Guide to music theory


I'm not the only teacher on the planet that says to my students "learn your scales..." and I don't say it as some sort of morbid punishment.

And I'm sure that if scales had originally been named 'super fun' or 'great time', then the apathy and distain toward them wouldn't have been quite so bad. But the fact remains that scales and their key signatures are the building blocks of music theory and there's no short-cut to learning them.

Look upon scales as the 'vocabulary' of music. Once you know the notes and key signatures that make up a scale, you'll be able to pick and choose the notes to use in a musical sentence, just as you do words in a spoken sentence. The only difference with words is you learnt these from a very early age and choosing words to make up a sentence now happens without you thinking. With music you have to go through the process of learning the theory before you have the knowledge to choose the right notes - hence the frustrating bit of having to 'learn your scales'. One of the great players once said "learn your scales to a point that you can forget them". In other words learn them to a point you don't have to think about them.

Having said all that, there are some very good playing aids and backing tracks around at the moment that you can play along with to help you on your way. These make you feel not quite so alone, get you in the habit of playing along to a beat and in time (with other people),but first and foremost, make learning the notes of and playing scales dare I say it - "fun"!

I've put a selection of backing tracks on this website for you to download. Find yourself an MP3 player, a computer or stereo, load them up and start playing. The ultimate aim is to transfer the thought process going on in your mind over to your fingers, known as 'finger memory'. As with most things, if you do something enough it becomes automatic and you don't really have to think too much about it - this is the same with the notes of a scale. And remember, you only have to learn them once!! Someone once said to me: "Learn your scales to a point that you can forget them..."

So here we go...

Key signatures
Eventually you'll be able to associate a number of sharps or flats on a music score with a particular key signature of a major scale automatically. Until then, though, rhymes do help. The order of sharps is F C G D A E B so you could remember these by one of the following:
'Father Charles Goes Down And Ends Battle', or 'Father Christmas Gave Dad An Electric Blanket '.

C major is the easiest key to remember as it has no sharps (#) or flats (b).

The sharps table is:
G major - 1 sharp - F
D major - 2 sharps - F, C
A major - 3 sharps - F, C, G
E major - 4 sharps - F, C, G, D
B major - 5 sharps - F, C, G, D, A
F# major - 6 sharps - F, C, G, D, A, E
C# major - 7 sharps - F, C, G, D, A, E, B

As for the flats, the order is B E A D G C. The rhyme for this could be' BEAD Gives Colour'. Or reverse the rhyme above - ie
Blanket Explodes And Dad Got Cold Feet

The flats table is:
F major - 1 flat - B
Bb major - 2 flats - B, E
Eb Major - 3 flats - B, E, A
Ab major - 4 flats - B, E, A, D
Db major - 5 flats - B, E, A, D, G (more commonly written as C# major)
Gb major - 6 flats - B, E, A, D, G, C (more commonly written as F# major)

You can see from both the sharps and the flats that they increase in a set order, so all you're doing is adding an extra sharp or flat (and only changing one note in the scale) in each instance. Although not immediately apparent, there is a way of relating the keys - the circle of fifths. Up five notes in the case of sharps and down five notes in the case of flats. Start on C and go up 5 notes to G (1 sharp),then up another 5 notes to D (2 sharps),up 5 to A (3 sharps) etc, etc. This works similarly for the flats but go down 5 notes from C. Hope this makes sense, and it does help if you've had some experience with playing the piano as it's very useful to be able to visualise a piano keyboard in your mind when working out key signatures and the relationship of notes to one another.
Here's a clever interactive circle of fifths by Rand Scullard for you to play with. It also shows the jazz modes which are covered again further down this page.

The above key signatures apply to the major scales and you'll be pleased to hear that there's only 12 in all for you to learn! Download the major scales here.

Knowing your major scales is the gateway to understanding the world of music and how most of the other scales are formed - ie minor scales (and there's plenty of those),blues scales, diminished scales, whole tone scales and all the jazz modes & chords (more of these in a moment). Learning the major scales is the start of your journey - your passport to unlimited musical vocabulary! It must be said at this stage that all scale illustrations tend to be shown between two notes an octave apart. This is to demonstrate the sound characteristics of the intervals of that particular scale. I would suggest however, when practising or playing scales, that you don't just restrict yourself to the notes within that octave - keep on going up (and down) the scales as far as the higher and lower limit of your instrument will let you (two and a half octaves for a sax).

Blues scales
These are perhaps the most flexible and versatile scales, when mixed with the major scales, to use when improvising and soloing. Due to the characteristics of the note intervals within the scale, it can be used to produce great 'colour' and tension. As it is primarily based on a five-note (pentatonic) scale (see below),it's correct term is actually a 'minor pentatonic scale with an added flattened fifth'. 'Blues scale' sounds much more friendly and trips off the tongue somewhat easier!

The following sequence is derived from, and applies to, the eight notes of the major scale:
1, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7, (1/8). Here's how a C blues scale looks:


Once you're familiar with the distinctive intervals that make up a blues scale, try and play the blues scales in other keys.
Or to make it easier, here thay are written out as a PDF download.

