Base scales

A brief explanation


Taking a closer look at the basic scales you'll find the following facts:

  • They can be fully, that is with no change to their structure, transposed to any fret on the fretboard. (As opposed to the guitar, transposing in the piano would require black keys to be played, which is pretty a huge challenge for the beginners). Another thing is that the space between two consecutive frets shrinks towards the bridge. Some might find this hard for the first time, but always remember what a violin player would think about transposing difficulties (violins have no frets).

  • When starting practicing, picking should be slow and consistent, as per the optimal picking principles.

  • Metronome is a very useful tool for practicing. I myself faced the biggest of difficulties when practicing Lydian mode scales and their scale patterns. Yet, problems may be different for each person.

However, I have never met anyone from my students who could understand this system of basic scales on the spot. For practical reasons I always start explaining the system with the piano.



Like I said, the white keys of the piano define a very extensive, virtually infinite, C Major scale. This tonality now, thanks to the past decades, has proved to be the reference tonality in European music. Nevertheless, it hasn't always been like that. Medieval composers Palestrina and Lassus used tonalities that would sound pretty weird to nowadays’ audience. Finally, the major-minor tonal system emerged from the others so major and minor became the main tonalities.


Greek composer Vangelis has a symphony called Mythodea, in which some ancient Greek modes can be found, giving the composition a very exciting taste.




Also, I found the magical presence of Dorian and Mixolydian modes in some musical compositions of Indian origin, they are however of a completely different musical approach. The white keys of the piano define the seven musical modes, meaning that if you start the scale with note D, that's a D Dorian, if you start it from note E, that's an E Phrygian etc. So that's how the seven basic scales, originally called modal scales, are complete:


Major - Dorian - Phrygian - Lydian - Mixolydian - Minor - Locrian


Both instruments, piano and guitar, identically employ this system. The reason I explain it starting with F Major is simply technical. Modal scales can also be referred to as major-minor scale degrees (e.g. F Major 1st-2nd-3rd-4th-5th-6th-7th degrees).


Note: The definition of modal scales as Major, Dorian, Phrygian etc. can also be identified as ‘absolute’, whereas the other type, that is 1st, 2nd, 3rd… degrees, as ‘relative’. I’ll describe the reason for this later on.


Since J. S. Bach (1685-1750) the major-minor modal system has overcome the others, even defining the overall musical rules. These rules were first disregarded by Romantic Era composers in the 19th century. 20th century kept on following this way as dodecaphony, the twelve-tone technique and later atonality ruled out the then-conventional modal systems. In fact, a crisis in music began as, except for a couple of isolated masterminds like Bernstein, Shostakovich and Prokofiev, there remained no composers of classical music, which wouldn't bother the majority of the people, especially because the so-called popular music was beginning to be more and more appreciated. I dare to opine that, however odd it sounds for the first time, nowadays’ popular music hits can be, to a degree, originated from some, for instance Schuber's, classical compositions, considering that their length, character and basic conception compare to each other. - Basic scales - A brief explanation