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Modes demystified — September 28, 2013

Modes demystified

Modes.  A subject that tends to send a shudder down most guitarists’ spines.  And to be honest, it was the one thing when I started learning theory that really confused the life out of me for a while.  But stick with it, it will make sense.

If you’ve read my previous theory posts, thanks, that makes me happy.  If I’ve written them properly you should be familiar with Keys and the notes in each particular Key.

In the last blog post, we created a simple melody line using the C major scale over the chords of Cmaj and Fmaj from that Key.  Now you can create plenty of melodies using a major scale but sometimes you need a bit of variety.

I have said before that intervals are the secret to music.  If you take the Key of C major, the notes form the C major scale.  We can play through this sequence but instead of starting from the C note, start from each of the different scale tones.  Although we’re playing the exact same notes, the different starting position and intervals between them will give a different feel and sound to each mode. Each of the scale tones has a specific (Greek) name as shown below:









Ionian Dorian Phrygian Lydian Mixolydian Aeolian


So we’re saying that each Key has 7 modes and the major scale is one of these modes.  We can compare each of these modes to its’ respective major scale and we find the following:
Ionian = Major scale
D Dorian = D E F G A B C D      D Major  = D E F# G A B C# D
Dorian = 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7     intervals: T S T T T S T
The b3 gives the Dorian mode a minor feel.
E Phrygian = E F G A B C D E            E Major = E F# G# A B C# D# E
Phrygian = 1, b2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7    intervals: S T T T S T T
The Phrygian mode is related to the Aeolian mode with the 2nd scale degree a semitone lower.  It also has a minor feel.
F Lydian = F G A B C D E F          F Major = F G A Bb C D E F
Lydian = 1, 2, 3, #4, 5, 6, 7           intervals: T T T S T T S
The Lydian mode has a major feel.
G Mixolydian = G A B C D E F G        G Major = G A B C D E F# G
Mixolydian = 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, b7          intervals: T T S T T S T
The Mixolydian is related to the major, having a dominant 7th.
A Aeolian =  A B C D E F G A          A Major = A B C# D E F# G# A
Aeolian = 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7       intervals: T S T T S T T
The Aeolian is also known as the natural minor scale.
B Locrian =  B C D E F G A B             B Major = B C# D# E F# G# A# B

Locrian = 1, b2, b3, 4, b5, b6, b7     intervals: S T T S T T T

The Locrian is a related to the Aeolian with the second and fifth degrees a semitone lower.
I hope all this makes sense, but if you’re like me it will probably just take a little while for it to sink in.  In future posts we’ll explore these modes in a bit more detail with examples of how they sound.
An introduction to melody — September 23, 2013

An introduction to melody

It’s a long time ago now, but the secondary school I attended was fairly small.  Within my year there were established groups of friends.  Although everyone did pretty much get on with everyone else and mixed with the other groups, the established groups of friends tended to stick together.

This particular year we got a new girl called Melody.  She was pretty, funny and a bit unsure whether she would fit in.  She was quiet to start with but soon found her place in the group and got on really well with everyone.   As you’d expect, her arrival caused a lot of interest from some whilst others were happy to let her get on with things herself.

You might be wondering where this is going but the point is this:

Chords are like your mates, solid dependable and get on perfectly ok most of the time, if the right group is together (Key).  Sometimes new friends come along and things don’t work out or you try different groups for a change.  Ultimately you tend to end up sticking to what you know.

But sometimes you need a Melody to liven things up a bit, to add a bit of interest.

Chords are great and I’ve played many, many songs only using chords but adding melody lines or solos is the next creative step.

Because I’m not a music teacher, this is the part where I’ll probably use all the wrong terminology and to be honest that fact has stopped me writing this for a while.   But hey, if I can demonstrate the rudimentaries to get you started then that’s a success for me.

For instance, I’m not really sure how to define melody. I think of it as the tune of the song but this doesn’t really help.  I read somewhere that defined the melody in a song as the vocal line. That’s quite useful and got me thinking. A bassline could be considered a melody in a lower octave and solo parts are like a ‘super melody’.  Of course if you are writing an instrumental you are not constrained by writing a melody that suits a vocal line.

If you’re looking to write lyrics in your song then keeping the melody simple is always a good starting point. Catchy is good too – how many times have you heard a song on the radio and then hummed it all day? Usually a melody will have a fairly narrow range, say 2 octaves which I’ve read is to make it easier for virtually anyone to sing.

One thing I’d say about arranging and writing songs is that it’s more about the silence than the notes.  That may seem contradictory but too many notes at the same time can make a song sound crowded, especially if they’re all at the same sort of volume level and in the same octave range.

