Bass Lesson. Part 5 - Major Scales, Keys, Chord Changes, And The Circle Of Fifths

In this lesson, we'll talk about scales, which determine which chords are used in a song and in what sequence, and we'll work through major scales and give some examples of common songs built on major scales and some common chord changes. We'll also introduce the Circle of Fifths, which is something most bass players have heard of and all of them should know perfectly.

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Lesson 4 - Major Scales, Keys, Chord Changes, and the Circle of Fifth

In the last lesson, we talked about creating bass lines based on the chords of the song being played. In this lesson, we'll talk about scales, which determine which chords are used in a song and in what sequence, and we'll work through major scales and give some examples of common songs built on major scales and some common chord changes. We'll also introduce the Circle of Fifths, which is something most bass players have heard of and all of them should know perfectly. Knowing the common chord patterns will make it much easier to learn songs off records, because it lets you make accurate guesses about where the bass line is likely to go, and it will also help you in writing songs if you are interested in doing that.

The first thing to observe is that although there are 12 different notes in music (A,B flat, C, D flat, and so on up to A flat), most songs don't use all of those notes: in fact, most don't use any more than 7 of them. Which notes are used in a given song is determined by the key of the song, and the choice of a key gives the composer (or bass player) a guide to choosing the chords and notes he wants to use in writing the song (or the bass line). And, if you know what key a song is in, then it will help you figure out the bass line to thatsong, because it gives you a good guide as to what notes might be used in the song's bass line and which notes will not be used. The notes that are associated with a given key are called a scale. For example, we might want to write a song inthey key of C major, and if we did that we'd use the notes from the C major scale. That scaleis: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C; all the white keys on the piano and none of the black keys. You can play that scale at a piano or on your bass: on the bass, the notes are: 
G-----------------2--4--5--
D--------2--3--5-----------
A--3--5--------------------
E--------------------------
If you play this scale, you'll notice that it has a very comfortable, familiar sound to it; that's because major scales are the most widely used scales in music. There's nothing magical about C as the choice of a starting note: you can create a major scale starting on any note you like, and there will be a major key associated with that scale. The thing that defines a major scale is that it contains 7 notes, and they are all a whole step apart except for the 3rd and 4th note which are a half-step apart. (There is also a half-step between the 7th note and the next octave of the 1st note. ) Thus, you can create the D major scale by starting on D and going up by whole steps, except after the 3rd (and 7th) note. Thus, the D major scale would be: D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D. Note the half-step between F# and G, and between C# and D. You can play this scale on your bass like this: 
G-----------------4--6--7--
D--------4--5--7-----------
A--5--7--------------------
E--------------------------
Notice that this pattern is exactly the same as the C major scale above, except that it's two frets higher. In fact, this same general pattern will form a major scale starting
on any string, at any fret. For example, the F major scale looks like this: 
G--------------------------
D-----------------0--2--3--
A--------0--1--3-----------
E--1--3--------------------
which is the same fingering pattern, starting at the 1st fret of the E string. A song written using these 7 notes would be said to be in the key of F major You can keep going up the fingerboard if you like, starting again on the new new F: if you do this you'll repeat the 1st note as the 8th note, the 2nd note as the 9th note, and so on. In F major, the result would look like this: 
G-----------------------------2--3--5--7--9--10
D-----------------0--2--3--5-------------------
A--------0--1--3-------------------------------
E--1--3----------------------------------------
and you can see that the 2nd note and the 9th note are both G, and 3rd note and the 10th note are both A, etc. Sometimes G will be called the 2nd or the 9th, depending on the circumstances. Once you've chosen a key for the song, you can then start choosing the chords to use in the song. Because you now only have 7 notes to choose from, the number of chords you can form is reduced. For example, suppose you are writing in the key of C major, and you want to form a chord with C as the root note. You can't use C minor, because that requires an E-flat, which is not a note of the C major scale. However, you can form the C major chord, by using the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of the scale: C, E, and G. (This is why the three notes of the C major chord are called 1st, 3rd, and 5th: they are the 1st, 3rd and 5th note of the C major scale). If you wanted to form a chord with D as the root note, you can't form D major (it requires a F-sharp) but you can form D minor using D, F, and A, the 2nd, 4th, and 6th notes of the scale. So, if you are writing in the key of C major, you will end up using the chord D minor rather than D major. If you wanted to form a four-note chord with G as the root, you would use the G, B, D, and F (the 5th, 7th, 9th, and 11th notes) and you would get a G7 chord.

