Exotic Scales
A scale is merely a series of tones that lie between octaves. That’s not too much different than the definition of a chord. The main difference, however, is that a scale represents the foundation of a piece of music. A chord is essentially the harmonization of a scale.

The term exotic as it applies to musical scales is a very relative term. Usually, when people refer to a scale as being exotic they mean it is not commonly used. This may or may not be the case. It is difficult categorize scales because there are so many varieties according to number of tones, interval, and geographic origins.

While grouping scales according to their ethnic roots is useful to an anthropologist, it is not much help to a musician. A musician is interested in how a scale sounds and how it might be used in a piece of music.

Each scale has a unique sound but, like chords, they share certain family traits. The most useful way I have found to categorize scales is similar to how chords are categorize, that is, major, minor, dominant, etc. When grouped this way it is easier to translate their harmonic function.

The improvisor can use these scales to play over chords. For instance, if you saw a Cmaj7 chord on your lead sheet, you could play a major sounding exotic scale like the Hungarian Folk scale. This amounts to a key change without changing the tonal center and depending on the harmonic context can add unique tonal variety to your playing.

There are many different scale choices for each chord. The principle here is the same as with the Diatonic scale. Scales that have the same notes as the chord can be played over the given chord.

The scales listed here are grouped according to the chord function that they match. Each scale is matched with a chord as indicated to the right. The pairing of chord and scale is only one of several that can be made. Use this as a beginning point then explore pairings of your own.

These scales above have a major scale sound to them because they all have seven tones and a major third and a major seventh interval, same as the Diatonic scale.
These scales above are similar to the Mixolydian mode which has a major third and flatted seventh interval. The Mixolydian mode is the common scale to play over dominant chords. These modes all share a dissonances that allows them to be played with great effect over dominant 7th chords. These scales can also be played over many altered dominants.
These scales above have a minor scale sound to them because they have seven tones and a minor third interval along with a perfect fifth. All of these chords can be play over minor chords, however, some have a flatted seventh interval which makes them good to play over minor 7th chords. The other scales have a major seventh interval which means these scales could be played over minor(maj7) chords. Because the min(maj7) chord has a dissonant sound playing an exotic chord on top of them can be done very effectively.

Five tone scales like the ones above have an open, airy sound to them. This is because of the large intervals between the notes. Often these scales will lack either a third or seventh interval or both. Tonally they are very flexible. In some cases you can play them over suspended chords. In other cases you can play them over major or minor chords. The Iwato scale is a special case because none of its intervals are a good fit for diatonic chords. It lacks a third, fifth, and a seventh.

Six tone scales can function like seven tone scales. Try the scales over the chords indicated here.

Eight tone scales have a lot of notes in them. The bebop scales were developed by jazz musicians so the chord tones could be played on each beat of the measure while other non-chords tones, used as passing notes, could be played on the off-beat. With eight tones to the scale, and eight beats to the measure, each beat has a tone to go with it. Different bebop scales were developed to play over chords with different harmonic functions.

The Spanish Eight Tone scale was developed by Sephardic Jews in Spain in the Middle Ages. It’s a great scale for Klezmer music.

Secondary Dominant Chords & Backcycling
If you want to add a stronger sense of harmonic movement in your compositions, you will want to add secondary dominant chords. Dominant chords have a special tension about them that is relieved by the chord following it, usually a tonic. These chords cause the listener to anticipate the tonal center to come. In ways a dominant chord is like holding one’s breath and the tonic chord is like a big exhale.

Specifically, you can create this dominant-to-tonic movement to any chord by inserting a major chord whose root is a fifth above root of the original chord.

In the above example line #1 shows a I – IIm – V chord progression. Each chord takes up one measure.

In line #2 a secondary dominant chord (A7) is inserted before the Dm7. The reason why this secondary dominant has an A as its root is because A is a fifth above D. Harmonically, going from A7 to a D chord creates a dominant-to-tonic felling even though Dm is not the tonic chord of the progression.

Line #3 has a special kind of trick that creates a mini-chord progression called backcycling. Once you insert the dominant chord, (the A7 in this case) it can be considered to be the V (five) chord of a progression that points to the a major or minor tonic chord. Thinking of the dominant chord this way, we can backcycle and insert the IIm chord in front of it. This IIm chord comes from the second scale degree of the mode that the V chord is derived from.

