5 Reasons to Learn Your Scale Intervals

Understanding intervals is very beneficial not only to your guitar playing, but to your development as a musician.

Ultimate Guitar
Scale intervals are a basic foundation of music theory. Understanding them is very beneficial not only to your guitar playing, but to your development as a musician.

A lot of guitar players will learn their scales as a series of patterns, often neglecting to learn the intervals that make up the scales. However, by learning the intervals that make up a scale, you will gain an understanding of not only how to play the scale, but how the scale functions, why it sounds like it does and where you can apply it; which instantly gives you an edge over guitar players that have not learned the intervals that make up scales and are limited to a small selection of scales, or blindly guessing at what will or will not work.

Here are 5 reasons you should learn your scale intervals:

1. You will instantly understand which scales will work over specific chords or chord progressions

By knowing the intervals that make up a scale, you will know which chords it will work over. As a general rule, you want to use a scale (or mode) that contains the same intervals as the chord that you are playing over. Understanding this concept will allow you to know which scales fit over different chords, and every time you learn a new scale you will know exactly how you can use it and which chords you can use it over.

For example, if you wanted to play over the top of a major chord:

1 3 5

and were wondering if you could use the Dorian mode, by knowing the scale degrees in the Dorian:

1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7

you can make a reasonably good judgment that this scale is not going to work (as the major chord has a major third and the Dorian has a minor third and knowing that these two notes will be very dissonant when played together, we can say that we should avoid this scale over this chord, unless you really enjoy the sound it makes!).

2. You will understand how to use multiple scales over the same chord

When you know the intervals within different scales, you will understand how you can move between different scales over a single chord. This will allow you to create more expressive guitar solos by having phrases that contrast and compliment each other and even create "conversations" between your phrases, which is a very cool tool to have in your guitar playing arsenal!

For example, if you have a major chord:

1 3 5

and by knowing your scale intervals you know that the Mixolydian mode contains:

1 2 3 4 5 6 b7

and that the 5th mode of the harmonic minor scale contains:

1 b2 3 4 5 b6 b7

you now know that you can use and move between these two different scales over the same chord (of course, assuming the chord lasts long enough for you to do so!).

3. Allows you to understand how to approach chord sequences that are not entirely diatonic

When you are looking at a chord sequence that is purely diatonic, knowing what to play over the top is quite straight forwards. But if you are faced with a chord progression that contains one or more chords that are not from the key, working out what will fit, without guessing or using trial and error requires understanding scale intervals.

If you do not understand scale intervals and try guessing at which scales fit, you will probably find that there are a lot of notes that clash. This approach can also be very frustrating, because you don't understand why what you are playing does not work. So you need to know what will work and why it will work. By understanding scale intervals, you can very quickly create a shortlist of different scales that you can move into over that awkward chord, and you will know that it will work.

4. Understand how to create more specific moods and emotions in your playing

The hallmark of a great composer / improviser is being able to accurately get the listener to feel specific emotions, to have complete control over what the audience is feeling and experiencing when listening to the music. Now, different scales create different moods, and in order to be able to emotionally control the listener, you need to understand the different emotions created by different scales. In the free eBook at the end of this article, there is a complete guide to the different modes and their intervals.

A great way to start understanding how these emotions work, is to record yourself playing a major chord, then put it on loop, and play all the major modes over the top of it, slowly, one at a time, and listen to the sort of mood it creates and how the mood changes between different scales. Then record a minor chord and do the same thing with the minor scales.

Once you have done that, look at your "mood" list, and then compare that to the intervals in each scale. You will start to be able to identify how these intervals affect the emotional experience of the listener, which is a great start to being able to improve the emotional accuracy of your playing.

5. Allows you to know that what you are going to play will work... before you play it

This is the general principle underpinning all of the previous points in this article. Have you ever watched a band playing live, and one of the guitar players tries improvising and it sounds absolutely horrible? This happens because rather than knowing what does and does not work, they are making a blind guess, which is something you never want to do!

By learning and understanding scale intervals, you will be able to choose a specific scale, for a specific musical situation that you are facing, and know that it is going to work and how it will sound, before you have played it. This is a vital tool for you to have in your musical arsenal, and it will improve your live improvisation skills, songwriting skills and musicianship (and your self esteem!).

So there you have it, 6 reasons for you to learn the intervals that scales are made up of!

By Sam Russell
To learn more about scales, modes and the intervals they are made up of, you can download the free eBook, "The Complete Guide to the Modes of the Major, Harmonic Minor and Melodic Minor Scales," which contains diagrams, tablature and reference charts to help you understand how to play, and how to use the different modes and scales.

8 comments sorted by best / new / date

    This is great for people just starting out or interested in developing their skills further. Number 4 will really help a lot of you out, if you do anything, pick some up scales/modes from some guitar tab site :-P...then do number 4
    I'm confused on #2. You call it a minor chord, and say the Mixolydian scale/mode can be played over it. I know that the Mixolydian has a minor 7th, but it doesn't sound very good over a minor chord. This may have been a typo, though, as the intervals listed are still for a major chord. And for anyone wondering, I have downloaded Mr. Russell's eBook, and I definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to gain some understanding of theory, as the book is very easy to understand and helps you find ways to apply them to your own writing/playing.
    You're right, massive typo there. I've emailed the staff to get it fixed! Thanks!
    I play and sing old country and rock songs which are mostly 3 chord progression. I have never played scales. I would like to learn how to play lead and don't know what basic course to start with. Any suggestions would be appreciated.
    Hi Joe, if you sign up to the ebook on my website, you can reply to the email you get and I'll give you a hand! www.samrussell.co.uk/ebook
    Very useful for me,this article! ill have to disagree on #4 though : "in order to be able to emotionally control the listener, you need to understand the different emotions created by different scales" though i agree generally on "different emotions created by different scales" i think we should play to an audience with the intent that they are free to feel and intepret whatever they want,because no 2 individuals live the exact same lives but are unique on this earth.
    There is a distinction that needs to be made here: The emotion that people feel when they listen to a piece of music will be universally the same. What we attach to that emotion will differ from person to person, depending on their sense of life. For example, if you listen to Chopin's Prelude Number 4, we would all agree that it is a very sad sounding piece. But, where our views would diverge is how we interpret that, do we like it because it is sad, do we hate it because it is sad, the image it conjures for me will be different to the image it conjures for you; but, we will both agree on the base emotion present.