Major scale (Ionian mode)

This weeks lesson is on the Major Scale (also called the ionian mode).

Recall that a scale is a collection of notes within an octave usually not played at the same time. (May 3rd's lesson)

Recall that a step pattern of a scale is the pattern of the notes in the scale (strictly ascending). (May 3rd)

Recall also that we are using numbers to describe notes in relation to the root note ( the letter used in a particular chord/scale/etc.)(May 3rd)

Recall that a major chord is a chord made up of the notes 1,3,5. (May 10th)

A major scale is a scale that contains a major chord built on its root note. In other words, the scale contains 1,3,5.

THE major scale we are discussing (and everyone else talks about when they say major scale) also known as the ionian mode, contains the notes 1,2,3,4,5,6,7. It's step pattern is W-W-1/2-W-W-W-1/2. In the key of C, it would be the notes C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C.

The major scale belongs to a modal family of scales that includes the major scale (ionian mode) and 6 other scales/modes. We can construct that modal scale system using the major scale's step pattern like this:

Ionian mode = WW1/2WWW1/2
Dorian mode = W1/2WWW1/2W
Phrygian mode = 1/2WWW1/2WW
Lydian mode = WWW1/2WW1/2
Mixolydian mode = WW1/2WW1/2W
Aeolian mode = W1/2WW1/2WW
Locrian mode = 1/2WW1/2WWW

*note: the ionian mode is also known as the major scale, and the aeolian mode is also known as the minor scale.

Now taking these step patterns and (with the help of a transposition chart if necessary) turning them into an intervallic notation (numbers), we have:

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
Aeolian = 1,2,b3,4,5,b6,b7
Locrian = 1,b2,b3,4,b5,b6,b7

Modes are usually shown in the key of C, where you have the modes defined as :

Ionian = C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C
Dorian = D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D
Phrygian = E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E
Lydian = F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F
Mixolydian = G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G
Aeolian = A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A
Locrian = B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B

(I will give a more detailed lesson on modes [this modal system] probalbly within a month. I want to first cover keys and harmonizing scales. But feel free to ask any and all questions).

Let's start by learning the 5 moveable positions we've been studying (E-shape, D-shape, C-shape, A-shape, G-shape) (See May 10th).

Major scale (ionian mode)"E-shape"


Major scale (ionian mode)"D-shape"


Major scale (ionian mode)"C-shape"


Major scale (ionian mode)"A-shape"


Major scale (ionian mode)"G-shape"


These shapes will allow you to play in box positions (recall that the positions wrap around the neck in the following pattern: E-shape to D-shape to C-shape to A-shape to G-shape back to E-shape).

By combining two or three shapes together we can come up with lead patterns ( a way of moving up and down the neck in a scale rather than just across the neck). So you could learn these as a way to travel between two unconnected shapes (just one example of their use).



Going further, we could break them down to two adjacent strings and find that (because of standard tuning) there are two patterns for playing a pent.maj. scale within an octave. One for strings 6 to 5, 5 to 4, 4 to 3, and 2 to 1 [based on the tuning of a perfect fourth]. The other pattern for strings 3 to 2 [based on the tuning of a major third]. Here you go.

For two strings seperated by a P4:


For two strings seperated by a M3:


And finally, regardless of tuning we could play on a single string:


(this is useful for tapping, or playing any fretted instrument in any tuning)

Ok. So practice (and memorize your scales), practice, practice your scales. I'd start with two shapes- oh say "E-shape" and "A-shape" and memorize those first. Then add another shape to practice, and concentrate on that till it's memorized, then switch positions between the three for awhile, then add a 4th one, etc.
Sing with every note you play. I can't emphasize this enough. It is the practice that will lead you to the place where you can play what's in your head.

If you've ever sang Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do then you have sung a major scale. Do-Re-Mi-... are known as solfeggio syllables and are the system used in many countries outside the US (where I'm residing), and although I'm sure someone with enough exposure to that system could become very agile with it (I've seen abacus users do things quicker than I could with paper and pencil) there seems to be many limitations.

