I have been playing guitar for over ten years, but in about the past five years, I do not think I have improved much. I recently decided I want to change that, starting by trying to understand the music that I play better. My first step in this is learning some music theory and scales.

Currently, I am trying to play and understand 'Brothers in Arms' by Dire Straits. I believe the key of this song is G# minor. The notes in this scale are G#, A#, B, C#, D#, E, F#, and G#. Somewhere in the song (2:28 in the 7:04-version of the song), I hear the following lick;

%%score T1
V:T1           clef=treble-8
% 1
[V:T1] z4 (f^e)de a,8

The 6th fret on the B-string is an E# that falls outside of the regular minor scale. This note is also used in a lick closely after. To a novice like myself, just having learned about scales, this feels counterintuitive. I can hear it sounds good here, but when I try and play the note in other places, it usually feels out of place.

Can anyone explain to me why this sounds good here? Or did I make any wrong assumptions, or am I merely overanalyzing now?

  • 3
    Mark Knopfler can't read music, so if you asked him personally, he'd probably just say "It sounds right to me". You are correct in your key, though - it is in G# minor.
    – PeteCon
    May 2, 2020 at 15:37

3 Answers 3


There is no E# in the G# minor scale, but there is one in the D# minor scale. If you look at the chord that is being played, you'll see it's just a D# minor chord.

So I think the best way of viewing it is that you momentarily get a little glimpse of the key of D# minor (which is quite "near" to the G# minor since they differ only in one tone -- the E/E#) which is quickly ended by putting the VI chord (in G# minor) right next to it. In this case, it's the E major chord, and that makes it obvious that we're still in G# minor and we haven't moved anywhere.

(They could have easily done a modulation (i. e. a key change) to D# minor with this. If they hadn't followed with an E major chord, but with some chord that belongs to D# minor and not to G# minor (a super-simple example would be A#7), they would "hammered it home" and the move to D# minor would be finished. You may try that on your guitar: after playing the lick, just play an A#7 chord. You will see that it fits and it pulls you to the key of D# minor.)

You also mentioned that you couldn't find a good place for that E# (augmented 6th degree) in your playing. However, there is a scale that is called the Dorian mode and it is just a minor key with the 6th degree raised up a semitone. It gives a beautiful, characteristic sound that you have certainly heard before, because it's used a lot in movie or video game soundtracks. Just take your guitar and play these chords: E minor, A major, E minor, A major... I think you will certainly recognize that vibe. Once you connect it with the raised 6th degree, I think you will able to use it yourself in a way that sounds good.


The chord behind the lick is in D# minor. If he played an E, however, that would be a b9 over the chord- just a half step above the root. It's a cool sound that is used extensively in jazz and classical but not much in rock. It's pretty high in terms of dissonance.

Instead, he uses the E# -- or F -- the natural 9 of the D# chord, which is much more consonant.

Another way to think about it is as the Dorian mode of G#. It has the natural 6 of the scale as opposed to the b6 in the minor/aeolian mode.


The answer by Ramillies gives a lot of context about the major 6th and the Dorian mode. However, for a single note, played twice in just one bar, you could simply consider it an altered note. It's OK to play "wrong notes" that are not in the key you're playing in. It happens all the time in music, and it works fine as long as it's played in passing, as it's in this case.

As a side note, if you're stuck in your playing I can recommend what works for me. Set yourself some actionable, achievable goals. If you play the same songs over and over, you won't get any better, but if you say "I want to learn the 5 boxes of the minor pentatonic" or "I want to improve my timing when playing rythm" or "I want to learn how to mute strings when bending", you have goals that you can easily reach in a few weeks. Then you'll look back and you'll realize you've improved your playing. "I want to play like Mark Knopfler" is not a very actionable short-term goal goal ;) Good luck!

  • 3
    @leftaroundabout: Everything you say is correct: anyone can play any note at any time, and still, every note has an effect. The reason "wrong notes are okay" keeps coming up is that music theory is often taught as rules, rather than guidelines. Beginners and those who haven't developed their ears are tempted to always follow "the rules," such as don't ever play notes out of key. Then their music sounds flat and boring... or at least lacking in personality. The greats know how to bend/ break the rules (with "wrong" notes) in a way that sounds great, and unique.
    – Casey
    May 3, 2020 at 22:24
  • 1
    @Casey that's one of the reason why it's actually good that beginners start by sticking to the rules: so that when they eventually get to break them, they'll be able to do it deliberately and with a focused effect. Start right away with breaking each and every rule, and the result will just sound totally arbitrary and thus just as bland – perhaps with “personality”, but not good. More typical however is for those who don't understand the rules to produce more limited music, because they just discard anything that sounds unfamiliar rather than questioning what's actually going on. May 3, 2020 at 23:18
  • 1
    @leftaroundabout you're absolutely right in your comment. It all depends on what level of learning you're at. I'm at the point where I'm starting to get the sounds I want by breaking out of the scale every so often. I still don't know exactly what I get when I break out of it, but it sounds better. Perhaps you're at the point where you can break out of it and say "oh, this was a bit of the Dorian mode there!". Unfortunately, I still cannot hear it. Also, I've heard this song so many times that I no longer hear "a change in character" in the lick... to me, it's the way it's supposed to sound.
    – mkorman
    May 4, 2020 at 8:21
  • 1
    @leftaroundabout at the end of the day I think we're saying the same things. It's OK to break out of the scale... and of course it's going to sound different! It's not the same to add a maj6 or adding a b9, it is going to add a different flavour. Nothing I said contradicts your statement :)
    – mkorman
    May 4, 2020 at 8:22
  • 1
    I have to say it certainly is an actionable long-term goal, because Mark Knopfler had a similar goal to play like JJ Cale, and he achieved it! (Listen to Cale's playing and then listen to Knopfler, especially the earlier Dire Straits stuff.) He picked up more country influences from his other idol Chet Atkins too. The key part to achieving it though is to be able to analyse each bit of what they're doing - and then set yourself those as short-term learning goals like you say. With Mark Knopfler for example, it might be Travis picking, arpeggios, and volume control swells.
    – Graham
    May 4, 2020 at 9:52

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.