Pentatonic scales
As mentioned above, and as its name suggests, the pentatonic scale is made up of five notes.
Again, based on the eight notes of the major scale as a starting point, the major pentatonic uses:
1, 2, 3, 5, 6, (1/8). Here's how it looks in C:


The minor pentatonic uses:
1, b3, 4, 5, b7, (1/8). A minor for example:


You can see the relationship with the blues scale listed above, except the minor pentatonic scale doesn't have the flattened fifth note.

There is also a relationship between the notes of these two major and minor pentatonic scales. Look at the notes of the C major pentatonic which are C, D, E, G, A, (C). The notes of the A minor pentatonic are A, C, D, E, G, (A). The same notes and the same intervals, but starting on a different note (the A in the minor version for example) gives a completely different sound characteristic to the scale. So the major pentatonic scale shares its notes with the relative minor three semitones below.

Jazz scale modes
These appear and sound much more complex than they actually are. As there are seven different notes in a major scale (one and eight being the same note),so there are seven modes. In simple terms start a major scale on its second note and finish on its second/ninth note ie, play the scale of C major from D to D. Notice how the sound characteristics are completely altered? Your nice, happy major scale now sounds sad even though you're still playing all the notes of the C scale. In fact it is a D dorian minor scale (the second mode of C).

Hopefully you understood that - so here's all the rest of the modes:
First - Ionian - Major scale
Second - Dorian - Minor
Third - Phrygian - Minor
Fourth - Lydian - Sub-dominant
Fifth - Mixolydian - Dominant seventh
Sixth - Aeolian - Natural minor
Seventh - Locrian or super altered
Download the jazz modes

Jazz chords explained
The jazz chord symbol terminology merely tells you what notes in the major scale have been altered, therefore giving you the mode (or collection of notes) that applies to that particular bar or bars.
I'll try and explain these, although a reasonable knowledge of the major scales/key signatures would be an advantage. Again giving examples in the key of C:

C (Ionian or first mode of C)
Chord tones are C, E & G

Dm7 or D-7 (D dorian or second mode of C)
Chord tones D, F & A. When relating this symbol to D major, the 'm' means 'minor'. Flatten the third note of the major scale so F sharp becomes F natural. The '7' means flatten the seventh note of the major scale so C sharp becomes C natural. The notes you'll play over a Dm7 chord are still the notes of the C major scale, but the chord tone (or quality notes) changes to D, F & A.
The symbol 'm7' is used very widely.

E sus b9 (E phrygian or third mode of C)
Chord tones E, G & B. The 'sus b9' essentially means flatten the second (ninth),third, sixth and seventh notes of a major scale. This means that an E phrygian mode uses all the notes of C major. The phrygian mode is not particularly common.

F #4 (F lydian or fourth mode of C)
Chord tones F, A & C. From the F major scale, the '#4' turns the Bb into a B natural. Also known as the 'sub-dominant' chord.

G7 (G mixolydian or fifth mode of C)
Chord tones G, B, D, F. As mentioned in the dorian mode above, the '7' means flatten the seventh note. So the F# in a G major scale becomes an F natural. The mixolydian mode or '7th' chord is one of the most common symbols used. Also known as the 'dominant 7th' chord

Am b6 (A aeolian or sixth mode of C)
Chord tones A, C & E. From A major we have a 'm' (flattened third note),a 'b6' (flattened sixth note),and, as it's a minor chord, the seventh note is automatically flattened. The sixth mode (aeolian) is also known as the 'natural minor'.

B half diminished (B locrian or seventh mode of C)
Chord tones B, D & F. This is also known as the 'super altered' scale. So much from the starting scale of B major changes:
b2 (b9),b3, b5, b6 & b7 - hence the name 'super altered' I presume!

Other symbols
It is a given that the first notes to use from a scale to make up a chord are 1, 3 and 5 (also known as the triad or arpeggio). Any other notes to be used in a chord to add colour are listed using numbers greater than 5 (though you may see a b5 occasionally). For example a '7' next to a chord means the seventh note in the chord is always flattened. A 'M7' denotes a major seventh, not a flat seventh. Other numbers are 9th (same as 2nd),11th (same as 4th) and 13th (same as 6th although a '6' is quite common in a chord).

Diminished scales
This is where it starts to get trickier... The diminished scale structure is based on a sequential tone/semitone pattern.
And due to this pattern there are only three diminished scales:
C, D, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, A, B, (C)
C, Db, Eb, E, Gb, G, A, Bb, (C) and
B, Db, D, E, F, G, Ab, Bb, (B).
The diminished arpeggio is built on four intervals of minor thirds. Miss out every other note from the diminished scales listed above and see how it sounds...

Bebop scales
Based on the major scale, the Bebop scale was introduced in the 'thirties for more rhythmic reasons than anything else.
When playing a major scale, the notes don't quite fit into a regular beat or pulse. There are two main bebop scales: one adds an extra flat 7 to the major scale and one adds a flat 5. For example:

With b7: C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb, B, (C) And with b5: C, D, E, F, Gb, G, A, B, C

Hey presto and the timing problem is solved!
Try playing a bebop scale to a backing track and you'll see how easily it fits the beat.

Wholetone scales
As the name suggests, these are scales made up entirely from tone steps. There are only two wholetone scales:
C, D, E, F#, G#, A#, (C) and
C#, D#, F, G, A, B (C#)