#1 the system is bound to a key structure. what if I want to notate one of the other 5 notes not given?
#2 say you're singing chordal arpeggios Do-Mi-Sol, Re-fa-La, Mi-Sol-Ti. Does the singer understand that Re-Fa and Mi-Sol are the same interval? Indeed could they sing Re-Fa and Mi-Sol without a reference Do?
The words Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do come from the following words/phrases:

Do from Dominus meaning "Lord"
Re from Regina Coeli meaning "queen of the heavens"
Mi from Microcosmos meaning "small universe"
Fa from Fata meaning "fate"
Sol from Sol meaning "sun"
La from Lactea meaning "milk"
Ti from Si from Sider meaning "stars"
(I found this in the book "Constructing the Universe" by Micheal S. Schneider)

All this reminds me of a drinking song I heard (sung to the tune of "Doe, a deer")
Dos, a beer, a mexican beer
Ray, a guy who buys me beer
Me, the guy who drinks the beer
Fa, long way to go for beer
So, I think I'll have a beer
La, La la la la la la
Tea, a drink that is not beer
and that brings us back to Dos...

Ok. Let's apply this stuff.

Starting with articulations.
When you first learn a scale shape, you probalbly play right through 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8(1). You may find it useful to practice the scale in some other pattern such as groups of three:
Groups of four:
Down-up-up-up (then repeat)
In thirds:
In fourths:
etc. Make your own patterns. Sing with what you play.

Limited palette study
Pick a position/shape, and pick two strings. Let your fingers play any and all notes in the scale, in that shape, on those strings, in any order. Sing along with every note you play. when you can do this comfortably, add another string, and repeat. When you're comfortable with one position/shape, switch to another.

Scales over chords
Recall, that the scale is a major scale because you can build a major chord off it's root-note. Try visualizing the chord within the scale, and how the scale fits around the chord.
Ex. (E-shape major scale and E-shape major chord)

Major scale (ionian mode)"E-shape"


Major chord "E-shape"


Try fluttering around the chord shape within the scale (hammer-on, pull-off between chordal and non-chordal tones, or you could trill, or slide, etc.)

Scales over progressions
For reasons that will follow in a lesson on harmonizing scales, the following chords are often heard in Ionioan progressions:
I, I6, Imaj7, Imaj9, ii, ii7, ii9, iii, iii7, iii7b9, IV, IVmaj7, IVmaj9, IVmaj7#11, V, V7, V9, V11, V13, vi, vi7, vi9, viio, vii7b5, vii7b9b5.

So take any of these chords, string them together into a progression (you should probalbly include a I chord of some type and play the progression so that it resolves, or is drawn back to the I). Tape your progression (or have a friend play it) and play over the progression in I-Ionian.
Some common progressions in Ionian are:
I-IV, I-V, I-IV-V, I-V-IV, ii7-V7-Imaj7, I-ii-iii-IV, I-ii-IV-V, I-IV-ii-V, I-iii-IV-V, I-vi-IV-V. (You could make many more by taking one of these and adding any of the above chords)

Creating Bass lines
Given two chords in a progression, suppose you wanted to create a bass line to go with them using the major scale (ionain mode). So let's say the progression is I-IV. The I chord is made up of the notes 1,3,5 and the IV chord is made up of 4,6,8(1) in the major scale.
The easiest bass line would be to play the root note of each chord on that chord. Play the 1 on the I-chord and the 4 on the IV-chord. effective, perhaps appropriate. Probalbly overly simple or boring. You could use notes of the major scale to create a bass line between the chords.
1.)Choose your starting note from one of the 3 notes of the 1rst chord.
2.)Choose your target note from one of the three notes of the second chord.
3.)Plot a path between them.
4.)Add rhythm, inflections, emphasis, etc.

The first two parts seem simple enough. The fourth part doesn't really deal with note selection, but rather what to do once you've selected your notes.
Part three (plotting a path) is what we'll look at. Now given the notes in the scale, and the notes of the chord:
Let's say I choose as starting and target notes 1 and 4 (the same ones as earlier). There are two ways I could get from a 1 to a 4, ascending or descending.
1.)One bass line could be to go straight through the notes, no skips or repetition from 1 to 4. This could be 1-2-3-4 or 1-7-6-5-4.
2.)Another possibility is to go beyond the target note and then back to it. Such as: 1-2-3-4-5-4 or 1-7-6-5-4-3-4.
3.)Start in opposite direction before going to target note: 1-7-1-2-3-4; 1-2-1-7-6-5-4.
4.)Skip a note or more rather than going through all off them: 1-3-4 , 1-7-5-4.
5.)Repeat a note (or more): 1-1-1-5-4, etc.
6.)Switch directions a couple of times on the way to the target note: 1-3-2-3-4.

Of course, you could choose a different starting or target note. You could add slides,bends,hammer-ons, pull-offs, etc. to the notes, etc.

The above is a very mechanical way of doing it, it's the type of things composer do when they're uninspired and trying to finish something. The prefered way would be to play/compose from what's in your head. Many times (more often than not), you're struck with a moment/day of insight, and then the mood goes away. My advice is when the mood hits, keep writing until you're done. Put down nonsense words if necessary, but finish what you start. You can always go back and edit later with whatever you're unhappy with. If you don't finish, it may be several years before the same mood hits again, if ever.

First let me put in a plug for Jamey Aebersold's play-a-long series that is intended to help you learn to solo. Excellent series geared twords jazz music but applicable to other styles ( Specifically, he has one book (w/CD or cassette) that deals with major and minor scales. It's vol.24. Well worth the investment. I understand there may be some stuff on mp3 as well under "jam tracks". try doing a search for jam tracks.
Here are some links to previous thoughts expressed on soloing from earlier posts. The same ideas apply, just with a different scale. (Pentatonic major scale, Pentatonic minor scale)

Here is a scatting exercise
1.) Get out a metronome. Put it on a low setting. (if you don't have a metronome check out the download section on
2.) Pick a shape/scale you want to do this exercise with.
3.) Play even quarter notes (half-notes, quarter-notes, etc. depending on your comfort level). Sing with every note you play.
4.) Now the idea is to NOT let yourself get in a rut. The moment you feel yourself about to play in a familiar sequence of notes (lick, riff, phrase, etc.) immediately switch to a different note in the scale/position, etc.

Doing this exercise will help you break out of ruts. Make sure to sing along with every note as it happens. Taken a little further, this is a good exercise for breaking out of the boxes and for playing/learning the chromatic scale.

One way to look at soloing is to think of a solo as the melody line of the song. That is, instead of the singer (or other melody instrument) making the statement (singing the words), you are doing it. In jazz, it's common to call the melody "the head", and it's traditional to play through the head twice, then switch between the different members soloing over the changes (which refers to the rhythm as well as the chords) until it's decided to end, then play through the head one more time before ending the song.

So, if you're having trouble trying to think of something to say (how to solo), you could play through the melody, and put everything you've got into interpreting that melody.

You could find it useful to pull out music whose melodies you like, an dplay along with them. see if you can match the grosser aspects (note selection, range, rhythm, key) and the finer aspects (bends, slurs, crescendos, attack, sustain, etc.) this can be very illuminating.

Consider if you will, tension and release. There are many who consider all music to be about tension and release. (I'm not one of them - but I may be naif) Typically, ascending notes create tension, and descending notes release it. Also based on the context you're in the same note may sound good (consonant) or bad (dissonant) when played with other notes. Half-steps typically sound dissonant. Major thrirds, perfect 4ths, perfect 5ths sound consonnant, etc. (I will be writing more on this within the next two weeks). You could try varying speed or volume to increase or decrease tension.

One more thingI'm kinda fond of when soloing is repetition of a pattern with ascending or descending starting points ( you hear this a lot in classical music). Consider the following notes:
This type of exercise is a good way to learn the scale on a single string.

So far we have learned the following chords and scales, and have learned to use them in a relative way by positions.
major chord = 1,3,5
Minor chord = 1,b3,5
diminished chord = 1,b3,b5
Pent.Maj.scale = 1,2,3,5,6
Pent.Min.scale = 1,b3,4,5,b7
Major scale (ionian) = 1,2,3,4,5,6,7

Putting these notes together we have so far learned:
Looking at these in the positions given:











Christopher Roberts

How do I change all those numbers to letters (for notes, chords, etc.)? Here's a transposition chart

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Next lesson - The minor scale
Previous lesson - Articulations, pt.2

Last updated January 1, 2003
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