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Sage Wisdom

"Good improvisation communicates harmonic progression melodically. Effective melodies manipulate harmonic content through the use of guide tones and preparatory gravity notes, masterfully woven in systematic tension, release, and transparent harmonic definition."



« Playing with a drummer | Main | More on Tetrachords »

July 3, 2008 | Tetrachordal Approach to Major Scale Modes

Special thanks to Mark Wilson for this week's Tip:
A TETRACHORDAL APPROACH TO THE MODES OF THE MAJOR SCALE
© 2008 Mark Loren Wilson

Using a tetrachordal approach to learning and using the modes of the major scale is amazing. Thinking in tetrachords has a host of advantages and benefits:

  • Solo sound. Reduces the complexity of learning scales and modes

  • Speeds up the whole process of learning the fingerboard in every key

  • Aids in having musical places to go in any direction from any starting note

  • Lets the scales and modes simply fall from your fingertips

  • Enables the proverbial "long line" when soloing

  • Makes your lines more jazz-like by helping you get away from licks and employing a more scalar

WHAT ARE THE DEGREES OF A SCALE?
Notes of the scale are often called degrees of the scale. The first note in a scale is termed the first degree of the scale; the second note is termed the second degree of the scale, and so on. Major and minor scales have seven degrees.

WHAT IS AN INTERVAL?
In musical theory, the term interval describes the difference in pitch between two notes. The difference between any note and its next adjacent note (two adjacent frets on the mandolin) is the interval of a half step. The difference between any one note and the note two half steps away is called a whole step. For now, that is all we need to know, but you will find a chart of all the intervals on the accompanying PDF file.

HOW IS THE MAJOR SCALE CONSTRUCTED?
The major scale is constructed using a series of whole steps and half steps. Let's examine the A Major Scale.

intervals_of_major.jpg

The above example shows the A Major scale as played all on the G-string. You can see that the melodic intervallic structure of the major scale is a series of whole steps and half steps: W-W-H-W-W-W-H.

WHAT IS A MODE OF THE MAJOR SCALE?
The major scale has seven modes, one mode starting on each of the seven degrees of the scale. For example, the first mode of the major scale starts on the first degree of the scale. In A Major, the first mode would be to play A Major from A to A (A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G#-A). The second mode of the A Major scale starts on the second degree of the scale, and consists of the notes of A Major from B to B (B-C#-D-E-F#-G#-A-B). The third mode of A Major starts on the third degree of the scale and consists of the notes of A Major from C# to C# (C#-D-E-F#-G#-A-B-C#). The fourth, fifth sixth and seventh modes are, well, you have already figured it out.

WHY USE MODES?
Thinking in modes is handy for several reasons.
Reason #1: For me, it's a lot faster. Let's take the example of playing the II-V progression Bm7 to E7. You know it's a m7 chord resolving to a 7 chord, but what scale do you play for soloing?
1.Using Modes: Play 2nd mode, then 5th mode.
2.Without Using Modes: Figure out the parent scale these two chords are in, and then play that scale. For instance, Bm7 functions as a "2" chord in A Major, and the E7 functions as the "5" chord in A Major. In this way you have figured out the parent scale of these two chords is A Major. So, you play out of the A Major scale for soloing over this II-V progression.
Reason #2: I get to use the tetrachordal approach, and that makes it EVEN MUCH easier to select notes for solos.

WHAT IS A TETRACHORD?
A "tetrachord" is a four-note scale fragment. Any major or minor scale easily divides into two tetrachords. The first tetrachord consists of the first four notes of the scale, and the second tetrachord consists of the second four notes of the scale. For instance, the first tetrachord of the A Major scale is A-B-C#-D, and the second tetrachord of the A Major scale is E-F#-G#-A.

MODES HAVE TETRACHORDS, TOO.
Modes are scales of a kind, so they have tetrachords, too. Lets use the fourth mode of the A Major scale for an example. The fourth mode of A Major starts on the fourth degree of the scale, which is a D. The mode consists of A Major from D to D (D-E-F#-G#-A-B-C#-D). The first tetrachord of this mode is D-E-F#-G#, and the second tetrachord is A-B-C#-D.

ISN'T THIS MAKING IT MORE COMPLICATED?
Greater simplicity is the beauty of a tetrachordal approach to modes. How? Well, get this: There are 7 modes in any major scale, but there are only four different tetrachords! This is the part I love. The following examples are all going to be in the key of A Major.

IONIAN: FIRST MODE OF THE MAJOR SCALE
Everybody probably knows this fingering of A Major. It is used when playing over an A-Maj7 chord functioning as a "1" chord. You can play the following mode/shape from the 1st degree of any major scale. (The numbers below denote the fingering, not the scale degree.)

Ionian.jpg

With your 1st finger starting on the 2nd-fret A on the G string:
♦the first tetrachord (A-B-C#-D) is played on the G string, and
♦the second tetrachord (E-F#-G#-A) is played on the D string.

See how this fingering of the first mode of the major scale is divided into two tetrachords? The coolest thing is that the two tetrachords are "shaped" exactly the same! I think of this as the major tetrachord because this tetrachord is used twice in the Ionian mode. (Very few people bother calling it the Ionian mode, they just call it "the major scale." Seems like a good idea to me).

