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Scales are still confusing to me.

When I sing I don't know anything about scales. Nobody suggests me to sing in mixolydian, phrygian or anything like that. But, when I play guitar, it is very different. There is no little chance of someone suggesting to use a certain scale. I try to improvise without much knowledge of scales. I would say I don't do it perfectly but, I have some success.... My fingers feel comfortable following the music and "improvising". More or less the same as I try to do while singing.

What is so different between improvising using your voice or using a guitar?

One impression on my side is that you need mostly ONE scale which is transposed to any base note (CDEFGAB), and there will be a little percentage of songs that will require you to memorize "something special". That ... and blues. For example, and I may be very wrong, for a typical "Flamenco" progression — as Am, G, F, E — it feels to me that I am free to use a "normal" scale for most parts, except for the E chord on which I can memorize 4 or 5 nice patterns.

On the other hand, I know several friends with a lot of knowledge of scales. They are capable of describing the intervals: "colors", base notes, support notes, fretboard patterns, fifths, thirds, sixths, and a lot of elements that I don't know very well. But... when they try to improvise, I would say, they don't do anything great. Too much blah, blah, blah, but the lack of feeling, taste, sense is evident. It seems like they only move the fingers through the available "tones" from up to down and back again.

Is it really helpful to know scales, or is just some practicing exercise to learn more about theory?

EDIT: Thank you very much. A lot of great answers. I didn't want to suggest that scales are useless. I just wanted to have an answer for a long time doubt: "if scales are so important, why singers don't care about it". Yes, I consider theory is important and one great thing is to have a common language with other musicians.

But... as a singer develops a natural connection with its own vocal chords, an instrument player can develop a natural connection with its instrument board and be less worried about theory. I think this have happened since the beggining of music. At same time, an instrument player that have all the knowledge about his instrument can be still a newbie compared with the naturally given. Of course, I can still be wrong.

For now, I will continue offering the guitar to the next theory guy. Someday, I wish, I will find the one that express this theory with his heart and is capable of making it sound.

BTW, I'm not a bad player, if you play me your chords, I can guess a fitting scale for it. If you also hum a little of the melody, I can see the scale along the complete fretboard... and I thought that is normal for every player who have been practicing enough time. Probably thats the origin of my confusion

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    I think your last sentence is asking for troubles: what if learning more theory is actually helpful ;)?
    – Tom
    May 10 at 19:28
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    This just makes me think singers should be learning to sing the different modes as well May 10 at 20:17
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    You should be glad your teachers are not trying to teach you the "chord/scale" system. Thinking about keys, tonal/modal degrees, and harmony is much clearer. May 10 at 20:35
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    This simply demonstrates that you are a far more advanced guitarist than you are a singer. It also demonstrates how you sing - you're sticking to the existing melody and just adding ornamentation, rather than improvising entirely new vocal melody lines. If you were scat-singing, or if you were working out complex harmonies, of course you'd want theory to help you work that out, in the same way as guitar. This should be immediately obvious for any musician.
    – Graham
    May 11 at 12:30
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    A polyphonic instrument like the guitar demands far more theoretical coordination than a single line like voice. You can mess up melodically and get weird chromatic (or worse) things, which sound bad in combination. Do this with more than one note and you get bad harmonies including intervals that sound terrible as-is.
    – obscurans
    May 12 at 6:54

10 Answers 10

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Perhaps because singers are more likely not to have learned scales in such a formal way as guitarists, i.e. the names, the intervals between the notes etc.

The fretboard on a guitar lays out a series of semitones for each string. A student guitarist will most likely learn at least some scales appropriate for the type of music they are learning.

The voice has no such guide as a fretboard.

To perform well a singer needs a decent sense of pitch, but not necessarily any knowledge of scales, their names, or how they are structured. Many, but not all singers may have less formal knowledge than instrumentalists, and instead will have learnt by ear.

A good singer will intuitively know what pitch to sing without necessarily knowing the scales upon which their choices of pitch relate to.

Instrumentalists who work with singers can often tell how advanced the singer's knowledge of theory is, and will communicate with them accordingly.

A sound knowledge of scales and chords is certainly useful for singers who write or improvise and who wish to communicate verbally with more efficiency with other musicians, but it's not essential to give a good or even great vocal performance.