The main purpose of choosing a key is to guide you in selecting the chords to use in your song. Consider, for example, the song "You Shook Me All Night Long" by AC-DC. It's in the key of G major and goes like this: 
Verse: (repeat as needed)

G C G C G D G D G D
G-----------|------------------|------------|----------------
D-----------|------------------|------------|----------------
A---------3-|-3--3-----3-----5-|-5--5--r----|-------5-----5--
E---3--r----|-------3-----3----|----------3-|-3--3-----3-----
She was a fast machine, she kept her motor clean, she was the best damn woman that I've ever seen.

Chorus: (repeat as needed)

G C Bm D C Bm
G-------------|---------|------------|----------
D-------------|---------|------------|----------
A-----0--2--3-|-3--2--5-|-5--0--2--3-|-3--2-----
E--3----------|---------|------------|-------3--

You Shook me All Night Long You really shook me yeah,
The bass plays mostly root notes. Between the verse and chorus the bass line makes two changes: first, it plays only roots in the verse, but starts playing some passing notes between roots in the chorus; and second, the verse contains rests between long notes, but in the chorus there are no rests and the notes are connected to one another. However, the main thing to notice about this song at the moment is the choice of chords. The song is on the G major scale: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G. In TAB it looks like this: 
G--------------------------
D-----------------2--4--5--
A-----0--2--3--5-----------
E--3-----------------------
and notice that all of the notes of the bass line, even the passing notes in the chorus, come from this scale. The chords used are G major (G, B, D), C major (C, E, G), D major (D, F#, A) and B minor (E, G, B), and all of those notes come from the G major scale as well. In fact, in the whole song, both guitar parts, bass line, and vocal line together, you won't find any notes that are not part of the G major scale.

In general, once you've chosen a key, you've chosen whether to have major or minor chords for each of the notes in the scale, and what kind of 7th to use if you use one. I'll work out the chords for the G major scale, but you should notice that you'll always get the same types of chords for any major scale you might pick: 
G major scale: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, [ G, A, B, C, D, E ]

Root Note Notes Chord 7th 7th chord
G G, B, D G major F# G maj7
A A, C, E A minor G A min7
B B, D, F# B minor A B min7
C C, E, G C major B C maj7
D D, F#, A D major C D7
E E, G, B E minor D E min7
F# F#, A, C F# dim E E half-dim7
In general, in a major key the chords formed using the 1st, 4th, and 5th scale note are major, the ones formed on the 2nd, 3rd, and 6th notes are minor, and the one on the 7th note is diminished. You can refer to the chord simply by the number of the scale note that is the root note: so we say that in the key of G major, D major is the fifth chord. Usually it's written out using Roman numerals, so that we say that in the key of G, G major is the I chord, A minor is the II chord, C major is the IV chord, etc.

