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Scales and emotions

Posted on March 2, 2010 by Ethan

See also a post about making chords from scales.

So maybe you want to write a song or an instrumental in a particular mood or style, and youre feeling overwhelmed by
all the scales. Heres a handy guide to the commonly used scales in Western pop, rock, jazz, blues and so on. Click each
image to play the scale right in your browser with the aQWERTYon.

Major scales
These scales have a major third (E in the key of C), which makes them feel happy or bright.

Major scale

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Happy; can be majestic or sentimental when slow. The white keys on the piano. Examples: Mary Had A Little Lamb,
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

Mixolydian mode

Bluesy, rock; can also be exotic/modal. Play over C7 chord. Same pitches as F major. Example: Tomorrow Never Knows
by the Beatles.

Lydian mode

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Ethereal, dreamy, futuristic. Same pitches as G major. Example: Possibly Maybe by Bjrk (from the line As much as I
definitely enjoy solitude)

Lydian dominant mode

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Also known as the overtone scale or acoustic scale, because it is close to the first seven pitches in the natural overtone
series. Same pitches as the G melodic minor scale and the F-sharp/G-flat altered scale.

Phrygian dominant mode

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Exotic, Middle Eastern, Jewish. Same pitches as F harmonic minor. Example: Hava Nagila.

Harmonic major scale

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Majestic, mysterious. Lord Of The Rings feeling.

Minor Scales
These scales have a flat third (E-flat in the key of C), which gives them a darker and more tragic feel.

Natural minor scale (Aeolian mode)

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Sentimental, tragic. Same pitches as E-flat major.

Dorian mode

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Hip, sophisticated, jazzy. Same pitches as B-flat major. Example: So What by Miles Davis.

Harmonic minor scale

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Tragic, exotic, Middle Eastern.

Melodic minor scale

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Mysterious, jazzy, very dark. Example: sixties Coltrane. See a blog post about melodic minor.

Phrygian mode

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Spanish/Flamenco. Same pitches as A-flat major.

Locrian mode

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Very dark and unstable. Use over C half-diminished chords. Same pitches as C-sharp/D-flat major and B-flat natural

Neither major nor minor

Blues scale

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Bluesy, obviously. Works great over major and minor chords. C minor pentatonic with sharp fourth/flat fifth added.

Altered scale

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Use over a C7 chord to make it sound very intellectual and jazzy. Same pitches as C-sharp/D-flat melodic minor.

Pentatonic scales have five notes. The blues scale is the minor pentatonic plus the flat fifth.

Major pentatonic scale

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Joyful; widely used in world and folk music. Major scale with 4th and 7th removed. Same pitches as A minor pentatonic.
Heres a blog post about playing pentatonics on guitar.

Minor pentatonic scale

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Widely used in rock, world and folk music. Minor scale with 2nd and 6th removed. Same pitches as E-flat major
pentatonic. Heres a blog post about playing pentatonics on guitar.

Synthetic Scales
These scales are based on regular, symmetric patterns.

Chromatic scale

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All of the piano keys. Freefalling, anxiety-producing.

Whole tone scale

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Dreamy, underwater. Every alternating key on the piano. Same pitches as D, E, F-sharp, G-sharp and A-sharp whole tone
scales. Example: Background parts in the Simpsons theme song.

Octatonic scale

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Dark, mysterious. Same pitches as E-flat, G-flat and A octatonic scales. Examples: movies about Dracula.

Hexatonic scale

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Alternating minor third, half step. Wonderfully exotic.

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Meet the major scale Musical simples - Teenage The major scale modes
January 20, 2011 Dream January 22, 2011
In "Music" March 7, 2016 In "Music"
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This entry was posted in Composition, Emotion, Music, Music Teaching, Music Theory, Software and tagged
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37 thoughts on Scales and emotions

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Lesedi says:
September 12, 2015 at 4:56 am

These are really on point and useful. Thanks

Nabil Khazzaka says:

July 27, 2015 at 7:35 am

Hi Ethan,

I found your blog only recently and I just wanted to thank you for addressing things that others dont dare or like
to address! I read a lot of interesting things over here! Loads of kudos to you!

Pedroski says:
February 11, 2015 at 1:14 pm

Hi Ethan,
What happened to all the pics from Flickr that are not showing anymore? Any chance this can be fixed easily, as
would love to read your older articles.

Ethan says:
February 11, 2015 at 1:17 pm

I batch-set my Flickr photos to private for various reasons, and have been slowly going through the blog
manually changing the images back. Ill fix this one immediately. Please flag any others I havent hit yet
that you want to check out.

zach says:
September 27, 2014 at 3:58 pm

I have a question what is a good mode to write hip hop in I write mostly in natural minor but if I want something
not so dreery what should I do I hate the major scale every song sounds like a happy birthday type of melody

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Ethan says:
September 27, 2014 at 6:44 pm

Yeah, major scale is pretty wack. For hip-hop, I recommend Dorian mode, its minor but with a jazzier and
brighter feel than natural minor.