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    Violins don't have a fretboard, either, but violinists learn scales. Not sure about trombonists.
    – Jim L.
    May 11 at 23:55
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    True. Violinists and trombonists do indeed learn scales, and neither instrument has a fretboard. On occasion, this can be unfortunate. May 12 at 10:29
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    I always thought learning scales was more about where the notes are on a fretboard (or keyboard, etc) than what the notes are.
    – chepner
    May 12 at 13:48
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    @chepner, I would agree with you that in the typical sense 'learning scales' does indeed mean learning positions on a fretboard, keyboard, valve/slide/embouchure, etc. However In a broader sense 'learning scales' can also include theoretical study (interval degrees, how they relate to harmony, their history, etc.) which for most, if not all musicians will come after learning how to play them on their chosen instrument. It is worth noting that scales are cultural. In some sense we begin learning them as infants when we are first exposed to music. May 12 at 19:48
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    @GregKaighin, trombonist here. We don't have a fretboard, but we do have set positions along the slide. There are 7 of them. The first thing you learn on trombone is where those positions are. I imagine violin is very similar.
    – Seth R
    May 13 at 17:59
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Imagine being completely deaf, not being able to hear what sounds you produce.

With a well-tuned guitar, or piano, you'd still be able to bang out a tune, knowing which notes constitute it. But try singing that tune. Doubtful it'll be successful. Main reason is that there are certain places where the notes live on guitar (as in OP), whereas with vox, the need to listen and adjust if necessary is paramount. It's very difficult to feel exactly what position your throat/mouth/tongue are in to produce the correct note. Perhaps impossible for most.

On guitar, certain notes are always in certain places (yes, I know they're duplicated elsewhere, but still in pre-ordained places). So knowing what those patterns and places are is a useful skill - particularly when playing diatonic pieces - hence the need to know scales. Ask any rookie guitarist about pentatonics - and how 'useful' they are!

As for your theory buddies who play 'academically' (for want of a better term) that's a different issue, and has been covered many times here. Having played with many from both camps, I can say that just because one knows theory doesn't necessarily mean one can't play musically, and vice versa. There really is no direct correlation.

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First of all, the question is about improvisation (or composing, which is very slow improvisation), deciding what notes to produce. If someone has already made all the decisions and written down the notes, then scales are irrelevant, except maybe from an instrument-technical fingering perspective.

There are two main styles or approaches to improvisation: (1) instinctive/intuitive, and (2) intellectual/logical. And these two are mixed in different proportions, of course. With enough practice, intellectual exercises can gradually make the patterns become instinctive.

When you sing or play without thinking about scales, you sing out what you feel or hear inside your mind.

Scales, chords and other theoretic tools give you intellectual means for making decisions and reasoning about things you might not yet feel or hear inside your mind. Things that you haven't practiced enough to make them become instinctive.

Do you want to emphasize the third of the chord, or maybe the seventh? Do you want to add a dominant seventh, to produce a dominant chord? Do you want to layer things from the parallel minor, over a major harmony, creating a blues/rnb feeling? These are common tricks that can definitely be learned just by listening, but with the tools that theoretical and logical thinking provides, you get supporting structures, blueprints and recipes to follow, in case you don't happen to hear everything instinctively. It can easily happen that your mind doesn't produce what you want it to, and then you'll have to have intellectual tools!

Some things are more difficult to sing "by ear" instinctively without thinking. For example the whole-tone scale or the diminished scale (YMMV, maybe you sing those all day without thinking), or layering certain chromatically positioned triads over what other instruments play. To hear things like that intuitively, you need to practice playing and singing them a lot. Essentially, you're trying to twist the music you hear into something different by creating things that are not already there, and that needs focusing. You have to have a plan to follow.

Jazz players who have made big advancements in the genre have put a lot of effort concentrating on the intellectual and logical side of it, for example John Coltrane. They weren't born with the stuff and they didn't hear it on the radio. They had to develop it. How do you develop something completely new, note combinations that nobody has heard before? So that it makes sense and has a logical structure?

A really good improviser can balance the two aspects and use logical "plans" and tricks in a way that still feels natural and pleasant.

The problem with many beginning guitarists seems to be that they cannot "play by ear" at all, in other words the instinctive/intuitive aspect is very poorly developed. They try to compensate for this by using tools that they've seen or heard good players use, but the problem is that they use the tools randomly and not in an artistically controlled way. The thinking goes like, "at least I'm using the same tool that this other guy uses." But they fail to handle many essential things like rhythmic and harmonic form and phrasing. It's not what you use, it's how you use it.

We see this a lot. People want to have a formula to calculate good music. Preferably to buy a product that has a button you can press to make good stuff. Something technical. The saddest part is, IMO, that some people seem to spend a lot of time learning scales, but they don't really learn to use the scales for self-expression. To get the technical tool guys to get a better balance between the instinctive and the intellectual, they need to practice speaking the language more. I.e. play by ear.

But back to the question, why so much talk to some people and so little talk to other people. Talking about scales is talking about tools. Singers don't use those tools as often as guitarists, because they tend to rely more on the instinctive/intuitive side of improvising. And that is because singing is so closely related to natural language. Those who use the tools, talk about them, and those who don't, don't. Guitarists talk about scales just like they talk about other gear: guitars, amplifiers, effect pedals, etc.

Why don't singers talk about effect pedals? They do, if they use them.

Why don't singers talk about scales? They do, if they use them.

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  • Concert band teachers made me practice scales - and named those scales, too - despite the fact that none of the concert band music I had to play was improvised. Even though "someone has already made all the decisions and written down the notes", scales were not irrelevant, and I don't think that forced scale practice was concerned only with fingering - I think at least a little of it was concerned with abstract music theory and knowing which pieces used which scales.
    – Dekkadeci
    May 11 at 12:02
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    @Dekkadeci Having conceptual named abstractions helps in identifying and executing the right mechanical action sequences, like in martial arts there are certain sequences and combinations that have names. And maybe your teachers wanted you to gather some general education too. It's considered respectable to be able to name things, even if you never use them. So we can proudly lift up our noses and call ourselves "civilized". ;) But I claim that aside from pride and honor, it only helps technical ability. May 11 at 12:22
  • @piiperi Reinstate Monica, I disagree with your statement that composing is 'very slow improvising'. They are both creative processes, but require different skill sets. A good improviser is not necessarily a good composer, and vice versa. May 12 at 20:36
  • @GregKaighin For the sake of this question and for the point I tried to make, composing can be seen as slow improvising. In the answer I tried to describe two different creative styles or dynamics: the intuitive and intellectual. The intellectual/logical side utilizes various tools while the intuitive side relies more on what can be done with bare hands, so to speak. I can't see how these two kinds of operating styles couldn't be found in composing just as well. May 12 at 22:14
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A musician who plays from notation probably doesn't NEED to understand scales, though practising them can be very useful for achieving dexterity and recognising the patterns that occur in what he's reading. Some singers may not read, but they generally learn songs by imitation, which comes down to much the same thing.

But guitar seems to have attracted a lot of players who are overwhelmingly interested in improvisation. 0ften a particular type of scale-based improvisation that was codified at Berklee College in the 1970s. (It might be suggested that the method is popular because it CAN be codified and taught.)

Anyway, for whatever reason, we have a whole lot of guitarists today who are focussed on 'what scale goes with this chord'. Singers copy their heroes, other instrumentalists play in anything from marching band to symphony orchestra. Guitarists play scales over chord sequences.

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    The final sentence is more than a little sweeping. Some do - an awful lot couldn't play more than a formal pent. scale, but still manage to play the guitar well.
    – Tim
    May 11 at 14:29
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Playing a musical instrument is a physical skill which needs to be learned like any other physical skill. If you don't play a musical instrument of any kind then the physical skill to play a particular instrument will be completely new. You will have to learn from scratch. To that end playing scales is a useful repetitive exercise which gives you basic practice in the physical element of playing the instrument. It helps you master the basics.

In my favourite physical sport, basketball, lay-up drills are the standard warm-up exercise before every match and every practice session. They are the "scales" of basketball. They give you practice in three basic elements - passing, dribbling and shooting. Other sports will have their equivalents.

Singing, though, is very different. Everybody who is not physically dumb can sing and almost certainly has sung regardless of musical ability or inclination. A singer very likely needs specific training to perform at a high level but not just to perform the basics. From that perspective scales have a different and much less important role to play.