Now that we know what root notes to use to form chords, and what type of chords (major, minor, 7th) to use, we've pretty much decided which chords can be used and which can't be. The next question is, in what order should we use these chords? The answer is, you can use them in pretty much any order you want, except that the song should begin and end on the I chord. However, there are some very common patterns that are used. One of them we've already run into in Wipeout and the 12-bar blues: it is the pattern
I IV I V I
where the first I chord gets 4 measures and each of the other chords gets two measures. There are a number of other common patterns. For example, there is: 
I IV I V I
which is the basic pattern from I Saw Her Standing There, by theBeatles. It is in the key ofE, and uses the chords E, A and B7. 
E A E
Well she looked at me, and I, I could see
B7
That before too long, I'd fall in love with her...
E A
Yeah I'll never dance with another, oooh
E B7 E
Since I saw her standing there.
A twist on this pattern is to present the V and IV chords in the other order.
For example, there is
I V IV I
which is the basic pattern of the chorus of Fortunate Son, by Creedence
Clearwater Revival It's in G major so it uses G, D, and C as chords. 
G D C G
It ain't me, It ain't me, I ain't no Senator's son, no.
G D C G
It ain't me, It ain't me, I ain't no Fortunate Son.
You can also throw in some common minor chords. A very very common
pattern in jazz music is
I II V7 I
where the II chord is minor. However, since most jazz songs don't have words, it's hard to provide an example. You'll have to trust me that if you listen to jazz you'll hear it a lot.

You can also use the sequence: 
I VI IV V I
where the VI chord is minor. This pattern is the basis of the song "Lollipop" with each chord getting one measure. In the key of F major it'd go like this: 
F Dm B flat C7
Lollipop, lollipop, oh lollie, lollipop (repeat ad nausem)
Try playing these chords on a piano or guitar and you'll see that they sound quite natural played in that order. However, if you play the D minor chord as major instead (using the F# instead of F) you'll find it a littlejarring, because the F# is not a note of the F major scale. You can also use II instead ofIV, if you want to get a second minor chord into the sequence: 
I VI II V I
One song that does that is the following popular folk song, Today, which is
in D major and uses D, B minor, E minor, and A7 chords: 
D Bm Em A7
Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine
D Bm Em A7
I'll taste your strawberries, I'll drink your sweet wine
D Bm Em A7
A million tommorows will all pass away
D Bm Em A7 D
Ere I forget all the joy that is mine, today.
Folk music in particular tends to use very common chord changes and repeat them over and over, and if you want to develop your ability to recognize the common changes, it's not a bad idea to listen to some folk music because you will hear them very clearly there.

There is one last piece of information about chord patterns that every bass player ought to know. It summarizes all the information about how chords move from one to the next in a simple way. It's called the Circle of Fifths, and it's created by writing out the 12 notes in this order: each note is followed by the 5th note of its major scale. Thus, if we start with C, we follow it with G (the 5th note of the C major scale). We follow the G with D, which is the 5th note of the G major scale, and D is followed by A, and so on around theoctave until we get to F, which is followed by C, and we're back to where we started. The complete Circle of Fifths looks like this: 
 C
F G
Bb/A# D
Eb/D# A
Ab/G# E
Db/C# B
Gb/F#
There are two basic rules for chord changes. The first isthat short movements along the circle sound more natural than long ones. For example, the chord change C major to G major is very natural, whereas the change C major to E minor is more awkward. The second rule is that clockwise moves (forward) make the song seem to be developing forwards, whereas counter-clockwise moves (backward) make the song be resolving. The chord changes we gave above are these: 
E A E B E (I Saw Her Standing There). This one involves only single
step movements. Starting on E, we go back, forwards, forwards, back.

G D C G (Fortunate Son). This one starts by going forward one step, then
jumps back two steps, then resolves by going forward one step.

D Bm Em A7 (Today). This one begins with a three-step jump forward, but
then resolves back one step at a time.

F Dm Bb C7 (Lollipop) This one begins with a three-step jump forward, th
en comes _four_ steps back, then two steps forward and resolves with a gentl
e single step back.
Almost all chord movements in all songs involves jumps of 4 steps or less along the Circle, and most of them only 1 or 2 steps. The Circle of Fifths is an invaluable guide to picking up bass lines off a record. The general steps you can follow are these:

1. Listen to the first note and the last chord of the song. This root note of this chord will almost invariably be key of the song. Thus, if the first chord is A major, then the song is very probably in the key of A major.

2. Listen to the song and try to figure out the sequence of chord changes. If you can hear each chord, great: but if you need to guess, guess short steps on the Circle of Fifths before you guess longer ones. eg, if the song opens on A major, it's very likely that the next chord is either D major or E major, and it's very unlikely to be F minor or D flat major.