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Bernd Willimek says:

December 24, 2013 at 8:28 am

Music and Emotions

The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that
assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the
Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music cant convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional
processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored
with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our
favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will Yes, I want to. If you perceive a
minor chord, you identify normally with the will I dont want any more. If you play the minor chord softly, you
connect the will I dont want any more with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you
connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone
would say the words I dont want anymore the first time softly and the second time loudly.
Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and
neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the
phenomena which early music theorists called lead, leading tone or striving effects. If we reverse this musical
phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change but the listener identifies with a will
not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice,
everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be
represented musically.

Further information is available via the free download of the e-book Music and Emotion Research on the
Theory of Musical Equilibration:


or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:

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Enjoy reading

Bernd Willimek

Eduardo Magalhes says:

December 15, 2015 at 4:18 pm

Thanks for your post! Congratulations for your work! Its really the most inspiring and objective article Ive
read about music for years. Very scientific and the results are surprisingly precises considering issuing with
emotions and musical perception. I will start composing as soon as I finish my creative protocol, but I can
say that the Theory of Music Equilibration will be a fresh start for me. Thank you and Daniela so much!

Mercalus says:
August 28, 2012 at 6:31 pm

Yes, thank you! Ive been looking for these! I like to play around in music making software like Cubase, and once
in a while I would run into a combination of notes that just reminded me of mysteriousness, or egyptian. I
played some of the scales above and it helps clear it up.

AND I have more emotion-induced scales to play around with. This is a lifesaverespecially for the
unknowledgeable music maker. =D


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Jeffrey Agrell says:

January 2, 2012 at 12:48 am

I think its easier to read scales if you simply write the scale degree numbers 1-7 and add inflections. For example,
Ahava raba:

1 b2 3 4 5 b6 b7, which I would also normally call the Spanish Phrygian or Klezmer whats in a name.?

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Cschully says:
October 4, 2011 at 8:53 pm

i remember when I was a young organists apprentice my teacher was improvising for a postlude in some strange
harmony; after his virtuosic composition ended I told him I liked the mode he employed, to which he replied oh,
yeah thats a Hungarian myxoldyian scale or some shit like that, but he said it so nonchalantly that i always
remembered that. Learning music is a Socratic knowledge; the more I learn the more I learn I do not know

Rob says:
September 5, 2011 at 7:45 pm

So youre saying that the melodic minor scale sounds dark? I would have said that the major 6th especially makes
it sound bright! Obviously youve got the minor third there to balance it out a bit, but I disagree that its a dark

Also, the scale youve called Ahava Raba Ive always known as the Phrygian Dominant as it resembles the
phrygian mode but with a major third. So I was a bit thrown by that one!

Those arent disagreements, this is a really informative post overall!


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Mangaboy01 says:
August 2, 2011 at 5:54 pm

thanks for all these usedul informations about pentatonical music! as for a kinda add-on to your informations,
african music as well as traditionnal asiatic music are pentatonical ;)

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Keith says:
May 25, 2011 at 10:29 pm

Octatonic is a synthetic scale!

Videogamer1805 says:
April 20, 2011 at 2:19 am

Locrian? Where is Locrian?

Anonymous says:
April 20, 2011 at 2:37 am

I omitted it because its not very widely used except in jazz, and then only in very specific contexts. I figured
the jazz experts already know how it sounds and most people dont need to know it.

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Chris Bellacose says:

March 14, 2011 at 1:45 pm

This is great! Now I have to go listen to Dracula soundtracks!


Brian Charles Clark says:

March 8, 2011 at 5:36 pm

This is a fantastic post for so many reasons. This whole blog is great I love it that youre a FB skeptic! In re
music and emotion, tho, this article by a colleague of mine sheds a wee little bit of light on the subject:

Ethan says:

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8/22/2017 Scales and emotions | The Ethan Hein Blog

March 8, 2011 at 8:24 pm

Glad youre enjoying the blog. That article by your colleague sheds more than a wee little bit of
light, theres much food for thought there, another couple of blog posts worth at least. Thanks for writing!

Tiago Ribeiro says:

February 27, 2011 at 7:09 pm

Hi there,
I found your work while searching about the emotions that we associate to different scales or chords. This search
is in the context of an academic research, in the field of affective computing and non-verbal communication.

This is exactly what i was searching for, but it lacks references =) Could you please recommend me some literature
where i can find the concepts you describe in this post? I would really love to know of a book or something that is,
to music, what Goethes Theory of Colors is to color, however, i dont know of such work. If you could help me
out, I would appreciate it.

Tiago Ribeiro

Ethan says:
February 27, 2011 at 7:15 pm

Hi Tiago. The post lacks references because I have no idea where youd go in the literature to find these
concepts. I learned them from experience with music all of the descriptions here are my own best
attempt at describing common practice usage of the scales. If you do find any books or anything, please
post a comment, and Id love to read what youre working on.

Ethan says:
December 22, 2010 at 11:47 am

Thanks, Mr Shark.

Mr. Shark says:

November 30, 2010 at 3:22 am

Cool little list, mate.

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Leo says:
March 3, 2010 at 10:55 am

Dont put fourths/elevenths into major chords unless you leave the third out Now wheres the fun in that?

Ethan says:
March 3, 2010 at 10:59 am

Yeah, I know, really you should feel free to do whatever you want and I can cite a few examples where
people use the third and fourth together and it sounds cool, but this is aimed at the mainstream.

Comments are closed.


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