Scales and Intervals, Part 1

This is the first of a series of posts about scales and intervals, ways to incorporate them into your practice routines, and how to use them to build chords and learn more advanced melodic concepts, such as modes and arpeggios.

The interval is the most basic element of western music, regardless of style. Triads, scales, modes, chords, and arpeggios can all be expressed in terms of intervals, and all are constructed from various combinations of intervals. Getting the concept of intervals down and learning to apply them to these other musical areas will absolutely shorten the learning curve not only for theory, but for technique and composition.

The definition of an interval is simply the distance between any two notes. This series of posts will focus specifically on intervals contained within a major (diatonic) scale, from which you can then see how to construct all the aforementioned triads and chords. For those of you new to scales, we’ll describe that to you shortly, as this series progresses.

People can frequently be intimidated by these ideas, of having to learn and memorize a bunch of old Greek names and scale shapes and such. Folks, I promise you, it’s not a history exam; the advantage to knowing what a Mixolydian mode or a diminished triad is, isn’t to impress people with your esoteric knowledge of an ancient fifty-cent word.

All the terms for these concepts — major, minor, Phrygian, suspended, whatever — are just names for things. The reason the names and concepts are useful to know is simply to have a common terminology that enables you to quickly grab any new idea and run with it, because you know what the name means — and more importantly, what it sounds like. It takes some time to learn and internalize them upfront, but I guarantee you that the knowledge will save you far more time down the road, as your playing develops. It’s time well spent.

The very first place to start with learning music theory is probably the most obvious — learn all the notes on the fretboard. Seriously, learn the name of every single note. There are only 12 notes in an octave, 7 natural notes (no sharps or flats) and 5 accidentals (sharps/flats). Depending on the key you’re in, accidentals may use sharps or flats to indicate the note; these are called enharmonics.

The sequence of notes in a single octave goes like this:

A     A#/Bb     B     C     C#/Db     D     D#/Eb     E     F     F#/Gb     G     G#/Ab     A’ (next octave)

You can start from any note and cycle through the octave sequence, go higher or lower. A 24-fret guitar in standard tuning will have 4 full octaves, from the open low E string to the 24th fret on the high E string.

Notice that there is no accidental note between B and C, nor between E and F. For the rest of them, the sharp/flat pairs are identical. So A# and Bb are two names for a single note; again, the proper name will depend on the key you’re in at the time. On a printed score sheet, the sharps or flats on the left of the musical staff (next to the clef marking) will tell you the key of the piece.

Let’s keep it simple for now, though:  12 notes in an octave. Each note is a half-step (or semi-tone) apart. So it’s a half-step from A to Bb, a half-step from B to C, a whole step (tone) from C to D, 1½ steps from B to D, etc. If you aren’t already familiar with these concepts, take a few minutes and check out the entire line of notes in the octave indicated above, and consider the number of steps between various pairs of notes. This is the beginning of understanding intervals.

Now, find where each of those notes exists on the fretboard. Two ways to do this — systematically, where you just start from the low open E string, and start heading up the neck one fret at a time from there, F on the 1st fret, F# on the 2nd fret, G on the 3rd fret, etc.; and randomly, where you just call out (or set up a randomizing macro on Excel) a note, for example C#, and then find every C# on the neck.

Some of the notes you identify will be duplicates; for example, the C# on the 9th fret of the low E string is the same exact note as the C# on the 4th fret of the A string. The C# on the 6th fret of the G string is an octave higher, and the C# on the 9th fret of the high E string is yet another octave higher.

In standard (EADGBE) tuning, there will be more E notes than any other; a 24-fret neck will have a total of 14 E notes, covering 4 full octaves, so plenty of multiple locations for identical notes. The 24th fret of the low E, 19th fret of the A, 14th fret of the D, 9th fret of the G, 5th fret of the B, and the open high E string are all the same exact note. Play all of them, of course.

Use the diagram below for reference. All the accidentals are shown as sharps; keep in mind that they are also flats, so C# is also Db, D# is also Eb, and so on.

All notes

So, got all that? Knowing where every note is located on the neck may seem like a lot at first, but again, there’s just 12 notes in an octave, then you’re in the next octave. Five minutes at the start of every practice session, and you’ll have them all down in a week or two.

The next post in this series will get you started on scales and intervals. Stay tuned!

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