#1
I have been dissecting some of my favorite songs lately seeing what chord progressions they use, what scales, etc. Sometimes though they don't seem to fit in to any scale I know of. Is there any certain "rules" you can use to know for sure what scales/modes such a song is using and what key it is in?

For example I have been examining Tame Impala - Wander, and it "feels" like it resolves to B to me, but I can't really explain why it does and can't be sure about that.

The "verse" riff in this song goes (h/p are hammer/pulls):

D-B-C#h-D-F#h-G-A-B-C-Bh-Cp-B-A-B

The "chorus" riff is:

B5 (power chord) C#-F#h-G#p-F#-D#-E5 (power chord)-A5 (power chord)


The verse riff ends on a B and the chorus riff starts on a B5 power chord, but everything in between doesn't really seem to match any scale I know of. It does feel like it resolves to B, but as I said I'd like to have some sort of logical/theory reason for that and understand it better. Any tips you can give me would be helpful. Who knows maybe I'm completely wrong about B in the first place and you can set me straight.
#2
Listen to the bassline. The bass is playing a D all the time in the verse. Especially when it comes to single note riffs like this (I mean, riffs that don't have chords), you need to listen to the whole sound and find the "home note". Bass is the most important instrument when it comes to harmony so you want to pay close attention to the bassline.

But yeah, because the bass is playing a D all the time, that makes D sound like the tonic. The verse is in D Mixolydian. Yes, there is one C# in it, but that's just a passing tone. The flat 7th (C) is much more prominent (because it's also in the singing melody - again, you need to listen to the whole sound, not just what the guitar is doing).

The chorus is in E major. It's a basic I-IV-V progression. Remember that if there is a key change, the key usually changes a new section starts.

The scale run the guitar plays between those chords is really not that important (though you can see that it uses notes in the E major scale, but it just doesn't catch my ear - it's basically just walking up to the next chord). The chords are important. The vocal melody is also important - it is using B, A and G# over E, A and B chords. That gives a strong E major sound.
Quote by AlanHB
Just remember that there are no boring scales, just boring players.

Gear

Bach Stradivarius 37G
Charvel So Cal
Fender Dimension Bass
Hartke HyDrive 210c
Ibanez BL70
Laney VC30
Tokai TB48
Yamaha FG720S-12
Yamaha P115
#3
Quote by bptrav
I have been dissecting some of my favorite songs lately seeing what chord progressions they use, what scales, etc. Sometimes though they don't seem to fit in to any scale I know of. Is there any certain "rules" you can use to know for sure what scales/modes such a song is using and what key it is in?

For example I have been examining Tame Impala - Wander, and it "feels" like it resolves to B to me, but I can't really explain why it does and can't be sure about that.

The "verse" riff in this song goes (h/p are hammer/pulls):

D-B-C#h-D-F#h-G-A-B-C-Bh-Cp-B-A-B

The "chorus" riff is:

B5 (power chord) C#-F#h-G#p-F#-D#-E5 (power chord)-A5 (power chord)


The verse riff ends on a B and the chorus riff starts on a B5 power chord, but everything in between doesn't really seem to match any scale I know of. It does feel like it resolves to B, but as I said I'd like to have some sort of logical/theory reason for that and understand it better. Any tips you can give me would be helpful. Who knows maybe I'm completely wrong about B in the first place and you can set me straight.
This is an interesting post. You're asking what scales are being used - and then you go on to spell out the notes they're using...

That seems like a scale to me.

Or rather, two scales, as MM points out. Complete too: 7 notes in the verse scale, and 7 notes in the chorus scale.

MM identifies their names (D mixolydian, E major), but how does knowing their names help? How does identifying a key help?

(If someone mugs you in the street and you see him in a police line-up, you don't need to know his name to know it's him, right? )

You've got all the notes. What else do you need to be able to play the song, or improvise on it? (Maybe you don't know all the places for those notes on the guitar...?)

Your project is an excellent idea, btw - dissecting your favourite songs to see how they work. I suppose if you were taking a car engine apart, it might help to know what all the pieces are called. But all you really need to know is how they all connect up - which you can see right in front of you.

[Apologies for mixed metaphors... ]
Last edited by jongtr at Dec 5, 2016,
#4
@Maggara Thanks. Yeah I guess I get too focused on the guitar alone rather than the whole song. I need to stop doing that. I guess I need to stop trying to fit every single note into a known scale too, and just accept there will be some random passing notes that don't necessarily fit. The funny thing is the actual song ends on the A5 (IV) of the chorus, which isn't the E (the key it's in) or the B (which I thought sounded nice)...but it did seem like a purposeful abrupt/unresolved end to the song rather than trying to sound "nice" which apparently can work sometimes too. So much to learn!

@jongtr You make good points about improvising and playing around with it. I probably don't necessarily need to completely know the theory behind it as long as I know the notes, but there is still the nerdy part of me that wants a logical explanation for everything.
Last edited by bptrav at Dec 5, 2016,
#5
BTW, the instrumental section in the middle is in F# Dorian.

Yeah, finding the key by taking all of the notes that are used in the song and building a scale with them is really not the best way of finding the key. A lot of songs use out of key notes, and analyzing all notes as equal doesn't make much sense because some notes are just chromatic passing tones. Also, some out of key notes are there because of harmony. Sometimes there are "borrowed chords" or secondary dominants or whatever - chords that don't belong to the key. So taking all of the notes of a song and trying to build a scale out of them doesn't really work.

And yeah, the song ends on the IV chord, and it has kind of a surprise ending. Though ending on a IV chord is really not that uncommon. It kind of leaves the ending open.
Quote by AlanHB
Just remember that there are no boring scales, just boring players.

Gear

Bach Stradivarius 37G
Charvel So Cal
Fender Dimension Bass
Hartke HyDrive 210c
Ibanez BL70
Laney VC30
Tokai TB48
Yamaha FG720S-12
Yamaha P115
#6
Quote by MaggaraMarine
BTW, the instrumental section in the middle is in F# Dorian.

well it's pretty effective with boring, purely diatonic music. "Sweet Home Alabama" apparently being the sole, infuriating exception.

You have to look a little further than just key and scale. Music of all kinds features key changes, key borrowing, chromaticism, tonicization, secondary dominants... Once you leave the confines of diatonic music, you have to listen to individual chords and figure out how they all work within the key, even when they contain out-of-key notes.
#7
Quote by bptrav

@jongtr You make good points about improvising and playing around with it. I probably don't necessarily need to completely know the theory behind it as long as I know the notes, but there is still the nerdy part of me that wants a logical explanation for everything.
That's OK! I'm a bit like that too. I just realised some while ago that while it's nice to know the names of stuff, it doesn't ultimately explain anything. Not the way I like to define the word "explain" anyway. It gives you the sensation of understanding, but without any real understanding.

I liken it to the way science gives Latin names to animals, plants, diseases, etc, which make the rest of us feel they understand it all. In fact the Latin names are usually just superficially descriptive anyway. You can name something without having any idea how it works - but if the name is Latin it makes you look like you know everything there is to know about it.

E.g., you could have a series of questions and answers like this:

"What are these notes?" - A B C# E F#

"What scale is that?" - A major pentatonic. Also F# minor pentatonic.

"What key is it in?" - A, probably. But could be in D or E major, or the relative minors, F#m, C#m, Bm.

"How do I know what key it's in?" - You listen to find out which note sounds like the keynote.

"Why does it work?" - Because it sounds good. That's what "work" means.

"But why does it sound good?" - Because you've heard it lots of times before. It's common.

"But why is it so common?" - Because it sounds good!

"But ... " - Hey, how the fuck should I know? I'm only a music theorist! (You need a philosopher, or a psychologist, or a social historian, or an acoustic scientist, or probably all four.)

At what level would you consider it to have been "explained" satisfactorily? Or would you feel it was still not explained? If the latter, join the club.
Last edited by jongtr at Dec 6, 2016,
#8
Good stuff here, but maybe not as pragmatic as OP wants. So:

Ask yourself 2 questions:

1. What is the root note? If you don't know how to figure this out, drop everything you are doing and learn it TODAY. It'll change your life.

2. Is this major or minor? Note this doesn't necessarily mean key. Things like Dorian sound minor.

You're 90% done now. The other 10% is:

9%: Now use that knowledge and a little ear training to deduce the chords.

1% since it's optional: Analyze them (preferably with roman numerals) and learn something cool about writing music.
"There are two styles of music. Good music and bad music." -Duke Ellington

"If you really think about it, the guitar is a pointless instrument." - Robert Fripp
#9
Yeah I guess part of what is throwing me off is when songs change keys multiple times I don't realize it sometimes and then try to make the whole song stick into some nonexistent single scale/mode. When a song is all in the same key it's pretty easy for me to figure them out. I guess I just need to train my ears more and pay more attention the song as a whole, and probably learn the modes a bit more comprehensively as well. Thanks for all the responses though it has been helpful!
#10
Quote by bptrav
Yeah I guess part of what is throwing me off is when songs change keys multiple times I don't realize it sometimes and then try to make the whole song stick into some nonexistent single scale/mode. When a song is all in the same key it's pretty easy for me to figure them out. I guess I just need to train my ears more and pay more attention the song as a whole, and probably learn the modes a bit more comprehensively as well. Thanks for all the responses though it has been helpful!
Very few songs "change keys multiple times" - certainly not in rock (maybe in jazz sometimes, but not often there either). The song you mentioned first was in just two keys, one for each section; in fact you could see it as one key, with a small alteration for the second section.
What does often happen, though, is that a song in one key will borrow chords from other keys. The overall key doesn't change, it just contains occasional chromatics (to make things more interesting).
IOW, if you can identify the main key scale (by listening for what seems like the home note and chord), all you need to do is change the occasional scale note when you hit those borrowed chords.

If you can give an example a song you have (or have had) trouble with - one of these "multiple key" songs? - we might be able to explain more how they work, and how to improvise on that sort of thing.
Last edited by jongtr at Dec 20, 2016,
#11
Quote by jongtr
Very few songs "change keys multiple times" - certainly not in rock (maybe in jazz sometimes, but not often there either).

I'm not sure I'd say 'very few' songs, at least I come across enough that perhaps I could change it to "relatively few" Maybe it's more common in metal.
One example, I remember when tabbing this Epica song with a friend, discussing a certain part I said it's in C minor. He asked me is all the song in C minor then? I said umm, no ... it starts off in this key, then goes to this part which is using phrygian dominant, the soft chorus goes down a half step from the normal chorus to Eb minor, C minor part, end section in another key, etc ... there turned out to be six or seven different keys.

#12
Bear in mind there are various definitions of what a "key" is.

Some say it's defined by the key signature (as in music notation) . But this can be misleading (e.g. Bb maj and Gm have same key signature). Then need to look at chords and melody to figure which (based on frequency of Bb versus Gm chords, for example, and progression that target Bb or Gm)

Some say it's defined by the (main) scale used and the choice of starting pitch for scale.

But things can get quite blurred where its clear that the harmony centres around a given pitch, but the chords involved are derived from many different scale types all starting off same pitch.

For example, try mixing up chords for A natural minor and A harmonic minor. People do it for more variation in the sound of what they are creating
#13
Quote by jongtr
Very few songs "change keys multiple times" - certainly not in rock (maybe in jazz sometimes, but not often there either). The song you mentioned first was in just two keys, one for each section; in fact you could see it as one key, with a small alteration for the second section.


Yeah you are right, I guess I am have trouble even with just one key change then, and also a bit confused by modes since I really just started experimenting with them in the last month or so, unless you count Ionian That song I mentioned for instance someone said the instrumental/solo section is in F# Dorian, which has the same notes as E Ionian/Major and I guess I don't really understand what makes the solo F# Dorian as opposed to E Ionian. The solo doesn't end on an F#, and even though it begins on F# it seems like more of a passing note since it's just the beginning of a hammer-on into a G#. It seems to hover around G# and A just as much as F#. Is it just the F#m chord being played that makes that solo F# Dorian? I mean it definitely SOUNDS different to me than a normal Major/Ionian solo. I am just having trouble understanding why.
#14
Quote by bptrav
Yeah you are right, I guess I am have trouble even with just one key change then, and also a bit confused by modes since I really just started experimenting with them in the last month or so, unless you count Ionian That song I mentioned for instance someone said the instrumental/solo section is in F# Dorian, which has the same notes as E Ionian/Major and I guess I don't really understand what makes the solo F# Dorian as opposed to E Ionian. The solo doesn't end on an F#, and even though it begins on F# it seems like more of a passing note since it's just the beginning of a hammer-on into a G#. It seems to hover around G# and A just as much as F#. Is it just the F#m chord being played that makes that solo F# Dorian? I mean it definitely SOUNDS different to me than a normal Major/Ionian solo. I am just having trouble understanding why.

What note something begins or ends with really doesn't matter a lot. It's all about harmony. "Is it just the F#m chord being played that makes that solo F# Dorian?" Yes.

What key (or mode) a song is in has everything to do with harmony, so that's what you should focus on.

You can be in F# Dorian without even having a F# in the melody. Actually, F# is the least interesting note in F# Dorian because it adds no color. You may have heard of people saying "avoid the root" when they talk about soloing. The root note is the most "obvious" sounding note over the chord and emphasizing it too much just sounds predictable and bland. Finding the note that the melody uses the most doesn't really tell anything about the key. Again, look at harmony.