The diagram below will make this clearer. The complete backcycling process goes like this. "I’m playing along and I see a Dm7 chord. I decide to throw in a secondary dominant in front of it. I think to my self, what note is a fifth above D. It’s A. So I get ready to play an A7. But wait, why don’t I add more movement and backcycle. Ok, A7 is the V chord of D Major (and often D Minor*). Now, what’s the two chord of D Major (of Minor). Em. I’ll extend the chord and play an Em7. The Em7 – A7 combination is the IIm – V chord progression in the key of D Major (or Minor.)"

This is a lot to be thinking about seeing how I had only had two beats to do it in. Like most of music, you really don’t think about it. You just practice it until it is automatic.

* The dominant seven chord is often substituted for the Vm that occurs in the Natural Minor scale.

When backcycling you are always looking one or two chords changes ahead and thinking what chord gets you there.
Since the Em7 – A7 combination is a IIm – V chord progression in the key of D Major its arguably a key change from the original C Major. Technically, this is true. However, you will notice that the resulting chord progression of line #3 above looks like a I – IIIm – VIm – V chord progression in the key of C. The only difference is that the Am7 has changed to a dominant A7. The only difference between Am7 and A7 is that the minor chord form consists of a C while the dominant form has a C#. This is not enough to deflect the tonal center of the progression from C.

For improvisors, secondary dominants and backcycling present harmonic options that are very useful for those musical passages that have only a single chord playing. If you are fast enough, you can add these harmonic embellishments on the fly.

Below is a chart showing IIm – V7 combinations in all keys and the root of the tonic chord the V chord resolves to. Remember, the tonic chord could be either major or minor.

This backcycling technique is based on the sequence of notes as they appear on the circle of fifths. If you can visualize this wheel in your head, you’ll be a backcycling wiz.
In the example at the top of the page we backcycled to from Dm7 to Em7, however, we could continue the process further in two ways. 1) We could continue to backcycle from the A7 and insert an F#m before the Em7. This creates a IIIm-VIm-IIm-V progression in the key of D Major. 2) We could backcycle from the Em7 and insert F#m – B7 in front of it. In either case, It may not be practical to add so much movement. It may be too much of a good thing. As always, your ear is your guide.

This is a email exchange I had with a guy who asked all the right questions. I think many people can relate to Joe’s experiences. Enjoy!

JOE: Im 26 and music theory especially just a basic class I had it college for how to read music , notation, scales, ect basic to intro music and I failed it!! I was wanting to get this tube thing…but there is a guy here in town that will teach me anything free and he has a masters in music…and If I can’t learn the basics of music theory or from one on one with this friend I don’t think I could learn from this tube thing. people always say if you want any chance at learning theory its best to have a one on one teacher. So Im assuming since I haven’t been able to understand the basics of music theory from him, also in the past failed music intro at a university up north do I even stand a chance with this tube?? it looks more complicated than say a Music for dummies book(which is also over my head) or even a one on one teacher which is still over my head for learning just the basics of music theory. I read some sites that say learning all the scales in all keys is INSANE!! all you need in the pentatonic scales knowing them in A and E and you can do anything. I don’t know…Dave grohl of the foo fighters never had one music lesson and that guy is ROCK N ROLL!!!!

TOM: I’ve wondered about those guys who say they never had a music lesson but can jam like banshees. I admire them but I am not one of them. I think it’s great you’ve found someone to teach you theory. It will certainly improve your playing when you learn it. I wonder what Dave Grohl would be capable of if he new more theory.

At any rate, your teacher will teach you things like intervals and chord construction. Those are good things to know. Your teacher will also teach you more than will stay in your head. For instance, there are at least seven chords that are natural to the major scale. There are 12 major scales. That means you’ll need to learn 84 chords. That’s a lot to absorb and hold in your brain. In this case the Harmonizer would do that for you. It’s like a calculator for musicians. If you had a teacher teaching you calculus, you’d still want a calculator, wouldn’t you?

I can tell you really want to get this music theory and with a teacher and the right tool I believe you’ll get it. Remember, there’s a 30-day return policy. If it isn’t doing it for you, you can return it. You’ll just be out a few dollars for shipping. I say it’s a good place to put a few dollars. It will get you jammin’ sooner than you think.

If you have any more questions, do not hesitate to ask.

