Getting into basic music theory can be confusing, so let’s take a look at where it all starts. The Major Scale and Ionian mode are a great place to begin! Today we show you the easy way to learn.
Basic Music Theory: Start Here!
We have talked about basic music theory here a few times. But those discussions were just surface level, and an introduction. You can always dive a lot deeper, because you can study guitar forever, technically. You will never know everything when it comes to music, and guitar especially. Surely though, its never too late to get started when it comes to basic music theory. Whether you are just starting as a beginner, or you’ve played for 20 years!
There’s a joke that goes around about how guitarists would rather buy more gear than to actually learn anything about music. There is some truth to that, and I run into guitarists all the time that can play really well from a technical perspective. But they have absolutely no idea what they are playing, or why it sounds good. Basic music theory will give you a new perspective on why you enjoy some sounds more than others on guitar.
What Is A Scale In Basic Music Theory?
In basic music theory, a scale is a set of musical notes ordered by frequency or pitch. A scale that increases pitch is called an ascending scale, while a scale that decreases pitch is called an descending scale. Scales have different Modes, Quality, and Positions.
As guitarists, when we think of a scale we usually equate it to playing a solo. For the most part, that is correct. You definitely need to know your scales to play solos. But scales can also be thought in the terms of Intervals, Octaves, and Modes. This basic music theory is what you reference when you want to write a killer melody or progression. Scales and Modes help to “set the scene” when it comes to the feel of a song.
Today we are going to go over the most basic music theory concepts, starting with the Major Scale. This scale is important to learn and master, since it is the basis for almost all music in some capacity. The Major Scale has a companion in the Minor Scale, but that needs to be a separate article all together. Today we will just be looking at the Major Scale, and the Ionian Mode that goes hand in hand.
If you have ever just looked at charts until you felt like your head is spinning trying to understand this stuff, we are going to try and make it EASY to digest. This is more of an “action” lesson, so have your guitar handy as you read along. You might know some of this stuff already, but not the context.
The difference between a musician, and a guitarist is knowledge in theory. Basic music theory will give you the tools to be more creative, and be more than just a guitarist. Becoming a musician is all about gaining knowledge. Today can be your first step to becoming a musician, instead of just a guitarist!
To get started with any scale or mode though, you need to understand intervals, and their numbered system. Yes, you can skip to the scales themselves, but later on when you are learning about chords or modes…you might be a little lost. So let’s get into what intervals are, and how they relate to scales and modes. Trust me, this will only hurt for a second!
Basic Music Theory: Intervals
In music, Intervals are the space between two sounds. Each fret on your guitar is an interval, since each fret changes the pitch of the fretted note. With guitar, it is easier to think of these as whole tones and semitones. In Western music theory, we look at intervals in a few different ways. The one that you have probably seen before is the numbered system. Really we can break it down to just two different categories:
Quality in basic music theory is going to pertain to scales and chords alike, and the Quality is best thought of as a mood or “sound”. For example, many people would describe the Major Scale as “happy” or “joyful”. Likewise, some people associate Minor Scales and chords with “sadness” or “dramatic”. Augmented and Diminished Qualities can sound “unfinished” or draw the listener in, or adding a new distinct sound to a chord or scale.
These “Qualities” are important when adding a note into a scale or chord, and certain added notes can change a scale from major to minor. Likewise, just one note can do the same with a chord! We will get into this in greater detail in further studies. But for now, just remember those quality names. The easiest distinction for you to hear in music is the difference between Major and Minor.
Numbered Intervals: The Code That Makes All Of This Work!
These are also known as diatonic numbers in basic music theory. This is where guitar might actually be an easier instrument to learn music theory with, because of the way the fretboard is laid out. This is because numbered intervals are pretty straight forward when you are looking at the fretboard. Each scale that you learn is made up of these intervallic numbers. For reference, we can take a look at the Interval numbers on a guitar fretboard:
This is a numbered Interval chart in the Key of F. The notes marked as “R” are the Root Note, which is F. Every R that you see, is an octave of the Root Note, since the Root Note always repeats in these same increments, with the one at the bottom being the lowest note. Take your guitar right now and hit an open string, then hit the 12th fret. That’s an Octave, the same note but higher in pitch! The official definition is:
Octave: A series of eight notes occupying the interval between (and including) two notes, one having twice or half the frequency of vibration of the other.
