Musical Composition, Theory and Songwriting/Scales and songwriting?


Dear Sir, could you pls explain how remembering the scales (Lydian, Harmonic, etc) can help you write a song? For example, if you try to write a song based on a particular scale, does it mean you can only use the notes belonging to that scale?

Thank you


Lots of folks have areas of confusion about scales and why they are helpful.
First, be aware that  your question mixes two related but different things, scales and modes.
The names of the modes (Mixolydian, Ionian, etc) are old classical designations derived from Greek and are not really necessary to know by name.
What is relevant to songwriting is to understand that if you have a major scale
you can designate any of the 7 notes as the "anchor" or tonal center.
Typically (if referring to the C-scale) we use
c-d-e-f-g-a-b-c (intervals of whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half)
That is known as the Ionian mode.

If you use the second note as the tonal center and keep everything else the same, you
have d-e-f-g-a-b-c-d: Same notes as the c-scale (as it is still the key of C) but the intervals are now whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half-whole.  Everything is just offset by 1 position.
This is called Dorian mode.

If you use the third note of the scale as the tonal center (still key of C) you now have
e-f-g-a-b-c-d-e (half-whole-whole-whole-half-whole-whole).  Everything is just offset by 2 and This is called Phrygian.

You can continue offsetting one position at a time and get all seven modes, each with very different sound and mood quality,  as follows:

   Ionian/Major Scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
   Dorian: D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D
   Phrygian: E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E
   Lydian: F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F
   Mixolydian: G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G
   Aeolian: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A  (This is the natural minor scale)
   Locrian: B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B

The names are not important, nor is it even critical to know that you are using a mode. Your ear is your guide to know that the melodic phrases you are using are doing what you want them to do.   What really matters is that you know you are always in the key of C (or whichever key you are in)  and that the chords based on that scale will always work in any mode (C-Dm-Em-F-G-Am-Bdim) and not sound dissonant.   Remember that you can always identify the key you are in by seeing where the accidentals (sharps or flats) are as based on the Circle of 5ths.
I discuss this in my book Songcrafters Coloring Book (
and you can see a condensed infographic here:

You asked: << if you try to write a song based on a particular scale, does it mean you can only use the notes belonging to that scale?>>

You are never locked in to using only the notes of the scale -- in fact, you should make a point of strategically using non-scale notes to create points of interest and tension in your melodies and harmonies.   One of the key reasons for knowing the notes in a scale is so you know which notes are NOT in the scale.
The two ways to create interesting points of tension/dissonance are:
(a) use a non-scale note in your chord.  Experiment and heed what your ear tells you.
(b) use a non-scale note as the root of a chord. (e.g. A simple major or minor chord built on a root that is not in the scale can work wonders in creating a point of interest for your song)

This technique is best mastered by understanding the above, plus knowing the relationship between
intervals and the number of steps/half-steps between any points in the scale.  This is all at the above referenced link.

A more advanced area of scales looks at what happens when you alter the basic order of
whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half ( or expressed in half-steps -or guitar frets- 2-2-1-2-2-2-1.  All the modes maintain this order, just starting at a different point each time (e.g.2-1-2-2-2-1-2 for Dorian mode, an offset of 1).
But you'll note they always add up to 12 half steps, as that makes up an octave.
If you alter the order of whole/half steps e.g. instead of 2-2-1-2-2-2-1, you have
2-2-2-1-1-2-2, it still adds up to 12, but does not correspond to any of the 7 modes.  It will sound very unusual to most listeners of Western music and will evoke the music of different cultures or sometimes just plain dissonance.  Again, there are no restrictions on what you as a songwriter can or cannot do.  Your ear is the final arbiter of what is right for your song.

Bottom line:  Don't worry about the historical names for modes (unless you are interested in that kind of thing or need to speak in those terms with colleagues).  They are just permutations of the major scale in a given key.   Even the natural minor scale is just the same as the major scale except starting on the 6th position (called Aeolian Mode).   Don't worry about exotic or unusual scales.

Concentrate on knowing the notes and chords for any given key, the intervals, and how to strategically use borrowed tones from outside the scale.  That is what helps you create interesting and engaging music for your songs.  Learn the diagram given in the link above. That, plus your own ears, will give you all the tools you need to create whatever kinds of musical moods you wish.

Good luck, and keep writing.

Musical Composition, Theory and Songwriting

All Answers

Answers by Expert:

Ask Experts


Bill Pere


Can answer questions on : Technical aspects of lyric and music compostion; How to give and receive objective critique; Arranging and production; Concrete vs abstract imagery; Use of metaphor; Rhyme techniques; Song Structure; Collaboration; Songwriter Associations; Promotion; Guitar technique; Music Business;


Grammy-Award-winning songwriter; President of the Connecticut Songwriters Association and Director of the Connecticut Songwriting Academy; Named one of the Top 50 Innovators and Guiding Lights of the Music Industry in 2008 by Music Connection Magazine; Author of "Songcrafters' Coloring Book:The Essential Guide to Effective and Successful Songwriting." Named Independent Artist of the Year,by the 2003 national Independent Music Conference; 30 years as a professional singer-songwriter; 16 original CD's released;
Have had songs placed on other artists' CD's. Twice named Connecticut Songwriter of the Year.
20 years as Executive Director of the LUNCH Ensemble. Have attended more than 200 presentations by top industry professionals and have critiqued thousands of songs. Have written and produced dozens of stage plays and hundreds of concert events; Have coached hundreds of aspiring songwriters, and collaborated with several award winning writers. Have written commissioned songs as an Official Connecticut State Troubadour. Music Director of youth choirs and music camps.

Connecticut Songwriters Association (President); LUNCH Ensemble (Local United Network to Combat Hunger -- Exec, Director); CMEA (Connecticut Music Educators Association); Folk Alliance; Association For Psychological Type; Songsalive; WE R Indie; Creative Songwriting Academy;

Songcrafters' Coloring Book: The Essential Guide to Effective and Succesful Songwriting Songwriters Market (2001, 2002); Connecticut Songsmith; Contemporary Songwriter Magazine; Songwriters Musepaper;
Songcrafter's Coloring Book;   Strategies for Teaching Guitar;

Masters Degree Molecular Biology; Certified MBTI Practitioner (Myers Briggs Type Indicator); Connecticut Secondary Public School Teaching Certificate; Author: "Songcrafters' Coloring Book: The Essential Guide to Effective and Successful Songwriting"

Awards and Honors
2012 Grammy; Named one of the Top 50 Innovators and Guiding Lights of the Music Industry in 2008 by Music Connection Magazine; Independent Artist of the Year, (2003 national Indie Conference); Official Connecticut State Troubadour, appointed by CT Commission on the Arts, 1995 ; 1982 and 1992 CT Songwriter of the Year; 2000 Award for 20 years of Outstanding Service to Songwriters;
2002 CSA Award for Outstanding Contribution to Education through Music; Numerous awards for outstanding community outreach through music; 1997 Citation from Connecticut Legislature for exemplary dedication to community outreach through music. 1995 Renaissance Award for multiple music achievements in a single year.   Invited Presenter and Mentor at various Music Conventions

©2017 All rights reserved.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]