Improvisational Theory - Scale Formulas
Published January 5th, 2003. © Chris Juergensen/chrisjuergensen.com. All Rights Reserved.

Scale Construction Formulas - Although more investigation will be needed to fully understand scales, the modes contained within them and their function in relation to specific chords, the construction formulas in this lesson should come in handy as a reference guide.

The major scale modes

ionian
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
dorian
1
2
b3
4
5
6
b7
phrygian
1
b2
b3
4
5
b6
b7
lydian
1
2
3
#4
5
6
7
mixolydian
1
2
3
4
5
6
b7
aolian
1
2
b3
4
5
b6
b7
locrian
1
b2
b3
4
b5
b6
b7
 

The major scale: Everything starts here. Without understanding the major scale nothing else will fall into place. Of the seven modes of the major scale, two are major (ionian, lydian), four are minor (dorian, phrygian, aolian, locrian) and one is dominant (mixolydian).

The ionian mode - Although the major scale is the most important of all scales (at least in regards to understanding the building blocks of music), the ionian mode itself is mostly useless. Even when the only possible modal scale to use over a particular chord progression is the ionian mode, I would tend to use a major pentatonic scale.
The dorian mode - The major 6th in this minor mode gives this mode a very bright sound. It works well over minor chords and also gets used over a ii - V progression, Ex: an A dorian scale played over an Amin7-D9 chord progression.
The phrygian mode - Dark and exotic, this minor mode works over minor chords, but more often gets used over a b9sus chord. Beware, the b9 in the scale make it useless over a min9th chord.
The lydian mode - For a major chord, the lydian mode is a much better choice than the ionian mode. The raised 4th gives it a modern, uplifting tonality.
The mixolydian mode - The only dominant mode of the major scale, this mode gets used exclusively over unaltered dominant chords. It works nicely over 7sus and 9sus chords.
The aolian mode - this mode is also known as the natural minor scale. The scale is important because the harmonic and melodic minor scale where born from it. As a mode itself, it works better over a chord progression than over static minor chords. A standard chord progression for this mode would be a vi - IV - I - V chord progression, example for A aolian: Amin7 - Fmaj7 - Cmaj7 - G
The locrian mode - This mode gets used over a min7b5 chord but in all honestly I tend to avoid it. I think a locrian #2 mode from the melodic minor scale is a much better choice.

Pentatonic scale

major
1
2
3
5
6
minor
1
b3
4
5
b7
 
Pentatonic scales : pentatonic scales are five note scales (penta meaning five). Generally they take the place of any minor or major scales but there are also many other uses for them. Try for example using an A minor pentatonic scale over a Bbmaj7 chord or a E minor pentatonic scale over an Amin7 chord. Both the minor and major pentatonic scales work over dominant chords. Experiment using the chart below:
 
Chord Scale (conventional approach) Scale (unconventional approach)
Amaj7 A major pentatonic G#, C# minor pentatonic
Amin7 A minor pentatonic E, B minor pentatonic
A7 A minor and/or major pentatonic scale *C minor pentatonic
*used for an altered dominant chord

The blues scale

blues scale
1
b3
4
b5
5
b7
 
Blues scale: A minor pentatonic scale with an added b5th. Used for...duh....blues

The harmonic minor scale

harmonic minor
1
2
b3
4
5
b6
7
 
Harmonic minor scale: An aolian scale (natural minor scale) with a raised seventh. Generally used over the corresponding V chord, Ex: A harmonic minor played over an E7 or E7b9 chord. It also get used quite a lot over a minor ii - V in Jazz, Ex: A harmonic minor played over a Bmin7b5 - E7b9 chord progression. I personally don't choose to use it much, I much prefer the sound of the melodic minor scale. The harmonic minor scale also gets used in heavy metal all over the place, Ex: A harmonic minor played over an E-F chord progression. It can be used over the minor i chord if you want to sound Mexican or like a snake charmer or something.