3. Once you know the sequence of chords of the song, then start trying to find the individual notes of the bass line from the chords that are being played, and from the likely passing notes between those chords.

64 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    gunners fan
    gunners fan wrote: Great!!! You have no idea how helpful that was! I've got alot of work in a short period & this has just been a lifesaver!!! easy to understand brillint!!! 6 Stars!!!
    whoops! I meant 11 stars!!
    Alive-89
    this lesson is pretty in depth i like your description of chord sequences with all that "I IV II etc" stuff its little things like that that show effort.. something alot of people leavin comments like "i dont even play bass" wont have...haha! i like it its helpful, I already play bass and sometimes i think it helps to go back to more basic techniques to really work through things I know. whey! x peace
    mattvilla1
    Hey cheers for the amazing lessons man! i just got my bass literally last month and these lessons have really got me going on getting proper lessons! cheers again and keep em coming
    brigetebardot
    Unfortunately, most contemporary, rock or hard rock songs use chord choices that do not fit major scale theory. Most commonly, the appearance of a progression such as D-A-C-G is actually in the key of G major (or it's fifth mode, mixolydian). Also, minor or dominant chord substitutions are a vital part of many songs. A great example is "Space Oddity" which features a progression of C-E7-F-Fmin-C-F in the verse. The song's key center of C major does not explain the appearance of E7 or Fmin (E7 is the V chord of A minor and Fmin is the IV chord of C minor). If all songwriters were contrained to the chords of the key center, music would be pretty boring!!! For another awesome example of compostion, check out "Angel" by Jimi Hendrix.
    dalyj
    Very nice lesson... but i think there is a mistake... The chords used are G major (G, B, D), C major (C, E, G), D major (D, F#, A) and B minor (E, G, B) Surely B Minor Would Be "B D F#" Does It Mean E Major?
    kaz77777
    Absolutely a fabulous lesson. I play bass for quite some time now, but i never heard of Circles of Fifths or anything. Really helpfull, and if I could give a rating higher then 10, i most certainly would!!!
    Gfa
    great lesson! but im a beginner and how do i know in what i should play a song?
    Gfa
    i mean in what key
    whenweareweak!
    honestly, i don't know the "technical" way if there is one but how i do it is i listen to the song. i play notes with the song trying to find a few that match with the song. then you can go from there. you can also do that with the first and/or last note of the song and match it and that should be it.
    slappysquirrel
    you should do a lesson on variations of music theory. i.e. chromatic chord/chord, whole dim scale and half dim scale,secondary dominants (i dont get that one), modal interchange, and diff forms of modulation like modal interchange. i guess its the more advanced stuff
    gunners fan
    Great!!! You have no idea how helpful that was! I've got alot of work in a short period & this has just been a lifesaver!!! easy to understand brillint!!! 6 Stars!!!
    andy da man
    Misfit66 wrote: thanks dude, i got some scales off another site, and they were wrong, so i checked these 1's and they were right, and bassmasta96 if u were a master bassist u should under stand!!!
    haha nice one
    IrishGuitar77
    If you dont understand this its probably because you dont have any background in music. You have to have some knowladge of music to understand this
    cheugonjr
    that was amazing, i have been trying to understand basic theory and i feel like that put it all together for me
    T-mu
    i didnt quite get everything yet but ill read these articles a couple more times.
    Sabbath-Bassist
    These 4 lessons are un-freaking-believable, and I'm really grateful for these. But I'm from Finland and we Finns like our music in minor key, so I'm a little disappointed that you don't tell us about key of minor. But thank you for these lessons
    Guusguus
    metaljuggalo420 wrote: im a beginner,so could somebody tell me what a step is exactly?
    a step is 1 fret, or on piano the first note next to the note you're looking at
    Guusguus
    bassmasta96 wrote: Do NOT UNderstand
    then you are a real bass master.
    andrasiboti
