Been playing guitar for almost 60 years. Still a novice in my opinion. Been practicing scales and scales and scales. Looking to unlock music from them. Listening to Mozart's piano I hear scales behind the music. For me however, I play scales listening for the music but never hear it.

  • Do you also practice songs or pieces on the guitar? That’s the most important ingredient in learning to write: learning to play what’s been written by others. Scales and exercises have never helped me write or compose. Jan 19, 2023 at 15:28
  • You're listening to Mozart's piano music, but trying to play what style on guitar? Jan 19, 2023 at 22:35
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    Welcome! I'm afraid your meaning isn't quite clear. Can you edit the question to explain more? I could imagine that you might mean: "When I hear scales in real pieces, they're musically expressive; when I practice them they aren't; how can I be more expressive when playing scales?" OR you might mean "I'm improvising or composing my own music and want to know how I can incorporate scales in a more musical way" OR "I'm not incorporating scales per se, but talking about them as a structure 'behind the music,' and I have some kind of question about 'scales' as note collections.'" Jan 20, 2023 at 14:28

6 Answers 6


You're coming at it backward. Scales/Chords are just a collection of colors. A palette of colors doesn't equate to a painting.

Think "melody"...think "statement"...think "conversation"...think "phrase". Just use scales/chords to give you a reference framework which to pull your colors from. A palette.

Also, practicing scales for "technique" is only minimally useful. Work on riffs, licks, ideas, themes, and melodies. Bass is no different than any other instrument in the fact that optimally, your lines should sound interesting on their own.


"Unlocking music from scales" is not going to happen, I'm afraid. In my opinion that others will perhaps disagree with: scales (and broken chords) are just a kind of "musical oil".

Let me explain. If you have a machine that has various cogs, handles, pistons and so on, you will want the parts to be well oiled, so that it runs smoothly. Similarly, the scales and broken chords are a great device to smoothly connect various sections of music together. If you grabbed two different sections of music and slap them one right next to the other, the result would often be weird. Put a scale between them, and our ears will sort of "slide" on it, landing safely in the next section.

There are other uses of scales (and broken chords). You can use them as a "filling" (e. g. instead of a single C major chord in the bass held for a long time, you can play many short C's, E's and G's in various combinations to provide more movement), or even as a "firework" — if you want to include a virtuosic quick passage in your music that will naturally fit into the music, scales (and broken chords) are the way to go.

However, by themselves, they do not make music. Continuing my metaphor: you're trying to build a machine, so you buy a huge barrel of oil, and then you're sad that the wheels aren't turning — but the reason is that you didn't buy the wheels in the first place! Scales are good for filling, connecting and adding fireworks, but if you want to write good music, you must first write chunks of music that could be connected, filled up and firework'ed, otherwise it won't have anything to stand on, it will sound "flat", "empty" and boring. The "chunks" will typically be strong melodies and/or good harmonic progressions, so I would say you could look into these things more than into scales.

  • "but the reason is that you didn't buy the wheels in the first place!" Maybe. I'd rather say its the driver that is missing, or the fuel, or both. One needs tunes sparkling up in the mind, tunes that want to leave it. Without that drive, music won't tell much to the audience, instrumental music at least. Jan 19, 2023 at 17:14

I suggest two things to consider:

  • the difference between scales (step-wise, conjunct motion) moving at a harmonic pace, and decorative scale which combine chord tones and passing tones
  • the common harmonic associations of scale degrees to particular tonal chords

Compare these two passages which both use full octave scales in the treble...

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The first has a chord change with each scale step. Each time the treble moves one step along the scale the chord changes. You can think of this as voice leading. Voices are moved by steps to form new chords. Every step moves to a new essential chord tone.

In the second the scale runs are on beats 1 & 2, but the scales pass through the chords. In bar 1 the C chord has a duration of 2 beats. Some of the scale notes fit the chord and the others pass between those notes. In bar 2 a similar thing happens, but the chord durations are only 1 beat. Those in between passing tones are less harmonically essential that the chord tones so on the whole the scale is mostly decorative. It embellishes the chord.

I highlighted the chord tones in those two passages with blue to make it visually easy to read.

When considering the harmonic versus decorative nature of scale wise movement be aware of octave displacement in the melodic line...

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...the first two bars is the previous decorative scale idea but I've labeled the starting note of the scale run and the note it leads to with solfege syllables. I also labeled the bass to show the basic two part voice leading. Notice how the scale runs starts on DO and ends on RE and when specific octave is disregarded that is just a scale step, and it this example it forms a harmonic scale step. The second two bars reduce the scale run to just the implied harmonic movement. The use of the scale there is less about the melodic line and more about getting 16th note figuration into the passage. You could do this instead...

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...and musically very little has changed. It's the same harmonic design, same voice leading, same rhythm. I tried to get the second 16th note group to form a small ascent so it has a bit of the same ascending direction. Only the specific linear contour changes by switching between a straight scale and turning figures. Classical style music does this all the time treating scale runs as just another interchangeable rhythmic figuration option.

When making music - especially when emulating classical style like Mozart's - combine short passages mixing both harmonic and decorative scale play and try using space to shape phrases and create rhythm. Maybe something like this...

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Treble part chord tones highlighted blue and Roman numerals to make clear the chords, because some are incomplete or implied. It's not great music, but hopefully serviceable. But the idea is to show mostly mundane scale and step-wise movement assembled to make something musical.

Rhythm, metrical placement, and sense of phrasing are essential to make it really work, but those elements are about the study of harmony and form. Therein may lie the problem. While the concern is about scales their use in classical style is understood through a harmonic framework. Especially when scales are played rapidly in a decorative way you must know what harmonic progression those scales are decorating. In that sense the scale isn't quite generating the music but instead decorate music initially conceived in harmonic terms.

Scale degrees are strongly associated with certain chord. Understanding those associations will help a lot with putting scales and chords together. Perhaps you have heard something like any scale degree can be harmonized as three chords, like this...

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Of course those three harmonizations are possible, but it doesn't convey the harmonic associations that are important in classical style. A good way to learn those associations with with the rule of the octave which is a harmonized bass scale, like this...

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The rule of the octave is part of the old figured bass tradition and you can find many versions, each slightly different, from various teachers. Notice the harmonization differs depending on ascending or descending direction. You can read up on this and other figured bass ideas to get a better understanding of classical style harmony, but the important point to make is the scale degree, even when played without harmonization, strongly suggest certain harmonies. For example, if you play descending (solfege) FA to MI, it strongly suggests harmony V7 I. Knowing those associations will help play using scales with better musical meaning.

Finally, your focus is on scaled, but don't overlook the importance of rhythm, meter, and the bar line. Just like melody and harmony work together, you need to make those elements with a good sense of rhythm and meter. The basic way to get all these elements working together is accent beat 1 after the bar line with a chord change and a relatively long rhythm value. For quick decorative scale runs the lines race up to the bar line and then take a longer note after bar for beat 1. Like in this example from Mendelssohn's Sinfonia 1 in C...

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Of course that isn't the only way to use rhythm, but scales, harmony, and rhythm all confirm the meter and make good musical sense.

That Mendelssohn is four part strings. Maybe a solo line would make a better example, like this Bouree from Bach's Cello Suite III...

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...see how the scale runs up to the bar line and longer rhythm after the bar line? Note the figure in the blue box. Rhythmically it's still all eighths, but it's an elaboration of the E♭, notice how that figure starts and ends on E♭, it's a bit like two beats of E♭. The complete melody is complex, but quite a lot of it displays the basic idea of fast scale runs leading up to the bar line.

So, don't just noodle up and down scales.

  • mix harmonic and decorative scale patterns
  • makes sure the scales represent good harmonic progression
  • use good rhythm to express the meter and mark phrases

Marvelous input from so many fellow players. I often begin disciplined practices and drift off into extended I IV V patterns and riffing. An hour later I return from inner space hoping somehow my wanderings have improved my playing a tiny bit. Fellow players - I'm sure you understand this.


As you seem to understand, scales aren't music. All they are, in actual fact, is a sequencing of certain notes that are presented in ascending and descending form. Rather like our alphabet is simply all the letters, set out in an order that has become familiar over time.

True, certain pieces will actually have runs of scales in them, up and/or down, but by and large, those small jumps from one scale note to the next, don't constitute melodies. Especially when there are more than three or four in sequence.

By jumping about a bit, other music becomes apparent. Take notes ^1, ^3, ^5 in that order. They make an arpeggio, which again could be used, but sparingly.

An idea: stick with the scale for now, but don't play it as a scale, keeping exact solid timing. Play the notes with gaps between, some long and some short (notes and gaps).You may even stumble on some snippets of familiar tunes!

Take a good look at some of your favourite pieces. Examine where there are scale bits, arpeggio bits, bigger jumps. Look at the large jumps, and often find that the very next note comes back to something in between.

While you're doing that, it may become apparent that when a piece has several bars of something, it's repeated soon after. There's no point in keeping on making up new bits of tune!

That's starters for you. Good luck!


Ok, here's a hands-on approach in 3 steps. Quick results, with minimal music theory.

1 Assumption

You can come up with a melody, e.g. from humming, singing or playing your strings.

If you know the scale of the melody, use the Scales button in the next section. If not, identify it first by Identify Scale.

2 Scale information

Get the known or identified scale from Chord.Rocks, e.g. for G Dorian. Play your melody for the notes shown in the fretboard on top (i.e. this is your melodies scale).


3 Chords and Cadences

Pick chords from the table Chords in Scale at the lower right. For your reference I put the roman literals to indicate the chords degree in red. Click on any of the blue ones: these use the same notes as your melody scale, i.e. the risk for unharmonic collision in your ear is ... low.

Try different chord sequences (=cadences) with the same melody. Pick the one which pleases you most. You can find popular chord progressions (=cadences) on hook-theory.

That's it. Refine as needed. Violate aboves "rules" from time to time: trust your ears.

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