The modes of the melodic minor scale

melodic minor
1
2
b3
4
5
6
7
dorian b2
1
b2
b3
4
5
6
b7
lydian augmented
1
2
3
#4
#5
6
7
lydian dominant
1
2
3
#4
5
6
b7
mixolydian b6
1
2
3
4
5
b6
b7
locrian #2
1
2
b3
4
b5
b6
b7
altered dominant
1
b2
#2
3
b5
#5
b7
 
The modes of the melodic minor scales: If you want to play jazz you are going to have to spend some time here. I would take one melodic minor scale for all the harmonic minor scales in the whole universe. It is made by simply raising the 6th and 7th of the natural minor scale. It may also help to remember that it is identical to the dorian mode with the exception of a raised 7th. The most commonly used modes are (probably) in order; altered dominant, lydian dominant, locrian #2 and the lydian augmented. The melodic minor scale itself works great over a plain old min7 chord (the maj7th in the scale technically shouldn't work but it is a nice passing tone). The other modes; the dorian b2 is a nice phrygian sounding mode while the mixolydian b6 doesn't get used too much but give it a try anyway, you may like it. The names may confuse you but don't let them, the whole thing is simple: lydian = #4, dominant = b7 and augmented = #5, Ex: lydian dominant = #4, b7.
The melodic minor scale - Used as a mode itself, it works over a min(maj7) chord. As I said before it works nicely oven a min7 chord as the maj7th works as a passing tone.
The dorian b2 mode - This mode, like the phrygian mode, usually gets used over a b9sus or 13(b9)sus4 chord. It resembles the phrygian mode except it contains a maj 6th rather than a min 6th.
The lydian augmented mode - Used exclusivly over a maj7#5 chord.
The lydian dominant mode -One of the most used of the melodic minor modes, this mode works well over almost all unaltered dominant chords. The raised 4th makes this scale useless over a 7sus chord but use it freely over any other unaltered dominant chord.
The mixolydian b6 - Don't use it myself but as the name suggests, used over a dominant chord with a lowered 6th.
The locrian #2 mode - A great choice to use over a min7b5 chord.
The altered dominant mode - Used over any altered dominant chord, Ex: 7(#5), 7(b5), 7(b9), 7(#9), 7(#5,#9), 7(#5,b9), 7(b5,b9), 7(b5,#9).
 
A different use for the melodic minor scale
There are other uses for the melodic minor scale. I'll give you one that almost nobody knows about: try using a melodic minor scale a b5th away from a minor chord, Ex: F# melodic minor over a C minor chord. You have to be real careful here, it will sound wrong if it isn't the right situation and kind of music. This technique tends to works best if you are playing in a more open, free sounding kind of vamp. Here is why it works against a C minor chord:
 
F# melodic minor F# G# A B C# D# E#
played over a C minor chord b5 b6 6 7 b9 b3 4
 
Although the scale contains no root when played against the C minor chord it functions well without it. The other notes can all be justified as they are each found in other minor family modes:
 
b5 locrian
b6 locrian phrygian aolian
6 dorian
7 melodic minor
b9 phrygian
b3 dorian phrygian aolian locrian
4 dorian phrygian aolian locrian
 
I used this technique in a song called "Exraordinaire" on my newest cd. Click here to hear it.

The half/whole diminished scale

half/whole diminished scale
1
b2
#2
3
#4
5
6
b7
 
Half/ whole diminished: This scale gets used over a 13th chord with an altered 9th, Ex: G13b9, G13#9. This scale is what you call a symmetrical scale because it is built on the same series of intervals repeated over again (in this case, half step, whole step). Other symmetrical scales: whole tone and chromatic scales. The half/whole diminished scale contains eight notes while the whole tone scale contains six.

The whole tone scale

whole tone
1
2
3
b5
#5
b7
 
Whole tone scale: Another symmetrical scale. This one all whole steps. Works over a dominant chord with an altered 5th. I sometimes use this scale in an unorthodox way: a half step above a minor chord, Ex: a Bb whole tone scale over an A minor chord. Here is why it works:
 
Bb whole tone Bb C D E Gb Ab
played over an A minor chord b9 b3 4 5 6 7

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