I’ll also say from the outset there aren’t any magic formulas, sometimes a few notes will come whilst playing, sometimes you will need to experiment for ages.  You’ll probably screw up loads of sheets of paper and throw them away, then leave it for a while and probably end up leaving a few notes out if you can’t quite get all of the intended notes to fit.  Sometimes arranging different parts of the song in different ways or layering sounds can create some very interesting harmonies.

One of the simplest ways to get started is to play arpeggios.  This basically means that you play each note of a chord in sequence rather than all at the same time.  I tend to think this is easier on guitar because there are lots of different voicings in different positions and you can really experiment with picking patterns.  It’s very easy to sound a bit mechanical and to be honest, dull.  So try different rhythms, skip some notes etc to keep it interesting.

You can make a bassline as simple or complex as you like.  For example walking basslines are common in jazz and can be really complex or you can keep it really simple and just use the root note of the chord.  Ultimately you’ll probably end up with something between the two as using root notes all the time can sound a bit boring.

I’ve created an example of a simple melody line.  This is in the Key of C Major and I’ve created the melody from the C Major scale.  I’ve used a very simple 4 bar pattern of 2 bars of Cmaj and 2 bars of Fmaj.   I have added a very simple drum pattern but deliberately left the bassline out so that you can hear the melody more clearly.  The melody has a note on each of the syllables as if someone was singing the vocals ‘In the summertime’, ‘summertime’, ‘summertime’.

The file can be downloaded from here:

The first pattern is as follows:

In the summertime, summertime summertime
C  C     C       C     E         F      F     F        F      F      E
The second pattern is as follows:
In the summertime, summertime, summertime
C  C     A      G     E         F      G     C         F      G     C
You can see and hear that the first pattern doesn’t have much variation in the notes used and according the melody; the second pattern has much more variation in the notes and I’d say creates a more interesting melody – you can hear the difference.  You can freely experiment with different notes, different note lengths, timings etc and hear how the melody changes.

This is clearly a very simple example but hopefully gives you an introduction into creating melody lines.  We’ll expand creative opportunities in forthcoming posts….

Inspiration — September 13, 2013


It’s intangible, hard to describe, can be found everywhere and nowhere, often at the same time by different people.  Sometimes you can almost smell or almost taste it but never quite grasp it.  It can be a moment, a person, a place, a song, a photo, a tree – well anything really.

But if you don’t make it tangible by capturing it there and then on paper, in a photo etc. it will be gone and might never be recorded physically.  If you’re lucky enough to recall the idea sometime later, chances are there won’t be such vivid details as the first time.

And we tend to believe that we are thinkers, generating these moments because of creative or artistic brilliance if we’re a bit egocentric or attributing them to a ‘flash of inspiration’ if not, without really understanding what that means.   And because we like to prove our beliefs, no matter how preposterous they may be, we can convince ourselves of anything.  In this case that we are creative or maybe not creative, so we predispose ourselves to receiving inspiration or not.

But maybe such inspiration arises from beyond our minds.  Maybe our brains are not the creative impulse in itself but act more like a tuner or funnel.

I can’t remember when or why but I have vague recollections of reading about a French philosopher who took a lobster for a walk on a piece of string a long time ago.  I’d forgotten about it to be perfectly honest until I read a reference to it recently.  I’ve always taken this as meaning that we don’t pay enough attention to our surroundings and thereby miss out seeing lots of detail. This is especially true these days given the ever-increasing pace of life.

As it happens, it wasn’t a philosopher at all but the French writer and poet Gerard de Nerval (22/05/1808 – 26/01/1855).  When asked why he had a lobster for a pet he replied:
“Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog? Or a cat, or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk? I have a liking for lobsters.  They know the secrets of the sea, they don’t bark, and they don’t gobble up your monadic privacy like dogs do.  And Goethe had an aversion to dogs, and he wasn’t mad!”
There has of course been much conjecture whether this was truth or symbolic.  There has been one suggestion that it was a symbolic rebellious act, although the truth of the story appears to have been confirmed in a letter written to one of his childhood friends which was found only fairly recently.  This suggested that he got into trouble whilst in LaRochelle:
 “…I was accosted by the mayor who demanded that I should make a full and frank apology for stealing from the lobster nets.  I will not bore you with the details but suffice to say that reparations were made, and little Thibault is now here with me in the city.”

Whatever the truth in the story, I like the interpretation I’ve carried with me.  This is because I’d like to think that inspiration originates from beyond the mind.  That would mean we could improve our likelihood of receiving it.  We would need to try really hard, make sure we’ve always got a pen and paper handy and maybe, just maybe, if we walk our pet lobsters often enough, find it everywhere.

The funny thing is, very shortly after drafting this post I was rewarded with a bunch of characters, lots of themes and the makings of a short story.  And I’ve never written (or had the urge to write) more than the odd poem or song lyrics before.