JOE: You know I wouldn’t want to return it for 29.99 …money is good to have , but at the end of the day money is just money. I want to get this tube theory deal…did you make this or do other people make this also I thought Ive seen one before. I just don’t want to get it look at it and scratch my head wondering “Damn” I have no idea whats going on here. The whole reason I hate having people try to school me on theory or learn from books is because its like here is this scale first you hit this note , then music theory says you hit this note, then this one and so on and this is the mechanics of music theory. After that its like what is this going to do for me??? Even if one could memorize all of music theory it would take FOREVER! Does this tube thing start from teaching the basics all the way to advanced or does it start with teaching the basics of music theory and end at midway advanced theory?? Like would this be childs play To a music major(BA no masters) or would they even be able to learn alot??? You know there is this kid on you tube that is 14 years old from malaysia knows no music theory and was playing Ataris cover of BOys of summer and he was playing it all by ear…he says it takes him a total of 2 to 4 minutes to learn a song completely after first hearing it and thats any song! thats impressive. Ive seen this so many times kids that are like 15 or 16 and they are ripping all over the guitar and after shows I ask them so youve been studying music theory for a long time haven’t you and they’re always saying “music theory is a waste of time! you feel the music out!” I know there are alot of musicians then never took one lesson and are great song writers and don’t need to know how to read music its a waste of time for them because they have the ear to figure out the song completely like in a couple minutes! Did you know that THOM YORKE of radiohead on capital records does not know how to read music?? as is considered by almost all musicians to be the greatests song writer around. But then every now and then I see young kids 15 or 16 at shows and they put on a good show and there playing in time, rythm, but the songs are weak! and very amatuer at best. Check outwww.myspace.com/satisfaction I talked to this guy regularly Michael Rosas lead singer and songwriter and never had a lesson! How much is shipping for the music theory tube?? is it just 29.99 total?

TOM: First, the Harmonizer will only teach you if you are willing to learn. I think you are. Second, the harmonizer can be used as an aide after you’ve got the basics down. I think the most important info on the Harmonizer helps you do what the Malaysian kid does. Now he’s got a great ear and a good memory, but that’s not all there is to playing music. The most important thing is that you enjoy the music you play. And, knowing the theory the tube presents will help you play music at a level you’d enjoy. By the way, they are all made here in McKinney, Texas. The shipping is $3.50 but for your order, I’ll upgrade you to Priority Mail for no charge. By the way, you can pay by PayPal, credit card, or check/money order. There is a place on the order page of my site where you can choose one of the payment types. If you want to mail in a check, you can down load an order form. However, if your check has you address on it that’s all I need.

JOE: Is the music theory tube you sell basically the same thing as learning from a book, but just in a more understandable way(in your opinion)??

TOM: The Harmonizer presents music theory in a visual way. Music theory is really a mathmatical pattern that I’ve interpreted graphically.

JOE: The ebook this comes with will this teach me the basics of music theory so that I have no probelm understanding and putting to use the music theory on tube???

TOM: Yes.

JOE: So is the harmonizer theory on tube intermediate theory picking up where the ebook leaves you of at a basic understanding of the basics of theory so you can use the Tube theory harmonizer?

TOM: The guide book describes how to use the Harmonizer as well as describes the music theory concepts it presents.”

JOE: Is that wht it’s called the harmonizer?? the theory on the tube? Or is the harmonizer a continuing of the basics of music theory in addition to basics of theory also from the ebook?

TOM: In music theory lingo when you break down a musical scale into its component parts as I have done on the tube it is called harmonizing the scale. There are three harmonized scales on the tube, major, melodic minor, and harmonic minor. I chose to call the tube device the Harmonizer because that’s what it does.

JOE: Do you think if I spent time learning the ebook(or having to buy a basics of music theory for dummies or something like that) and then move to understanding and putting to use the knowledge i learn from the harmonizer theory on the tube that it should be a smooth ride as long as I keep working towards putting time to understanding the basics first from the ebook and then spent time understanding and putting to use the tube theory harmonizer???

TOM: Any thing is possible. However, learning music theory is a little like learning math. You can learn the basics from a teacher or a book but when you want to figure something out it’s nice to have a calculator on hand. That’s what the tube is. It’s your musical calculator.

