Songwriter U: Songwriting With Scales And Modes

By Shawn Leonhardt for Guitar Tricks and 30-Day Singer

Videos by American Songwriter

Writing a song is just like baking a cake or painting a picture, there is a specific method and technique that will allow you to accomplish your goal. Of course, your own style and creativity will vastly affect the outcome, but you still need to know some rules to get to your destination. One helpful way to write a song on your guitar is to know your guitar scales and modes and how they can help you practice songwriting.

What Are Scales?

Music is ambiguous with multiple routes to get to the same answer, you will often see people arguing about music theory when they can all be right. The science of sound is specific, but how we hear things are not. While there is often pushback in music theory, understanding the basics of scales will allow you to know a variety of formulas to help build new songs.

Scales are just a series of notes, some have 5 like the pentatonic scale, 6 like the B.B. King blues scale, and 7 notes for the major scale and common diatonic scales. For the sake of this article, we are dealing with Western music and semitone note movements. But know that this is not the only music approach out there, some music styles have quarter tones, while others even micro tones. The key to any scale is how the notes are spaced and their intervals.

A music interval can be perfect, minor, major, augmented, or diminished, and as you would expect those intervals matter to the final sound of the song. A song with a chord progression of I-IV-V is made of consonant intervals and perfect qualities so that song will sound uplifting and likely happy. For a major scale, we use the formula 1 2 3 4 5 6 7, as it is easy to remember.

Play a C scale on your guitar and notice how its interval spaces sound major, now play a C minor scale with the formula 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 or C D Eb F G Ab Bb. Notice how different the vibe is? If you wanted to write a sad song, that would be the one to use! Check out a scale finder to test different scales out, this is one great way to get creative ideas for songs, just pick a key and a random scale formula. Experiment with the notes and see what kind of overall feeling the scale and intervals provide.

Major Pentatonic 1 2 3 5 6

Harmonic Minor 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 7

Melodic Minor 1 2 b3 4 5 6 7

Arabian Scale 1 2 3 4 b5 b6 b7

Blues Scale 1 b3 4 #4 5 b7

What Are Modes?

Modes are also scales, they are just specific scales with known qualities, and the most common modes are the ones derived from the major scale above. We will use the key of C as that is easiest but don’t forget to try other keys. Since these modes below are made up of the same notes it may seem confusing that they sound different, but remember when we change the order, we change the interval spaces, thus a new overall sound to the mode or scale.

Ionian is the major scale C D E F G A B and is the most common mode in pop music. If you want a regular upbeat song for dance, folk, or rock this one is great.

Dorian is D E F G A B C and now the intervals give us a slightly minor feel perfect for slightly sad songs and regularly used in funk and soul.

Phrygian starts in the 3rd scale degree so it is E F G A B C D and sounds more tense so it is a staple of heavy metal, hard rock, and fusion genres.

Lydian is F G A B C D E and has a dreamy quality to it, you will often see this mode in movie soundtracks with a more meandering and listless feel.

Mixolydian is G A B C D E F and a staple of rock music, if you like a classic blues rock vibe then this is the mode to write in!

Aeolian is A B C D E F G and as seen above the sadder of the modes, if you want a feeling of being down, this mode has you covered!

Locrian is rare and B C D E F G A. The intervals of this mode are dissonant and when you try to make chords from them they are diminished. So it is rare to find a song in full Locrian as our ears prefer resolution. To resolve a song in this mode, we must leave it!

It is a great practice to look up songs that fit these different modes, as that will give you an idea on the different vibes they provide. Just remember that songs are not always purely in one mode, and many modern hits can have multiple modes or moments where they use different scale degrees!

Using Scales and Modes in Songwriting

So we have all this access to many different scales and modes, how do we write a song with them? There are various methods, the most obvious being practicing the scale in different orders to backing tracks. Use a DAW, drumming app, or backing track to play scale and mode ideas over. Turn on different rhythms and basslines and just noodle with a scale on your guitar, just make sure any keys are matching initially so it fits.

The next step is to build chords with your scales and modes, now this can be difficult for those with less music theory knowledge. If you aren’t that advanced yet you can just simply look up what chords go with a scale or mode, but it is important to know how they got those guitar chords so do a little reverse engineering. Remember the more you understand the rules of the intervals and chord building, the better you can emotionally manipulate the song. You can always use a guitar chord chart to help you with this.

A simple Ionian progression would be C-F-G while an Aeolian would be Am-Dm-Em and a Mixolydian progression would be D-C-G. Of course, as you learn these better you will be able to make more complicated chord progressions but start simple. As you advance you can try different modes such as an Ionian verse and chorus along with a more minor-sounding bridge. Experiment with moving between minor and major and consonance and dissonance. 

The goal is to know which scales fit with which chord progressions, that way you know all the formulas for each feeling. There are specific notes and chord sequences for each genre and style, eventually, you will catch on and the process of songwriting on your guitar will begin to click more. There is a plateau of confusion before it all becomes clear and then once you know the rules, you can start creatively breaking them!

As you practice more modes and scales on your guitar, your songwriting skills will grow. Soon you will find you are using the same sounds and intervals and you need to break out of the scale and try new things! That’s when great ideas and songs are born! So be sure to try different scales with various backing rhythms and practice writing songs with different emotions and feelings. As you advance just make sure you start to break out of the mold and try new notes and ideas.

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