Melody Ear Training Exercise 5: Learning Scales through Improvisation

You may think that if you’ve practiced the major scale you don’t have to practice all the modes of the major scale because they use the same notes. To some extent, this is true. Physically, playing C major is almost the same as playing D dorian, but music isn’t just a physical exercise. It is important to feel the different emotional qualities of each of these scales. Something happens to this set of notes when you emphasize one note over all the others. The note you emphasize the most becomes the first note of the scale, or the root, and this has a huge effect on the emotional quality of this set of seven notes. One way to explore this is to improvise. Below are some simple instructions for how to improvise if you are trying to learn a new scale and all of the emotional possibilities within it.

  1. Play the first note of the scale, the root. Make sure it sounds like it’s the root. Sometimes if you’re just playing one note, your brain can interpret it in different ways. Your brain might think it’s the third note of some other scale. Hold the root of the scale, or play it multiple times, until your brain sees this note as the root, or as “home base.”
  2. Start improvising some short melodies with a couple of other notes in the scale. Don’t add the whole scale all at once. See what melodies you can create with just a few notes. Always come back to the root at the end of your melodies. Never lose sight of the root. See how these notes sound in relation to the root.
  3. Add more notes from the scale to your improvisation. But again, make sure your brain still hears the root as “home base”. Emphasize the root a lot, especially at the end of phrases. Try not to just play random notes. Find melodies that you like and repeat them. Add a steady rhythm. It’s as if you’re playing a song using this scale
  4. Keep adding notes until you get to all of them. In some scales, a note or two might sound “wrong” to you. It’s not wrong, you just haven’t gotten used to the scale and its emotional qualities. Try to create a melody that sounds good to you using that “wrong” note. Always emphasize the root!