DORIAN: SECOND MODE OF THE MAJOR SCALE
The second mode of a major scale is called the Dorian mode. Since we are in the key of A, and B is the second degree of the A Major scale, this is the fingerboard fingering for "B Dorian." It is used when playing over a Bm7 chord in the key of A. In fact, you can play this mode/shape from the 2nd degree of any major scale.

Dorian.jpg

With your 1st finger starting on B on the G string:
♦the first tetrachord is played on the G string, and
♦the second tetrachord is played on the D string

See anything similar? They are again exactly the same tetrachord! The intervallic structure of the tetrachord that makes up the Dorian mode is W-H-W. Regardless of the key, or whether you want to play ascending or descending over a m7 chord functioning as a "2" chord in a major key, this is the fingering. I think of this as the minor tetrachord.

PHRYGIAN: THIRD MODE OF THE MAJOR SCALE
The third mode of a major scale is called the Phrygian mode. Since we are in the key of A Major and C# is the third degree of the scale, this is the fingerboard fingering for "C# Phrygian." Starting on C#, it is used when playing over a C#m7 chord in the key of A Major. You can play this mode/shape from the 3rd degree of any major scale.

Phrygian.jpg

With your 1st finger starting on C# on the G string:
♦the first tetrachord is played on the G string, and
♦the second tetrachord is played on the D string.

See anything similar? They are again exactly the same tetrachord! The intervallic structure of the tetrachord that makes up the Phrygian mode is H-W-W. Regardless of the key, or whether you want to play ascending or descending over a "3" in major chord, that is your fingering. I think of this as the Phrygian tetrachord.

HOW MANY TETRACHORDS ARE THERE IN MAJOR?
There are four tetrachords in major. We have already seen three of them and we have been only through three of the seven modes. There is one more tetrachord shape we have not seen yet. The fourth tetrachord is the Lydian tetrachord.

LYDIAN: FOURTH MODE OF THE MAJOR SCALE
The fourth mode of a major scale is called the Lydian mode. Since we are in the key of A Major and D is the fourth degree of the scale, here is the fingerboard fingering for "D Lydian." It is used when playing over a D-Maj7 chord in the key of A. You can play this mode/shape from the 4th degree of any major scale. The cool thing about the Lydian note is that it naturally (without alteration) contains a #11; it is called the Lydian note.

Lydian.jpg

With your 1st finger starting on D on the G string:
♦the first tetrachord is played on the G string, and
♦the second tetrachord is played on the D string.

It sounds like a whole tone tetrachord, and it is! That is why I like to call it the whole tone tetrachord. The intervallic structure of the Lydian tetrachord is W-W-W.
Look at the other tetrachord. Does it look familiar? It is the major tetrachord. So, the words "Lydian mode" sounds like it should be some weird sound or hard, but it is simply made up of the whole tone tetrachord and the major tetrachord. Regardless of the key, or whether you want to play ascending or descending over a "4" chord in major, that is your fingering.

MIXOLYDIAN: FIFTH MODE OF THE MAJOR SCALE
The fifth mode of a major scale is called the Mixolydian mode. Since we are in the key of A Major and E is the fifth degree of the scale, here is the fingerboard fingering for "E Mixolydian." It is used when playing over an E7 chord in the key of A. But you can play this mode/shape from the 5th degree of any major scale.

Mixolydian.jpg

With your 1st finger starting on E on the D string:
♦the first tetrachord is played on the D string, and
♦the second tetrachord is played on the A string.

Again, does anything look familiar? The first tetrachord is the major tetrachord, and the second tetrachord is the Dorian tetrachord. So, Mixolydian mode is simply the major tetrachord and the minor tetrachord. Regardless of the key, or whether you want to play ascending or descending over a "5" chord in major, that is your fingeriomg.

AEOLIAN: SIXTH MODE OF THE MAJOR SCALE (THE NATURAL MINOR)
The sixth mode of a major scale is called. Since we are in the key of A Major and F# is the sixth degree of the scale, here is the fingerboard fingering for "F# Aeolian." It is used when playing over an F#m7 chord in the key of A. But you can play this mode/shape from the 6th degree of any major scale. (This is the sound of Bill Monroe's tune Jerusalem Ridge.)

Aeolian.jpg

With your 1st finger starting on F# on the D string:
♦the first tetrachord is played on the D string, and
♦the second tetrachord is played on the A string.

See how the first tetrachord is the minor sound, and the second tetrachord is the Phrygian sound? So, Aeolian mode is simply the minor tetrachord and the Phrygian tetrachord. Regardless of the key, or whether you want to play ascending or descending over a "6" chord in major, that is your fingering.

LOCRIAN: SEVENTH MODE OF THE MAJOR SCALE
The seventh mode of a major scale is called Locrian. Since we are in the key of A Major and G# is the seventh degree of the scale, here is the fingerboard fingering for "G# Locrian." It is used when playing over a G#m7b5 chord in the key of A. But you can play this mode/shape from the 7th degree of any major scale (especially as a substitute for a "5" chord).

Locrian.jpg

Download PDF: Modes of Major Scale

Extra Credit PDF: TETRACHORDS: STUDY ON A "G" STRING

Read Mark Wilson's previous article: Grip #1.

Posted by Ted at July 3, 2008 6:10 AM


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