Currently I am learning how to use ears for transcribing melodies. My previous thought was that every melody followed scales of some sorts, so I learned 3-notes-per-strings scales.

But today I have encountered a melody that did not fit into any scale. Are there many songs with melodies that do not fit into scales?

Also, if you were in my position in the past, what songs have good melodies/riffs that are good for practicing ears?

  • 2
    Scales are default reference grids. Sometimes tunes use non-default pitches. It's still nice to know a grid so you can reason about the off-grid notes. Easier than if you just looked at the fretboard as a big pile of strings and frets without having any known points of reference. Right? Oct 25, 2023 at 5:28
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    If you encountered a weird pitch only today, for the first time ever, I suggest that you keep playing by ear. Humans learn by doing, by example, and they're very good at recognizing patterns. Spend a month playing melodies by ear, and you'll learn a lot. Ok? No internet, no youtube, no theory, just play and listen. Kids learn to speak and to play the same way. Grammar is taught to children many years after they've learned how to speak. Oct 25, 2023 at 7:58
  • try the refrain of LADY IN BLACK and JOYFUL JOYFUL (9th symph. by Beethoven. Oct 25, 2023 at 12:28
  • A lot of mid-century Christmas songs come from that big-band-influenced era that brings a lot of chromatics and jazz chords. "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" has at least 6 different notes that are outside its major scale (accidentals). So simple answer to your main question: NO, not every melody constrains all of its notes to a scale, even if it is in a key and takes most of its notes from that scale. Oct 25, 2023 at 15:36

3 Answers 3


There are in fact many songs which would not fit into 3-note per string scale, or for that matter, any scale.

As piiperi comments, scales are reference points. In music, a scale helps you know which notes to play in a certain key. However, melodies (or chords, harmonies, etc.) are not limited to using notes in the key. Songwriters will often "borrow" pitches from another key to expand the feel of the song. These are broadly referred to as "accidentals."

These are especially common in minor keys, for which there are three basic scales.

Perhaps you have only learned major and natural minor scales. I would assume so as you seem unfamiliar with pitches out of three note scales. Here are examples in A minor.

Natural Minor: A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A

Harmonic Minor: A-B-C-D-E-F-G#-A

Melodic Minor*: A-B-C-D-E-F#ˆ(Fˇ)-G#ˆ(Gˇ)-A

As you may notice, these scales do not all contain the same notes, despite being the same key. In fact, some notes are out of key. Songs will use these accidentals and many others regularly. It is also important to remember that one song is not limited to using one scale or key. Many modulations may occur.

Since you mentioned trying to dictate for guitar, I will also point out that rock and metal have a particular fondness for breaking outside of conventional scales, as with Jazz.

As for training your ears, I'd look less into trying to transcribe set songs and more into practicing hearing intervals. That very well can work, but I've found practicing specific techniques is more effective. Ear training is a difficult task. In universities, multiple levels of courses are devoted to "Aural Skills." Sites such as this one give excercises for Ear Training.

If you want to just learn by picking out the melody on your instrument, I'd suggest doing so with pop songs, lullabies, and Christian worship music if you're new to this skill. These may not be your preferred genres, but they have simpler melodies to better learn before progressing toward more complex genres.

*The melodic minor changes notes depending on whether you are ascending or descending the scale.


I assume that when you say the melody didn't fit any scale, you meant the diatonic major and minor scales. It probably did fit into the chromatic scale of all 12 semitones - though not even that is an iron rule, especially outside of the western tradition. (But then you'd have trouble playing it on a guitar.)

In my experience, songs with a note in the melody outside of the basic scale of the given key (for minor keys, counting either of the common minor scales as such) are in the minority, but not at all rare. It happens often enough that you should get used to being open to the possibility. In some styles more, in some less, but never a taboo.

If you count not only the melody itself but also the harmony, then out-of-scale notes become very common indeed and most songs will contain them here and there. Just a seventh added to the tonic chord is one (in a major key).

Think of the scale as a sort of scaffolding that helps support the melody, not a hard rule which pitches are allowed.

Re "what song are good for...", I'd suggest you forget about this and go play whatever you feel like and enjoy playing. In my opinion that's the important consideration because it does what matters the most: keeps you going. Somewhere along the way, everything you need to learn, you will.


Three note per string scales have no more bearing on melodies than any other patterns on guitar. Not sure where that would have come from!

It's true that the majority of melodies will have the majority of their notes emanating from diatonic scales - apart maybe from jazz/blues and the way more modern 'classical' music. Thus scales and the knowledge of them has become (always was!) so important. But not the other way round. There will always be 'foreign' notes cropping up in pieces, and, as piiperi rightly states, knowing scales (in whatever patterns) will indicate which those notes are.

Your middle paragraph- I suspect that melody (what is it?) will have the majority of its notes from a particular scale - other notes will hint at chords out of the key - sec. doms, tts, etc.

Your last paragraph - can't comment, as asking for specific songs is out of bounds for this site. So, keep on working out by ear, using the datum point as the diatonic notes/chords from the specified key. Learn which other chords may occur - there are lots of q/a on this site giving advice on how to do that.

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