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Scales have very much to do with finger patterns-- accidentals in piano, fret patterns in guitar. A singer doesn't need any of that-- they just need to know what sound they want to create.

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    Scales have nothing to do with finger patterns and everything to do with intervals, frequencies, and their relationship to each other. Singers need this just as much as every other musician. The question and this answer are simply false.
    – user50691
    May 11 at 10:39
  • @ggcg. I'm sure my question is wrong at some points. I would like to discover that
    – zameb
    May 11 at 13:52
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    @ggcg - aw, come on! Scales have a heck of a lot to do with finger patterns - on just about every instrument excepting vox! Most players learn scales with flagrant disregard to intervals -they learn the finger patterns that make each scale, and for exam purposes, that's often good enough. Being able to sing different major scales is quite removed from being able to play them on, say, piano; no comparison.
    – Tim
    May 11 at 14:26
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    The relationship between scales and finger patterns is the reverse of the way it's described in this answer. The patterns arise and are learned because they follow the relationships referenced by ggcg. They are played because of how they sound, not because of how the fingers work, the fingers are servants to making the sound. May 11 at 14:53
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    I didn't expect this answer to be controversial. Anyone who's studied music in college knows that singers are a very unique group of musicians, and need almost no theoretical training at all in order to perform. A decent jazz singer can hear almost any lick, whatever mode it's in, and repeat it. Only a VERY well-trained and talented pianist or guitarist can do that-- and probably only after thousands of hours of practice. May 12 at 5:30
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One basic reason is that in guitar (or piano — my background), one has to associate physical adjustments to sound (i.e., where to put our fingers) more explicitly than with singing. Playing a certain note or chord on guitar requires placing certain fingers at certain positions on the instrument; we don't think of things the same way with singing. So, at this level, scales help learn to associate sounds, patterns, and finger placement, but they don't automatically make one musical.

Scales and modes help suggest sounds and sound patterns to use with certain chords. For example, mixolydian is often associated with dominant seventh chords; dorian is often paired with minor seventh chords. However, when singing, it's generally less necessary to understand explicitly what we're doing; we can do it by ear (that is, the ear–vocal chord connection in more intuitive). On guitar, it's more helpful to understand exactly what's being played.

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We use our voices every day, and have since birth. Even the most precocious savants used their voices long before other instruments. Hear-and-imitate is how we learn language, which is one of the first things we ever learn. We can sing along with the choruses of songs we're hearing for the first time, but I've seen guitarists I admire struggle with playing melodies, like "Happy Birthday", that we've all sang since childhood.

I'm sure that, at some level of performance, there are singers who do work scales to learn scales, but the examples I recall seem more about voice training and warm-up.

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Improvisation - my feeling (not as a jazz singer, and at best semi-professional) is that improvisation, as opposed to "colouring" the line, isn't as common a thing for vocalists than for instrumentalists (scat aside). So those skills aren't as called for.

Other things besides improvisation, that matter though:

  • unless you have perfect (or trained) pitch, transposing up a semitone is simply a matter of singing the same intervals off the right starting note. On piano, or most brass/woodwind instruments, not so much. Guitar depends on whether you're using capo, or fingering, or switching strings, or whether you're playing chords or walking bass off the chart. You practise intervals all the time.
  • by and large, vocalists have a style and know what "sounds right" in their style; and practise that until it's intuitive. I'm a church choral singer; I know where the tenor note "should" be in the standard hymn chords. The altos slot into "a third below the melody" in their sleep. The sopranos freak out when they don't have the melody. Those that sing barbershop or rock harmony "know" where their voice is to be in close harmony - which I definitely don't.
  • Again, by and large, the scales that vocalists use are "standard". For the church chorister, it will be "major" and (usually melodic) "minor". And we do practise those scales - usually in the vocal warmup (which has "warmup" as primary purpose, but "practise the stuff you're going to use, as long as that doesn't violate 'warmup'" as secondary), along with half-scales, arpeggios, sing-through-breaks, straight up breathing exercises, and the rest. I do know that when we did something unusual (for the choir) like whole-tone or dorian mode, we did that scale in warmup. Jazz vocalists would go off into their scales, I assume.
  • If you have signed up for the lead role in Wozzeck, of course, you'll spend forever working those tone rows so they start to sound "normal" and "correct". But any instrument has music that is "and then there's..., where you throw everything you know out the window."