JOE: THe tube theory is only useful for the beginners or do some advanced musicians buy these and find them very useful and easy to understand(once you understand the core basics of music theory first)?

TOM: When I made a prototype of the Harmonizer I showed it to my guitar teacher. I thought he’d be impressed that I had figured out a way to put everything he was teaching me on a tube. I handed it to him and he mused over it a while with a blank expression. Finally, he looked at me and said “This is what you need to have in your head!” So, I think the Harmonizer can be understood by any beginner. By the way, you don’t even need to read music to learn music theory. However, like my teacher said, the goal is to have it all in your head. However, until that day comes it’s nice to have the Harmonizer to refer to when I want to know what is the tri-tone substitution for an F#7 chord.”

JOE: I’m definitely going to get this I just want to know that I can learn it so I can use it , understand it, and apply it…no sense in having great knowledge around if for some odd reason I cant comprehend /understand it.
TOM: Music theory is often made out to be some mysterious arcane knowledge that only a few chosen elite can comprehend. I think some teachers make it difficult just out of some ego thing. In reality, music theory about a repeating pattern of tones and the relationship of those tones. There are a few important patterns to know that make playing music much easier to master. But it’s not the master of music that is the goal here, it is the enjoyment of the music we make. That’s the goal.

JOE: 100percent agree with you about the ego ! Up at the university where I was up north the music teachers had egos bigger than TOM CRUISE! And the university is KNOWN FOR ITS STRONG MUSIC EMPHASIS…I saw music majors sitting at computers in my dorm learning notes and then having to name them after they heard it on the computer and continually getting it wrong!! I could see complete frustration even FOR THE MAJORITY of music majors and so I thought well this must be only for GENIUSES that are willing to sweat out NON STOP MUSIC MAJOR CLASSES and have no social life! because thats exactly what it was. But the more I listen to you I think it was a combination of the teachers EGOS and how they taught what really is basic and making it extremely complicated!! So you have your masters in music from the school your at?

TOM: No. I have no degree in Music. I have a degree in Architecture and saw the same thing you saw in your music classes. The teachers wanted to make the subject hard to elevate their own status. What I know about music I got from books and private guitar teachers.

JOE: Also if this is easy to understand all music theory then why do people say it would be impossible to know all of music theory??

TOM: The basic music theory stuff is pretty straight forward. I think most people could learn the basics in 2-3 weeks of casual study. However, most of music theory is the about relationship between notes and that can be endless, and for most of us useless. I’d say the most import thing to learn about music theory is, 1) what keys have which chords, 2) what are the notes/intervals that make up those chords, 3) what are the popular chord progressions, and 4) what modes relate to which chords. For a working professional musician, that’s really all you need to know.”

JOE: If its simple mechanics this note then this note then this note (scales) and here is how they relate, why they work ect..if this is easy to understand and I believe you..then why do all music theory kids say it takes forever to learn it all because its all extremely difficult?

TOM: Well, I think the people who are telling you it is hard need validation. I mean, they are like the teachers. They want to believe they have accomplished something that is esoteric and mystical. The want to impress chicks. However, in proper perspective that’s like trying to impress someone by telling them you know your multiplication tables. Also, I want to add, there is no ‘should’ in music theory. MT does not tell you what notes should go together any more than rules of grammar tell you how to write a poem. Good spellers don’t always write the best poems. It’s always about the sound and when you know a little music theory you will be better at creating the sounds you want.

I found a teacher.

Tom Michero

Tom Michero, blog author

I have a lot of knowledge about music. I know modes, scales, and enough theory to write a book about it, which I have. However, I’m not as good of a musician as I’d like to be. There’s that word, “good.”

In undertaking any endeavor, there are at least two things that can hold us back from achieving our goal. One, we really don’t want it, but we think we do. Two, we don’t think we’re good enough. This blog will deal with how I go about eliminating those obstacles from my life. Maybe my experience will help you. We’ll see.

At any rate, I have found a music teacher who lives here in McKinney, Texas who I hope will teach me what I want to know about playing the guitar. I want to be able to play a song from beginning to end and entertain myself and my friends. He charges $40/hr. I don’t mind the price but an hour lesson can seem like an eternity, especially if your not prepared. Noticing this thought, I am changing it to something more positive, like, “Wow, just think of how much I’ll be exposed to. Surely, he’ll show me stuff that will help me.” There. That’s a better feeling thought.