    dalyj wrote: Very nice lesson... but i think there is a mistake... The chords used are G major (G, B, D), C major (C, E, G), D major (D, F#, A) and B minor (E, G, B) Surely B Minor Would Be "B D F#" Does It Mean E Major?
    E minor!
    NightRyder747
    aghhh im a beginner and i find this to be hard to learn. but i need to learn it somehow.!
    Turbo_zoobomb
    This lesson is lacking examples (compared to the other lessons) but I definitely learned something new about composing music with the Circle of Fifths. Thank you for this lesson!
    bluex13
    I'm a little confused cos I get that if a song is in the key G, the notes in that scale are G A B C D E F# G. Is there exceptions, I'm looking at this rockschool book and one of the songs is in G but their using C#
    bluex13
    jessebyes wrote: could someone please post a b major scale
    B Major Scale B C# D# E F# G# A# B
    ffuuzz
    a step is like from F to G...dont hit f# half a step is F to F#....or B to C#
    MoshkI
    i think its better to read the lesson for about 15x before spitting out some comments..5stars! btw...if its the UGteam who wrote these lessons that would mean there are lots of you guys who wrote this? maybe next you should identify yourself..who knows..someone might worship you...hehe...keep up the good works guys... PS: help save the internet...they say USgov would shut it down..info on the net would be filtered..and that sucks...
    Modern Kickz 77
    these lessons were extremely helpful. bass is my third instrument, so i already knew the stuff about scales and theory, but i didnt know much about forming bass lines. Great lessons.
    bass_maiden
    a step is a note higher than the previous note, e.g. say you have a C chord, a step higher is a D chord, basically its just two frets higher.
    Psykotik
    Well I already knew all this, but I can say that this is an excellent and very clear lessons. Nice work.
    _TheBassist01_
    I'm still a little 'iffy' you didnt explain everything through, but it was great i learned a lot. 5 stars
    buckethead101
    can some body tell me how to apply the key into the songs you've written. What is the key to this progression D-A-C-G? Is it in a key of D major? Thanks
    Punk Bass MTB
    thats not is a key in dont think.... to be in D major all of the chords need to fit in to the D scale (D, E, F sharp, G, A, B, C sharp, D) SO the C chord dose not fit. You could change the D to a D minor, and the A to an A minor, and then it would fit i C major i do belive. The progresion would be II VI I V then. Just remember that the second, third, and sixth chords of a major scale tend to be minor ( some one correct me if im wrong on that) P.S.When your writing songs try to write near a keyboard it helps you see things.
    bass junky
    VERY GOOD LESSON, BUT FOR A NEWBY, STILL A LITTLE HARD TO GRASP IT ALL. I'LL KEEP ON READING
    pyro_the_bear
    don't worry bass junky, it took me months to learn this stuff, it'l be worth it when it finaly sinks in though
    John Swift
    E A E Well she looked at me, and I, I could see B7 That before too long, I'd fall in love with her... E A Yeah I'll never dance with another, oooh E B7 E Since I saw her standing there. Two of the most important chords in this song are missing, on the section "I'll never dance" dance is E7(Play G# on Bass), " with another OOO..H" OOO..h hits a C note on Bass and an appropriate chord on guitar. You won't find E7 in the score but if you listen it is there, I've been playing the song since it came out on the Beatles first album
    Misfit66
    thanks dude, i got some scales off another site, and they were wrong, so i checked these 1's and they were right, and bassmasta96 if u were a master bassist u should under stand!!!
    swain399
    thank you very much for your help in this series of lessons, you put alot of time into helping other people learn some very important information. it must be hard to help these days with so many disrespectfull no-nothing punks out there telling you that u suck and your lessons are bad. keep up the good work there are hundreds benefiting from your site and many more that at least appreciate it. i personally learned alot as a beginner and hope to see more added. again thank you very much and best regards to those who feel the same.
    JimmyBaker
    all of these lessons were excellent, but this last one wasn't as clear at the end as the others were. Five stars, still.
    Gimmitz
    Great lessons. Slightly confused on the circle of fifths, but aside from that, great work!!!!