> Move to G (“W”) –> Move to A-Flat (“H”) –> Move to B-Flat (“W”) –> Arrive back at C (“W”)
So now you can see there are black notes included this time as well. This is because a half step from D is to the black note to the right of it – an Eb (E-Flat). And when you play it out, it sounds a lot darker and sadder than the major scale.
Here’s an image of the C minor scale:
Now you might be asking why I decided to only call it an Eb and not a D# (D-Sharp). This is because when you’re playing a scale you can only use an alphabet letter once. And we already used a D as the second note (also known as a tone) of this scale.
Modes in Music
Now the Major and Minor scales are only two of a wide variety of types. In western music alone there are various modified major/minor versions called Modes.
Modes work in the same way as major/minor in that they’re a consistent series of half-step and whole-step movements up and down a keyboard.
Here are the various different modes:
- Ionian: W – W – H – W – W – W – H (this is the “major scale” above)
- Dorian: W – H – W – W – W – H – W
- Phrygian: H – W – W – W – H – W – W
- Lydian: W – W – W – H – W – W – H
- Mixolydian: W – W – H – W – W – H – W
- Aeolian: W – H – W – W – H – W – W (this is the “minor scale” above)
- Locrian: H – W – W – H – W – W – W
Try playing these modes to see how they sound. Start on any key of the piano and move in whole-steps and half-steps based on the modes above.
There are so many more of these concepts than just the major and minor, but for now stick to learning and memorizing these ones. When you get good with these you can move on to things like the pentatonic scale, blues scale, Arabic scale, 6, 9 and suspended chords and much more.
But now that you know how to build the blocks, you’ll be able to play or make music in ANY KEY you want. When you learn about chord progressions and the Nashville number system in the future, you’ll be able to play BY EAR in any key.
Note: This was a smaller version of our full guide to piano intervals, scales and modes. Go deeper on these concepts in that guide!
Next up, learn All About Music Chords
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Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, music notes are universal within whatever musical tradition you’re working in (ex/ Western vs. Eastern music theory). All of the instruments within that tradition often use the same note names/letters. That’s also the case across all genres/styles within that musical tradition.
The best way to remember which music notes sound good together is to remember as many musical scales as you can. These scales all contain only notes that often sound good together. Many of the scales have specific patterns you can memorize for easily being able to only play notes that work well with each other.
There are many different types of musical scales throughout world music traditions. Every culture has their own preferred scales to use consisting of various notes. There are 48 scales that can be attributed to the most popular styles of Western music, but there are likely hundreds more if you account for various sub-scales, modifications, world music traditions and even counting each scale for each note in music.
Yes you can. There are many examples of music where a “key change” takes place. That is essential going from one scale in one part of the song to a different scales in another part of a song. It can be tricky to pull off, because using the wrong two scales together may sound dissonant.
Modes in music are basically small modifications to a musical scale. They often change the mood and emotion evoked by the notes used within that scale. Sometimes the change is drastic and sometimes that change is more subtle, but the various modes in music greatly expand the possibility of nuanced emotional pull in songs.