How do scales become melodies?
Most guitar students practice scales at some point. It’s a good way to build chops and learn to navigate the fretboard at the same time. With a little extra thought you can also use your scale practice for ear training, and to learn to apply music theory to the guitar neck. But one of the major challenges many students face is learning how to make music out of scales.
A scale can be a musical statement, but simply listening to scales alone is not very interesting. This is because there’s no variety, nothing distinctive for the ear to catch on to. Scales are a good way of organizing notes, but from a musical perspective it’s useful to think of them as raw materials: collections of notes to choose from. In order to create a memorable melody, we need to add more musical elements.
A good melody has some kind of distinctive rhythm. One of the traps students often fall into when learning to improvise is to play steady repeated notes with no sense of phrasing. Thinking rhythmically, “phrasing” means that notes are grouped into discrete sets, often separated by some sort of pause. It’s an organizing force in music, just as punctuation is for language.
I often start lessons on improvisation and soloing by asking the student to just play rhythms on a single note. This removes the question of which notes to play, and leaves only the choice of whether to make a sound or not. If the choice is not to play, the question is how long to wait. If the choice is to play, the question is how long to let the note sound. You can play notes on each beat, notes that extend over multiple beats, or notes that fill in the space between them. Playing more notes creates more activity, while using fewer notes creates a sense of space. This is a fundamental aspect of improvisation that’s hard to master when you’re busy trying to follow a finger pattern.
A scale goes one direction, up or down. A melody has contour, rising and falling in pitch. Standard music notation is essentially a graph of the melody, in which the horizontal axis is time and the vertical axis is pitch. You can think of the notation as a drawing of what you hear, making it understandable even if you don’t read music. If you’re a visual person, imagining this can be really helpful.
Scales always move in steps (whole or half), moving through the musical alphabet from letter to letter. Different scales will have different sequences of whole and half steps; you can imagine this clearly enough by picturing a piano keyboard. The combination of black and white keys may be different from one scale to another, but the sequence will always follow the musical alphabet without skipping letters. A melody will generally have more variety, moving up and down using smaller and larger intervals.
The way guitarists learn scales actually makes it a little harder to learn to improvise with them. It’s convenient to organize the patterns by position, staying within the same four or five frets across all six strings. This is a great way to organize the neck, but it breaks up the linear aspect of the scale. You can probably imagine the movement of notes on a single string pretty easily, rising in pitch in half-step increments as you move from fret to fret up the neck. Move in one direction, notes go up, move in the opposite direction they go down. Move more frets at once, larger change in pitch. Simple, right? But add the aspect of crossing strings and the mental map becomes a whole lot less clear. Combine the position model with the linear, single string model and things get exponentially more complicated!
To get past this, we need to see the scale as a simple sequence that rises and falls rather than a fingering matrix.
One good exercise is to start to identify the tones of the scale as scale degrees, numbering them according to their position in the sequence. This is great for ear training as well as a reinforcing the theory, in that you begin to learn the sound of each scale tone. A fifth sounds like a fifth, once you know what to listen for. Play the scale as a series of gradually increasing intervals, singing along if you can: 1 – 2, 1 – 3, 1 – 4, and so on. Then fill in the steps between each interval: 1 – 2 – 3 – 2 – 1. Treat each octave separately, and if the fingering pattern doesn’t cover a complete octave just go as fall as the pattern will allow. Don’t forget to practice descending intervals as well!
It will take some time before you really begin to absorb the information. You’ll start to hear similar sounds in different places right away, though. Remember the goal is to get to the point where you can think in terms of musical gestures rather than fingerings. To practice that aspect, we can take another approach.
Limiting your note choices is a great way to put the focus on other musical aspects.
Choose a small segment of a scale instead of the entire thing. Working with or without a backing track, experiment with very small musical ideas. Don’t play more than a few notes at a time, but focus on the ideas of line and phrasing. Remember, we really just have a handful of variables:
– up or down
– how much
– how long to wait for the next note
You might be surprised to find how easy it is for musical intuition to kick in when you start to apply these ideas. As you become more comfortable with directing your ideas rather than leading with your fingers, you can add more complexity. But the exercise in the beginning is to focus on making musical decisions as you play. That’s why we want to keep it simple at first, because even the most complex music can be broken down into series of simpler ideas.
If you’d like to explore this idea some more, take a look at this video applying the concept to rudimentary blues soloing: