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Why Learn Scales ?

I was recently asked a good question by one of this sites regular visitors.

‘Why do I need to learn scales and what are their practical application in music ?’.

Scales are like the maths of music, the main reason to learn them is to give your self a basic understanding of the structure and the way a piece of music works to enable you create and understand your own pieces, and allow you to integrate with other musicians.

Now you don’t necessarily need to go out and learn loads of scales to be a good guitar player. I played the guitar for many years and achieved a reasonably good standard by playing other people’s music, making up my own riffs and songs, and generally avoiding anything to do with theory. On the occasions I did bother learning a scale or two, I got extremely bored very quickly and as soon as I got passed the first step, was swamped by a ridiculous amount of meaningless information which really put me off.

I avoided scales for many years and to some extent got away with it, but no matter how good my playing became, I always felt something important was missing from my routine and I’d see other musicians jamming around in pubs, playing the blues and improvising over anything that gets thrown at them, and feel that my knowledge of music wasn’t really up to standard.

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When musicians jam, it’s knowing what key to play in and what type or style of music is being played that helps them work out the best musical paths to take i.e what chords, riffs or licks to play and what notes will sound best to improvise and solo over.

This goes for all musicians and instruments from bass guitars to pianos, harmonicas, violins, and trumpets. It doesn’t matter what you play, if you know a bit of music theory and a few scales you can connect to others through the universal language of music.

Musicians Jamming

Scales help musicians improvise and connect with each other through the language of music

Most guitarists don’t know much music theory at all, but a little knowledge can take you a long way, as long as you know the basics of what scales are best suited to play certain styles of music and what notes and chords to play where and why.

I will be doing a guide on this in the near future, but here’s a quick example.

Say you were asked to play a typical basic 12 bar blues chord progression in E. If you know a bit of blues theory you would expect the chords to go something like this.

E – E – E- E

A – A – E – E

B – A – E – B

or

E – E – E- E7

A – A – E – E

B7 – A – E – B7

These are commonly known standard blues progressions built from pre defined formulas used in blues music. There are many variations of these formulas and they provide basic starting blocks to build from.

Blues Guide Coming Soon

Once you’ve got a chord progression to work with, you can be pretty sure that soloing over these chords using a Em Pentatonic or E blues scale will sound pretty good. But that is just one option, there are many other scales that would also sound great played over this progression, and your knowledge of music theory will define how you interpret and improvise over these chords and the complexity of your riffs and solos.

The same works in reverse. If you have a particular solo or lick you need to write a chord progression for then knowing the keys and scales used in that solo will help you form chord progressions that sound great around that piece.

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Music theory is not a fixed code that you have to follow strictly, but knowing the building blocks of a piece of music and why it sounds like it does will allow you to integrate and deviate from the norm and create your own compositions and style.

Understanding scales and music theory will give you a freedom to express yourself in which ever way you feel as you learn how to express your thoughts and emotions through your fingers.

Jamming Musicians

Jamming musicians at MerleFest in Wilkesboro

If you needed to create a moody piece of music, or something with a slightly spanish feel, then you’d be best off starting with minor scales or phrygian modes to help build chord progressions and solo’s. Major scales will often define happier moods etc.

Practicing scales is also a really good way of training your fingers and improving your strength, speed and dexterity across the fret board, and provides good practice when learning to improvise.

Along with chromatics, scales are also really useful when used as warm up exercises.

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The one thing you must ensure is that you don’t get too obsessed with scales and following strict musical guidelines. It is those musicians who use theory to enhance their music but are not afraid to play ‘out of the box’ and experiment with new techniques and methods that really make the most out of knowing a few scales.

Learning scales will provide you with a solid knowledge base to work and learn from and will definitely enhance your guitar playing and make life easier for you in the future, but don’t let them stress you out or rule your life. They are just one element in a guitar players tool box, and although they are important, they are not the be all and end all.

If you feel you are ready to tackle the subject, take a look at my section on Music Theory and check out our No Nonsense Guides to Scales. These guides will help you learn the basics, slowly and step by step. If you are not up to it yet, go and learn a few chords and lyrics from one of your favourite songs and have a go at busking a tune.

Other Posts of Interest

Busking
Scale Runs and Exercises
Chromatic Scales and Exercises
How to Buy a Guitar – A Beginner’s Guide
Conquering Bar (Barre) Chords
Guitar Chords Made Easy

Posted 20.04.09

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3 comments to Why Learn Scales ? : The Maths Of Music

  • Hello. I busk, with guitar, harmonica and voice (rock/folk), or saxophone (jazz, blues, pop). I’ve been doing it for 30 years all over Europe, as a way to travel and now I’m settled down, as a way to enjoy music, network and practice. Your website is really comprehensively produced and your agreable personality makes it a pleasure to read.
    I book marked your site and will come back to see how you are doing with your music and learn from your experience.
    Your opinion on scales as the math of music is what I have come to believe too, as I started with no interest in theory, thinking it was a matter of playing into brilliance, then gradually wanting more freedom from my own limitations by learning some of the structure of the music I love, beginning with the essential blues progression on guitar and then trying to be a jazz saxophonist. I play sax in a trio (piano, bass and sax) and have just enough theory to understand how to make songs work.
    Thanks for your effort and pleasure in this web site.
    Good busking!
    Clarissa

  • John Omasta

    What is the best kind of computer software to use for learning to read guitar music?

  • This is the best method that I know of for learning scales (Click name link to view ‘learn-all-of-your-basic-diatonic-modes-and-scales-in-8-steps’)

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