These series of 8 notes all have a Interval Number, and that is where we get into the real function of Intervals. Each step/fret/note between your Root Note and the octave has a different number, but the Root Note is always “1“. These numbers are important when looking at scales, because it will help you understand what makes the Quality of a scale. Adding sharps and flats will change the Quality of a scale or chord. The C Major Scale for example, has no sharps or flats. The number system is easy to remember:
- Root Note
- Flat Second (Semitone or Half Step)
- Second (Full Step)
- Flat Third
- Perfect 4th (Neither Flat Nor Whole)
- Flat Fifth
- Perfect Fifth
- Flat Sixth
- Flat Seventh
- Root Note (Octave)
Numbered intervals are absolutely essential to understand when it comes to building scales and chords. If you compare the names with the picture example above, you can see how these work. The picture shows you the intervals in the key of F, but this is the same no matter what the root note is. For example, move one fret up from the Root Note anywhere on the fretboard, and you are on the Flat Second, no matter what key you are in.
Looking at the fretboard as a series of numbered Intervals can take some getting used to, just like learning the notes of the fretboard. I know, it seems like more work since you already learned the notes and NOW they have numbers too! But as you dive into more basic music theory, it will start to become almost second nature when you look at scales. You will start to hear the subtle difference adding a Perfect Fourth, for instance, makes when building chords and scales.
Basic Music Theory: The Major Scale
Alright, with all of the prerequisites out of the way we can start to learn the Major Scale. When it comes to basic music theory, the Major Scale is almost always front and center. This is because the Major Scale is the most basic way to show the way that Intervals work, in my opinion. But it is also the perfect introduction to modes, Ionian in particular. So what is the Major Scale? Today we are going to look at it in the key of C, since there are no sharps or flats in the key of C.
The C Major Pentatonic Scale might be something you are already familiar with. This scale is widely used in Rock/Pop music, and you definitely hear it in Blues! But this is just a small part of the C Major Scale, but even in the Pentatonic version, you can see there are no sharps or flats. The C Major Pentatonic features only five of the Intervallic Numbers:
- Root (1)
Hence the name, “Pentatonic”. We are only using 5 of the Interval Numbers for this scale. To get the full C Major scale, we need to add two more Intervals. We need to add the Seventh to the scale, but we also need to add the Perfect Fourth. This makes the entire C Major Scale when we add these notes, as you can see below. The Octaves of C are noted by the circle around the note. Let’s add the 7th and perfect 4th:
Adding the Seventh and Perfect Fourth completes the entire scale. Try playing the scale, and you will notice that it has a very particular sound to it, this where Quality comes into play. The Major Scale is often described as sounding “happy”. Lots of film soundtracks use the Major Scale because it is big and bombastic. Think about the main theme for “Star Wars” for a good example. John Williams favors the Major Scale for his main themes, and you can hear why! It is easy to remember, and it has a very happy, yet epic feel.
But you’re probably thinking that the C Major Scale can be played somewhere else, right? I know when I think of the C note, I think of third fret of the A string on the guitar. You can play the same scale there as well, if you remember the Interval numbers for C Major. We have the Root (1), 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 right? It works the same no matter where you play the scale! Check it out:
If we start at the C note at the 3rd fret, the positioning changes a little bit, but the same Interval Numbers are used to make up the scale! It is still 1,2,3,4,5,6,7. This is why the Interval Numbers are so Important when learning basic music theory. This may be a different position, but the Interval Numbers remain the same. Find a C note anywhere on the fretboard, and this will apply! But what about other notes or keys?
Why don’t we take another Root Note, and apply the same Interval Numbers to that Root Note. I just picked one randomly, but I picked the G Major Scale. Now this is not the entire scale, but just putting together the 1-7 Interval Numbers, and without repeating, you get this:
If you compare this simple version of G Major, to the C major Scale, you might see some similarity. That’s because we are still using the same Interval Numbers, so you get a similar pattern no matter where you try this out on the fretboard. Try it out with another note on your own, and use the Interval Numbers to guide you and build a Major Scale!
