Improvising and composing have been the subject of several of my previous columns; however, because of our mutual fascination with these processes, I thought that this month I'd discuss one of the basic components of any composition or improvisation: choice of notes or scales.
Just as a painter selects certain colors from his palette, the musician usually selects certain notes to formulate melodies. When the notes are organized in a sequence they form scales, or modes (displaced scales).
Most of our Western music is organized on the basis of the major scale formulaÑa development of the Greek mathematician Pythagoras (550 BC). This scale also is known by its Greek name ("ionian" mode), and it contains eight tones. The intervallic relationships are shown in Ex. 1. To keep things simple, all examples in this article will be based with C as the keynote, although the same patterns can be transposed to all keys.
Modes are generated by displacing the scale-in other words, by using scale-steps other than the root as the starting points of different eight-note scale forms. (The differences lie in the sequence of whole steps and half steps.)
Thus, the six modes can be generated from the major scale. The dorian mode is generated from the second note or degree; the phrygian mode the third degree; the lydian mode from the fourth degree; the mixolydian mode from the fifth degree; the aeolian mode from the sixth degree; and the locrian mode from the seventh degree.
Naturally, there are many other scales and scale systems used throughout the world, and they certainly make up some of the obvious distinguishing characteristics of various styles of music. Here are several of the more interesting and exotic scales used in different corners of the globe (Ex. 2)
As an exercise, try to compose a lick, motif, or melody utilizing all (or most) of the tones of the major scale. As an example, here's the first part of a simple calypso tune I recently wrote (Ex. 3), which includes all the tones of major scale (the intervals are numbered above the notes).
Try working up some melodies that use these various scales, or substitute some of their intervals to alter a familiar tune.
Copyright 1984 David Grisman. Used by permission. All rights reserved.