Tonality & Scale Selection

In the previous lesson we focused on building a better machine, meaning developing the ability to quickly reel off any one of six scale sounds using either a root 6 or root 5 fingering, something I called ‘the modern pallette’which I have illustrated to the right.

Now the trick is scale selection, knowing when and where to use each one of the six scales. To do that we need to review the concepts of tonality and key centers. Tonality is the word musicians use to describe the general overall sound or flavor of a song, or part of a song such as a solo section. If that music was described as having a major tonality that would mean the song and its' chords are based entirely a major scale, all the notes and all the chords belong to the same scale, to the same key.

Harmonic Analysis

The key center is another, but more factual way of arriving at the same conclusion because you are identifying the key of the song because you recognize all the chords as belonging to a certain key. You are able to find the one correct answer because you understand your basic music theory as it applies to chord progressions and cadences. This is known as harmonic analysis.

Point Of Cadence Method

There is an easy trick that almost always works in identifying the key and that is what I call the point of cadence method. Usually, the first chord in the song is the same as the chord played when the progression reaches its final resolution are the same. The name these two chords share gives you the key of the song.

Major Soloing Situations: Rock, Jazz, Pop, Blues, Country

First keep the details of the key in the front of your mind, in this lesson we remain in the key of C.

If the tonality of the music you are improvising is major, my system not only suggests thinking of chord tones but of three scale choices;

  1. Major.
  2. Major Pentatonic.
  3. Major Blues.

Although each has its own unique sound and personality, each one of these three unique sounds however resides clearly within the major tonality.


Listening Exercises

Below are three musical examples consisting of common knowledge, well used chord progressions and cadences. The song are all cleary and squarely in the key of C major as can be seen in the harmomnic analysis appearing in the sheet music.

As with my other listening exercises, these solos are for ear training and familiarization with scale sounds. All solos are played with the scale notes in their correct numerical order, stepwise motion. The first and last note of each solo is the C root note. Any melodic leaps in these solos is a leap back to the c root note. Listen to each of the solos, copy them or approximate them on your guitar.

Major Tonality

Major Hard Rock Situations

Although sort of a special case,Some hard rock, heavy metal & alternative songs cadence to A major chord but are not as clearly rooted in the major tonality as the common knowledge examples above. Usually these songs can be seen as being based on the minor pentatonic scale, the root notes of the chords in the chord progression are all members of the minor pentatonic scale-this is called pentatonic harmony. In a pentatonic scale you find strong elements of the major scale, specifically I - IV and V or C - F and G, in addition to the blue notes of E flat (b3) and B flat (b7) .

Songs written using this approach consider all the scale tones as root notes of major chords. Many great rock songs have been written with the pentatonic harmony approach. After all the sound of rock and all other forms of blues based music depends on the blending of the major and minor third and the use of blue notes b3, b5 and b7. I'm a big believer in careful listening, pay attention to the sound quality of the solos in these ear training examples.

Pentatonic Tonality

For songs written this way, in virtually every case, the scales of choice will the minor pentatonic or minor blues because they contain the minor 3rd and other blue notes which beautifully and characteristically contrast with the C major tonality created by the I -IV and V chords but also nicely compliment the E flat and the B flat chords. This use of contrast created by a minor scale over major chords is a unique and defining feature of modern music, sort of like the secret sauce or lightening in a bottle.

Table Of Pentatonic Harmony

This table shows you how songwriters create hard rock and get that cool, modern chord sound when working in a major framework. If you have recording equipment, turn on your drum machine and playing a few chord riffs based only the chords connected with the C minor pentatonic scale. Use the C minor pentatonic scale to generate solos. If you don't have recording equipment, try it with a friend or teacher.

Minor Tonality

Of course to correctly identify a song as being in the minor tonality, it should sound minor to your ear but you also want to be able to recognize the chords as fitting in with a good understanding of the key of C minor as is illustrated here.


Minor Rock, Jazz, Pop Soloing Situations.

If the tonality of the music is minor the first 3 scale choices that should come to your mind are:

  1. The Minor Scale.
  2. The Minor Pentatonic Scale
  3. The Blues Scale

The minor tonality very clearly demands some type of minor scale. Any scale containing a major third (in this case E natural) will clash this type of unpleasant and unwanted sound is called dissonance.

Minor Tonality

Dominant 7 Soloing Situations

All modern music owes a deep debt to the blues style, in the words of the great Muddy Waters, “The blues had a baby, they called the baby rock and roll.” In blues music a dominant chord, C7 in the example to follow, is the I chord, the tonic. In fact in the 3 chord blues form all 3 of the chords are dominant chords. This can also be the case in jazz, funk and rock songs, in short a very common procedure in our modern world. The listening example below is a 12 bar blues and I am again playing simple solos consisting mostly of scale passages and placing emphasis on the C root, listen to and try to reproduce the solos using my top 4 scale choices for a dominant soloing situation:

  1. Minor Pentatonic.
  2. Minor Blues.
  3. Major Pentatonic
  4. Major Blues (Blues No. 2).

Dominant Tonality

End Of Lesson