So if I understand correctly we have 12 major scales x 7 modes = 84 possible scales.

That is taking aside melodic and harmonic and pentatonic and blue scales. I understand this is all derived from major.

Now couple that with the discussion that scales are just "alphabet" and have no emotional imprint on them, how would any musician maneuver and pick one of these scales?

Which one to compose in? pick a melody in one key then try it in 84 scales? I think most would do 12 or 24.

Which one to improvise on?

It's 84 abstract things each with huge number of combinations for melody and harmony in itself, let alone rhythm or other instruments.

I've only been studying piano for a few months now, I'm going through books and the instruction to my understanding says these are the modes and you should be familiar with them.

Good but there is no compass or framework here, when you think of the variations available it sort of loses meaning and becomes an endless exercise of sequences and spaces versus anything else you could be improving on musically.

If the scale has no emotional context and the steps are varied on that and no one explains what the change in steps creates, what is the end product here? Sounds like a recipe to get lost.

So my question is what am I missing here? Where is the framework? How do you make sense and navigate through this maze?

  • 1
    If you're improvising, there certainly won't be 84 choices! It'll be in a key, which brings the number down considerably. You mention modes, but each mode is made up from the presumably already known notes of the parent key. So, 84 is not going to be any kind of magic (or definitive, or even off-putting) number! What did someone say about a little knowledge?!! And abstract, they are not!
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 17:11
  • Major grew out of pentatonic, not the other way around, by the way.
    – L3B
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 17:30
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    When I write music, I go a lot more with feeling to come up with the initial sounds and melodies, etc., and I'm not thinking about mechanical aspects such as key. As soon as I have a germ of an idea, then I analyze, including figuring out what key I just wrote in, to help me add to it and understand it so I can place it in the appropriate context, etc. So there's never a question in my mind of "what key should I write in?" Instead I'm often thinking, "what keys could that melody be in? What keys can I modulate to and how will it sound? What chords will add what flavors to this melody?" etc. Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 17:54
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    Are some of these answers relevant to what you are asking about how to choose key?music.stackexchange.com/questions/15221/… & music.stackexchange.com/questions/3486/… & music.stackexchange.com/questions/47955/… &music.stackexchange.com/questions/49622/… Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 18:51
  • As for how to choose scale (on top of key)- that's far from an abstract choice for most people as they will find that pieces written in different scales lead to very different emotional consequences. So I'm not sure what you mean by 'If the scale has no emotional context ' - scales are usually of overriding enormous emotional consequence. Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 19:03

4 Answers 4


Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it's MORE than 84! There are three varieties of minor scales, only one of which doubles as a mode (natural minor is also Aeolian mode). So, technically, there are 108. Your 84 plus 24 more.

What you're possibly missing is that if you move a melody that is, let's say, in major, into any non-major scale, it will alter the feel and sound of the melody. So for a melody in major you really have only 12 choices. Hope that makes you feel less overwhelmed! Same goes for each mode and each type of minor scale.

All 12 natural minors sound and feel alike. Ditto for all 12 harmonic minors. Substitute the names of each mode into one of the preceeding sentences, and you will still have a true statement.

By the way, a lot of classical composers in the early Romantic era (say 1824-1860 or so) believed that each of the 12 major keys had a distinct personality and emotion. Eb was supposedly 'Majestic," which is why Beethoven picked that key for his Eroica.

I agree that if you just look at the mass of scale language as a whole it becomes, as you say, an "endless exercise." When you're familiar with the different 'flavors' of the different modes and keys, and realize there are are only 12 choices for any given melody, it becomes more a matter of which fingerings work best, or which key fits some singer's range better, or other such practical considerations.

  • L3B, the OP specifically excluded melodic and harmonic - I assume those are the two other minor modes you are referring to.
    – anonymous2
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 17:48
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    "a lot of classical composers in the early Romantic era (say 1824-1860 or so) believed that each of the 12 major keys had a distinct personality and emotion" This was actually true back then, because their keyboard instruments were not equally tempered. Even Werckmeister III intonation, to say nothing of mean tone, sounds clearly different in different keys. It's actually kinda awesome to have a key like C# minor (for example) more closely match exactly what Beethoven was hearing when he wrote in that key. Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 17:52
  • @ToddWilcox - so, actually, the OP has even more to try to cope with...
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 17:58
  • @Todd - I was under the impression that keyboard instruments were pretty much all equal-temperament by the end of the 18th century. Am I wrong?
    – L3B
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 19:00
  • Good question. I thought you were wrong and then I started looking for justification. I can't find any solid information (although I haven't yet spent a lot of time looking) on exactly what tunings 18th and 19th century composers used. I am getting the impression that they used different intonations at different times on different keyboard instruments. For example, some pipe organs were equal tempered as early as the late 18th century, but many people did not (some still don't) like the sound of equal temperment and may have had their personal keyboards tuned differently. Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 21:49

The Framework

The framework for music is math, especially the harmonic series. For rhythm, harmony and melody it is the mathematical relationship that creates the patterns that our brains look for when searching for meaning. Harmonic Polyrhythms Explained! by Adam Neely does a great job of explaining and illustrating this in a way you can hear.

The meaning that our brains associate with these patterns is not just about math, however; rather we build up associations between certain math patterns and emotional or cognitive meaning. How much the association between specific patterns and meanings is objective or subjective is debated, but most will agree that there is an association and that it is fundamental to our experience of music.

Choice of Tonal Center

From a pure math perspective, in a just intonation system the choice of tonic does not matter. All the ratios and patterns can exist equivalently based on any of the 12 notes. It is all about the relationships between the notes, so if we shift the tonal center, as long as we shift all the other notes by the same amount the effect on the listener should be the same.

In practice this is not quite true for two main reasons: the mechanics of the instruments we use and the perception of the listener. Many instruments in use today are not perfectly just intoned (e.g. all fretted string instruments like guitar). This will cause some keys to have different ratios than other keys, which means we cannot shift the key and get an identical effect. The listener's history of music experience will have a significant effect on how a key is interpreted. Often preconceptions can be overcome quickly but any patterns in the music the listener has heard to date will color the perception of the tonal center used. Other concerns related to how high or low (in frequency) or the timbre of the instrument in differing keys can affect how the music is perceived both in the mechanics and the listener's expectations.


The mechanics of playing your instrument is different in each of the 12 tonal centers. This is a problem that you can address individually by learning the note patterns of (ideally) all the keys. In this type of practice it is not necessary to think too much about the modes or music theory so much as developing the muscle memory for each pattern. Not all 12 patterns are equally common, so think about what other instruments you want to play with and the most common keys in the music you want to play to guide some priority in developing your mastery of each pattern on your instrument.


The seven modes in one key are representative of those seven modes in any key, so learning study of these modes in one key will be applicable to all twelve tonal centers.

The modes can be thought of as modifications of major. Lydian is one less minor than major, i.e. you add one sharp, which is the four of the scale. In the more minor direction (with scale note): mixolydian (7), dorian (3), minor (6), phrygian (2), locrian (5). You could think of them like this: +4, 0, -7, -3, -6, -2, -5. I find that organizing them in my mind this way is helpful. If you were listening to music you could start by finding the tonic and then look at each of these intervals to determine what mode the music is in.

Adam Neely does a better job than me bringing all these ideas together in his video Why is major "happy?"


You need not get bogged down by the numbers.

Your instrument may influence which keys and modes you play in. While a piano is fairly uniform for key or mode choice, an instrument like a mandolin (or violin/fiddle) lends itself to some keys (D, G, Am, Bm to name a few) rather than others (Eb say). In Celtic music, the fingers tend to fall into patterns that hit some notes more than others. Playing in D is easy. Playing in E dorian is easy, since it's almost the same as playing in D. And Bm (the relative minor of D) is also straightforward (aeolian).

In fact if you know how to finger the D (say) major scale, which can also be called D ionian, you have the chops to play in E dorian, F phrygian, G lydian, A mixolydian, B aeolian, and C locrian (although locrian tunes are rare to nonexistent, so you can safely put that on a high shelf to collect dust). The fingering is essentially the same; it just depends on which note you start on.

That said, the modes do have different feels. Phrygian sounds Spanish or mid-eastern. Lydian sounds Indian (to me). Dorian and Mixolydian are common in Celtic music. They are really fun to experiment with.

Again, don't get lost in how many combinations there are (and be wary of Indian classical music which really bumps up the numbers ;) Just pick your favourite key and work out what the different modes sound like (simply by starting on a different scale degree).

There are formulas for the modes. Ionian (i.e. what we call major) is the familiar R TTS TTTS (where R=root or key, T = Tone or 2 half steps, and S=semitone or 1 half step). Similarly, Dorian is RTSTTTST, same thing but "rotated"). And so on.


Which one to compose in? pick a melody in one key then try it in 84 scales? I think most would do 12 or 24.

Melodies tend to restrict themselves to certain keys and modes automatically, as not all scales contain a certain note. For example, a song made only of C major triads is (probably) not in any key or mode that lacks a C, E, or G, such as B major, C minor, or A flat Lydian. With that being said, switching keys in the middle of the piece is ubiquitous, and avant-garde composers have tried everything from no key at all to two or more keys at the same time.

Which one to improvise on?

It really depends on the context. Picking the key/mode that the majority of the rest of the piece is in is often fine. According to https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chord-scale_system, you should use all kinds of exotic scales and modes of non-major scales when improvising on jazz chords. Modes of non-major keys occur again (along with even more exotic scales such as the double harmonic scale) when soloing on the dominant of minor keys.

As an aside, regarding this:

...the instruction to my understanding says these are the modes and you should be familiar with them.

By far the most often used modes are the Ionian (major) and Aeolian (natural minor, at least as its descending melodic minor incarnation). While knowing that the other modes exist is great, you'll rarely get to hear them unless you seek them out (in Gregorian chant or British folk songs, say).

  • 1
    You will also hear the other modes in Christmas carols, Country & Western music, Heavy Metal, Rock and Roll from the 60's, Musicals, modern movie soundtracks, Hip Hop and I'm sure other forms, so unless your music listening is very specific you can hear modal pieces all the time. Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 20:12
  • Also, there are modal pieces and sections from the composers Liszt, Chopin, Korsakov, Beethoven, Debussy, Rachmaninov, and J.S. Bach Commented Mar 3, 2017 at 20:30
  • I am normally not convinced that music is in a mode the moment it uses any note not in that mode (such as F sharp in a supposedly E Phrygian piece). Thus, I don't tend to find that popular music is modal--I believe they use extended tonality instead whenever they fall into this case.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Mar 5, 2017 at 5:44

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