Now, if your goal is to be able to improvise a harmony onto something, then you definitely need to know how that thing is "built". I-IV-V-I, blues scale, doo-wop (or jazz chorus, or classical obbligato) bass. And definitely for that, you need to be able to "hear" the chord/scale you're working in. But again, there's no need to know what key you're in - IV7/b9 for this bar gives you your options, and whether it's a G# or an A that is the seventh - well, one will sound wrong and one won't, and anyway, only one will be the minor third above what you're singing now. For composition, a voice is like any other single-note instrument (or a choir is like any other chorded instrument or instrument group); you need to know what range you have, what things are "normal" vs "hard" (or "beautiful" vs "ugly") for that instrument, and how you can fit that into the structure of what you're writing (note: it is frequently very easy to tell when a composer is not used to writing for singers; commonly by how much they sing the other voice's line, or by how much their voice hurts at the end of the piece, despite warmup).

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Lots of guitarist use the "chord/scale" system. If given a progression like ii V I, that system will say to play scales dorian, mixolydian, and ionian respectively for each chord.

"Classically" oriented voice and piano students will learn harmony. If given ii V I, they will understand it's one progression in a major key, associate voice leading patterns with it, and rhythmically embellish the chords with various patterns. In this system a scale is just one of many patterns that could be used to embellish a chord.

Is it really helpful to know scales...

I think so, but the question is how do you understand scales?

In classical harmony, being in a modes means you have established a tonic. So, if you were in D dorian you would have a tonic of D.

Looking at the progression ii V I again, the "chord/scale" system views that as three scales dorian, mixolydian, ionian. But, that makes no sense in classical theory. First ii V I is information about chords. There is no reason to talk about scales or any other particular kind of melodic figuration, because it's just a conceptual chord structure. It also makes no sense to name modes, because they are not established as modes with tonics. Classical theory just sees a harmonic structure in a major key.

So, if you use the "chord/scale" system, like a lot of guitarist do, you see chords as scales and name all those scales with mode names. If you use classical harmony, like a lot of voice or piano students do, you don't see scales that aren't actually there. One system will talk about scales a lot, the other only when it's appropriate.

It's like the saying "when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail." when you have the "chord/scale" system, everything looks like a "scale."

IMO if you want to really learn about scales and modes, the "chord/scale" system is a terrible way to do it. Instead I would look into folk music from around the world and pay attention to the various scales that are used for different songs. For example, the Freygish scale and the song Hava Nagila. From a more theoretical perspective you can look into tetrachords and how they relate to the structure of various scales. You could also look into solfege and the chromatic versions. Solfege is certainly melodically (scale) oriented, but it's also about the harmonic function of tones, and clearly it's related to vocal study.

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  • -1 I suppose a fan of chord/scale. May 11 at 23:05
  • Nice example of freygish and Hava Nagila. Rare tones for me, common in other parts of the world
    – zameb
    May 12 at 12:45
  • @zameb, I think your assessment of "chord/scale" players was spot on. I tried to explain why there could be a difference in teaching. You can find other song examples: mixolydian: Old Joe Clark, dorian: What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor, etc. etc. Real modal music. Songs for singers. May 12 at 14:15
  • Michael, that's a perfect sample of something that I don't unsderstand. Thaks for pointing at it. Mixolydian and Dorian seems the same to me, except that they have different "base" note. Yes, they do sound different, but that many theory around don't give me much additional advantage when I'm suggested to play "dorian". Yes, it is interesting for communication and kick understanding, that's very important, but it can't replace any feeling or dexterity. When I say: "ok, take the guitar and show me the dorian", they perform mechanical and without any sense
    – zameb
    May 12 at 21:47
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    @zameb, some study of modes and scales, and IMO tetrachords, will help you understanding. It's not a huge amount of theory, you could get it in a few weeks or months. Mixolydian and dorian actually are the same except for one tone. Mixolydian has a major third, dorian a minor third. That's the technical description of intervals, but also the feel, the mood changes. The minor third of dorian is usually describes as a "darker" mood or color. May 13 at 13:50

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