The Major Scale has a the same quality in every key, and you can hear it in so many different songs and themes in everyday life. The Major Scale is bare bones basic music theory, but you can go a little further just by knowing the Major Scale. You can move on to the second part of understanding how scales work: Modes.
Basic Music Theory: Ionian Mode
So if you’re still with me, did you play the G Major scale that I posted a picture of above? If you played that scale, then you are already extremely familiar with the Ionian Mode! The same goes for the C Major Scale that I showed you above! But if the Major scale is also Ionian Mode, then why do we call it “Ionian” instead of just Major? Seems a bit redundant to have two names for one scale, doesn’t it?
Well, you can blame the Ancient Greeks (who drank a lot of wine) for coming up with the funky names for all of the modes, as it was Western Music that simplified it to “Major/Minor Scale”. But I mean, it is a clever way of sounding smarter than your bandmates (especially the drummer) if you say “Ionian” instead of “Major”. Say it and watch them all freak out, or pull the term out on your unsuspecting guitar teacher. It should be a good laugh either way.
Ionian is also known as The First Mode, as other modes will add and subtract notes from Ionian to get a different sound. But the easiest way to remember Ionian is that it has no sharps or flats from the Intervallic Number System, just like the Major Scale. The encyclopedia’s define a mode as:
“Modes are several ways of ordering the notes of a scale according to the intervals they form with the root note, thus providing a theoretical framework for the melody. A mode is the vocabulary of a melody; it specifies which notes can be used and indicates which have special importance.“
Modes are important, and in future tutorials, we will go over each one and talk about when to use them. Obviously, Ionian is used over a Major Key composition. But as guitarists, we very rarely stick to one mode for an entire solo. For instance, Ionian may be used over a Major 7th chord until the song changes. Then you may move over to Lydian, depending on the chords being played.
Modes are where you go when you’re tired of the basic scale, or Pentatonic scales that we have all heard and used a million times. Modes can also be used broadly, or over very specific chords. How you use them is up to you. In the future, we will check out all of the modes and talk about how they work.
Modes are looked at as a type of “color” or “flavor” when it comes to scales, because it would be boring to only use scales by themselves. Ionian is a “happy” flavor since it is a Major Key. Think about something simple like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and you have the full context of Ionian, and the Major Scale in general!
Basic Music Theory: Wrapping Up…
You just learned two HUGE things today about basic music theory and you probably barely broke a sweat. Music theory doesn’t have to be intimidating or scary for guitarists. In fact, I think it is a lot of fun to learn these things, and then apply them. Go to YouTube and type in “Backing track in C Ionian”. I bet you can play along now, and improvise a little!
Scales and Modes are super important if you want to get anywhere with writing melodies or understanding how music works. Basic music theory can take you a long way, as we have learned two massively important parts of theory today! Hopefully, it also gives you a new perspective on how easy some of basic music theory is to grasp. You learned a full scale that can be played anywhere on the fretboard, along with the Ionian mode today.
Intervals can be a tough one to tackle, especially if you look at the fretboard as notes. But the Numbered System is something that we will continue to reference in pretty much all of our scale tutorials. I have been teaching for a while, and I know that there is a boring way to approach this and a fun, easy way. We are going to stick to the easy way, and hopefully learn a lot on our journey as guitarists and musicians.
Why don’t you check out our next lesson? Check out MINOR SCALES!
Christoper HortonChristopher has been playing guitar and piano for 27 years. He has been active in the professional music industry for over two decades. He has toured for years with several bands and music projects. He worked in LA as a studio musician and engineer working with bands like IAMSOUND, Baroness, Kylesa, Black Tusk, Reflux, and Tripping Daisy. In between giving private lessons, he is recording a solo album for 2022-2023. Christopher plays Schecter guitars, BOSS amplifiers, and uses STL Tones in the studio.
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