Learn about harmony. Learn how to find the tonic. Also, learn to recognize the major and minor sounds by ear. You don't really even need to find the tonic to hear whether the song is in major or minor. It's the same with the modes. They all have a distinct sound that you just learn to hear. So why is the solo in Dorian? Because it sounds like Dorian. Why does it sound like Dorian? Because there is only one chord, F#m, and when there is only one chord, that is most likely the tonic. It's not basic F# minor because the solo uses D# instead of D natural.

F# Dorian is a lot closer to F#m than E major. Yes, it has the same notes as E major, but it sounds closer to F# minor. That's because F# is the tonic and the tonic triad is minor. F# Dorian is only one note different from the F# minor scale (minor has a minor 6th, Dorian has a major 6th).

I would suggest focusing on major and minor keys first before learning about modes. If you don't properly understand major and minor keys, understanding modes will be difficult.
Quote by AlanHB
Just remember that there are no boring scales, just boring players.

Gear

Bach Stradivarius 37G
Charvel So Cal
Fender Dimension Bass
Hartke HyDrive 210c
Ibanez BL70
Laney VC30
Tokai TB48
Yamaha FG720S-12
Yamaha P115
#15
Quote by bptrav
I have been dissecting some of my favorite songs lately seeing what chord progressions they use, what scales, etc. Sometimes though they don't seem to fit in to any scale I know of. Is there any certain "rules" you can use to know for sure what scales/modes such a song is using and what key it is in?

For example I have been examining Tame Impala - Wander, and it "feels" like it resolves to B to me, but I can't really explain why it does and can't be sure about that.

The "verse" riff in this song goes (h/p are hammer/pulls):

D-B-C#h-D-F#h-G-A-B-C-Bh-Cp-B-A-B

The "chorus" riff is:

B5 (power chord) C#-F#h-G#p-F#-D#-E5 (power chord)-A5 (power chord)


The verse riff ends on a B and the chorus riff starts on a B5 power chord, but everything in between doesn't really seem to match any scale I know of. It does feel like it resolves to B, but as I said I'd like to have some sort of logical/theory reason for that and understand it better. Any tips you can give me would be helpful. Who knows maybe I'm completely wrong about B in the first place and you can set me straight.


There's a lot of stuff that won't make sense in music. I do not know how to say this in english, but there are "alternate" notes. For example, C major has no sharps or flats. And "alternated" note would be anything that doesn't fit there, like C#, F#,... making it sound unique. There are also melodic and harmonic scales, for example in minor, a harmonic scale would have the 7th note sharpened (A B C D E F G# A). Usually, you can follow your ears, but if you have bad ears and play every chord a major chord (most rythm guitarists I know), that would be a problem :P
#16
Quote by bptrav
Yeah you are right, I guess I am have trouble even with just one key change then, and also a bit confused by modes since I really just started experimenting with them in the last month or so, unless you count Ionian That song I mentioned for instance someone said the instrumental/solo section is in F# Dorian, which has the same notes as E Ionian/Major and I guess I don't really understand what makes the solo F# Dorian as opposed to E Ionian. The solo doesn't end on an F#, and even though it begins on F# it seems like more of a passing note since it's just the beginning of a hammer-on into a G#. It seems to hover around G# and A just as much as F#. Is it just the F#m chord being played that makes that solo F# Dorian? I mean it definitely SOUNDS different to me than a normal Major/Ionian solo. I am just having trouble understanding why.
As MM says, it's the chord that makes it F# dorian, by establishing the tonal centre via its root note. Regardless of what the lead part is doing, the chord (and the bass) is making us hear F# as the keynote, and not E. The A note then makes it minor, and the D# note is the "dorian" major 6th, which differentiates it from F# natural minor (aeolian).
#17
Quote by Colja123
There's a lot of stuff that won't make sense in music. I do not know how to say this in english, but there are "alternate" notes. For example, C major has no sharps or flats. And "alternated" note would be anything that doesn't fit there, like C#, F#,...
The English term is "chromatic". In notation, chromatic notes are indicated by "accidentals", which are sharps or flats occurring in the music, different from any in the key signature.
Quote by Colja123

There are also melodic and harmonic scales, for example in minor, a harmonic scale would have the 7th note sharpened (A B C D E F G# A).
Yes, that's the "A harmonic minor" scale, but generally in minor keys it's best to regard the 6th and 7th degrees of the scale as variable, rather than implying different scales. I.e., the minor key scale is one scale with flexible 6 and 7, not three scales amalgamated.

Also, there is no equivalent in major keys for harmonic and melodic minor, because the major scale is already "harmonic" and "melodic" enough without any alteration!
#18
Quote by jongtr
The English term is "chromatic". In notation, chromatic notes are indicated by "accidentals", which are sharps or flats occurring in the music, different from any in the key signature.
Yes, that's the "A harmonic minor" scale, but generally in minor keys it's best to regard the 6th and 7th degrees of the scale as variable, rather than implying different scales. I.e., the minor key scale is one scale with flexible 6 and 7, not three scales amalgamated.
alteration!


I agree with you completly! Also, we also call notes "chromatic notes", I just did a research, and it's called an "altered note". That's what I meant! Basically, altered notes and chromatically sharpened or flattened notes are the same! There's also an altered scale!
#19
Quote by Colja123
I agree with you completly! Also, we also call notes "chromatic notes", I just did a research, and it's called an "altered note". That's what I meant! Basically, altered notes and chromatically sharpened or flattened notes are the same! There's also an altered scale!
Indeed. The altered scale is the root 3rd and 7th of a dom7 chord, plus both altered 5ths and both altered 9ths. Some prefer to see the #5 as a b6 (or b13), which usually makes more sense in context. So: 1 b2 #2 3 b5 #5/b6 b7.
The scale derives from the chord, not vice versa. IOW, the chord is altered in the first place in order to provide interesting chromatic voice-leading on to the tonic chord. The scale is then constructed by adding the chord tones and potential alterations together.
#20
Quote by jongtr
Indeed. The altered scale is the root 3rd and 7th of a dom7 chord, plus both altered 5ths and both altered 9ths. Some prefer to see the #5 as a b6 (or b13), which usually makes more sense in context. So: 1 b2 #2 3 b5 #5/b6 b7.
The scale derives from the chord, not vice versa. IOW, the chord is altered in the first place in order to provide interesting chromatic voice-leading on to the tonic chord. The scale is then constructed by adding the chord tones and potential alterations together.


Oh, interesting!
#21
Quote by Colja123
Oh, interesting!
The other interesting thing is the relation with the tritone substitute, which is basically the same chord (all the same potential notes) with a different bass note. That can explain how both chords work, and (therefore) how the scale works.

1. Take Dm7-G7-C7.
2. Flatten the 5th on the G7, to make a nice chromatic descent to C, D-Db-C.
3. G7b5 = G-B-Db-F. Same notes as Db7b5 (Db-F-Abb-Cb). (Hold that thought)
4. Add a b9 to the G7, to get another chromatic line, A-Ab-G. G7b5b9 = G-B-Db-F-Ab. Same notes as Db7#11 (Db F Ab Cb G).
5. Try a #9 instead. A# could make an ascending line to the maj7 of C (A-A#-B), or it could go down to A, 6th of C (consonant extension). A# - as Bb - is the 13th of Db7.
6. How about a #5 on G instead of the b5? D# will go nicely to E on the C chord; or it could act between the 9ths on Dm7 and C (E-Eb-D). D# (Eb) is the 9th of Db7.

So we're ending up with a set of 7 notes - G Ab A#(Bb) B Db D#(Eb) F - that can form either an altered G7 chord, or (in full) a Db13#11. It doesn't matter what you call the resulting chord, its notes will resolve very neatly in various ways on to a a C major tonic(including 6th and 9th extensions). It also doesn't matter what you call the scale. With a G bass, it's "G altered", or "G diminished wholetone", or "G superlocrian". With a Db bass, it's "Db lydian dominant", or "Db lydian b7" (or "Db mixolydian #4", although I don't think anyone actually calls it that).
Some people like to call it "Ab melodic minor", which might help remember the notes, but of course it doesn't come from Ab melodic minor. It comes from all those chromatic alterations to the G7 we've made to get some cool voice-leading.

Here are all the voice-leading options from G altered (Db lydian b7) to a C major tonic (inc 6 and 9):
F  > E
Eb > E or D
Db > C or D
B  > C (or stay as B, on Cmaj7)
Bb > A or B
Ab > G or A
G  > stay as G
It works to a Cm tonic too (which can also have A, B or D extensions), you just miss the F > E move, because it becomes a whole step F > Eb. But then you could have a shared tone with Eb on the G7b13 (Db9).
Last edited by jongtr at Jan 13, 2017,