Small Thoughts about Scales and Patterns

This is going to be a pretty brief post since I’ve got about five minutes to write it in. Even so, I want to talk a bit about scales while it’s fresh.

Last night I was talking to a guitarist friend of mine, and he referenced scales and patterns as two entirely different things, which was kind of fascinating, but sort of threw me off. He’s a blues guy, so he said he knows patterns, but he doesn’t know scales.  This seemed odd to me, because I always figured patterns are essentially based on the scale, so as you play through a pattern, you’re effectively playing a scale – not chromatically, sure, granted, but you’re playing the notes in the scale. Therefore, by default, you’re playing in a scale one way or the other, and if you’re not, you’ll know, because you’re going to hit a note that sounds like crap when played with the others.  Like ‘oh, that sounds like shit, then it’s not part of this scale.’  So, I guess I never considered patterns and scales as entirely separate entities. I’m still not sure I do. The approach is different, but a car is still a car, whether you’re approaching it head on or from the side. It doesn’t stop being a car.  Please do correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s always more or less how I’ve viewed this relationship.

We talked about a bunch of things music, really, but that was sort of the central point of the conversation, after I mis-worded something (story of my life) that was interpreted not quite the way I intended.  I basically was saying I find it much easier to memorize songs and riffs for guitar and uke, where bass seems to be harder for that. I think it’s likely because of bass’s nature as a support instrument. Guitar can fill a lot of roles, and ukulele is definitely a solo instrument first, everything else second, but they’re both instruments you can just pick up and solo with on the fly. And sure, I know there are bass solos in the world, but that’s not really the purpose for which that instrument was designed, and that’s very apparent in my bass time.  I find it’s the one of the three that it’s very difficult to practice ‘in a vaccuum’ because it’s an instrument of interaction, so as I find myself wanting to start learning some actual bass lines from songs, to actually commit them to memory, it feels like a task that’s much more daunting than it should be.

On the up side, it dawned on me that ‘duh’ since bass is really quiet when not plugged in, it’s actually a great instrument to practice with first thing in the morning when the house is quiet before work. So, for a few minutes this morning I pulled it down and went ‘okay…scales. can I actually grab any from memory?’ Because that was also part of our discussion. If I look at one, I can play it, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to remember it to pull it out when I need it.

Well, it turns out I do remember the major scale off the cuff but I count it wrong. I count it in a way that requires a mental shift if I move to a different place on the neck. I’ve apparently been counting it by fret instead of by finger. So I’ve been counting say 2-4, 1-2-4, 1-3-4. When you move away from that fret span, you now have to remember what fret you started on, which is actually not as easy on the fly as you’d think if you’ve been practicing that scale in the same place all the time.  Bass For Dummies lists the count by finger used, which is just much more practical on a scale you’re going to be moving around.

So, I still don’t see a glaring difference between scales and patterns in this way. They’re not twins, but I think they’re at least siblings. Of course, the basic purpose may have more distance, but a scale is a pattern in its own right, and a pattern is derived from a scale, so I do feel like there’s a close family relationship and it’s not particularly useful to discuss them as two entirely separate entities in and of themselves (of course, that depends heavily on context). Maybe I’ll change my mind about that later when I know more stuff, but for now, I still don’t feel like they’re that far removed from one another.

Until Next Time, maybe I’ll start working on bass for a few minutes in the mornings instead of ukulele for a while, and see where that gets me. Maybe.

8 thoughts on “Small Thoughts about Scales and Patterns

  1. You are NOT wrong! The pattern is part of the scale… but because of the nature of what i play, and how (i don’t do lead at all… simply because lead guitar is knowing your scales anywhere on the fret board) .. i’m strictly a Rhythm guy… and i learned patterns of chords, ignorant completely of where the chord fits in the scale …

    i KNOW… a 1-4-5 pattern in blues in the key of E… is .. E, A, B — and some songs, in blues with add a 6 (F#m) in there .. to make a 1-4-6-5 pattern…

    I know the 1-4-5 patterns in all keys pretty much – because typically, it’s the foundation of mostly any rock or blues song.
    On non-typical songs… it comes down to me just learning the chords and memorizing the song… much like i learn lyrics to sing.. i learn the notes on guitar to accompany me.

    But ask me to play the E scale? and i couldn’t .. it’s just not something I’ve learned yet.
    But patter … 1-4-5 – is the scale.. i’m playing Notes, 1, 4 and 5 of the scale… so you’re not wrong.. but where i see it differently is… i can learn the pattern without knowing the scale… because i memorized what the chrods were… just means i have a lot to learn.


    1. It’s a language difference, I think. I don’t really speak music as yet, so to me, it amounts to the same thing, more or less. It’s important to differentiate when playing with others, sure, but I don’t care much about terminology for now, since musical vocabulary doesn’t make you better at making music any more than knowing orange is called orange alters your ability to see the color, really. It just makes it easier to communicate, which is really only something that comes up when I’m talking to you since I know very few musicians. I’m more concerned with how things work than what they’re called most of the time.

      So, for me, I figure if you know the pattern, then you know the scale that goes with it, if only from a functional perspective. Then again, I don’t see much use for scales outside of that functional perspective. I can run through scales, in theory, but scales aren’t songs in and of themselves, so they don’t seem to be particularly useful outside of giving a shortcut to which sets of notes sound good together, which is essentially a less specific, but similar concept to patterns. Scales tell you what notes sound good together and what mood they are likely to evoke. Patterns seem to just take that a step further and arrange it in a specific way to sort of genre-fy it. But, in terms of how each is utilized, which is really all that matters in the end, the difference seems minimal.


  2. Scales and patterns are different things – but I think what you learned are actually: Scale Patterns. In that context, its *physically* the same thing. If you know a pattern for the major scale and play it starting on A, you’ve played A major. If you use that pattern on C, its C major, etc. The pattern is the sequence of steps and half-steps. Where you play it from puts you in a particular key.

    “Knowing” a scale, theory-wise is basically knowing the sequence of steps and half-steps by both physical location and by letter name. I still don’t know the 2nd part of that, but because of patterns, I can play a given scale (mostly just 2 major scale patterns and a minor scale pattern). Because I don’t know the notes on the fretboard by heart yet, it takes me a few seconds to find the right root, but once I’m there, I can play a major or minor scale from it.

    And, if you practice finding the 1, 3, 5 and 7 of a scale, you’ve found the chord tones. Practice them in order going up or down (1-3-5-7 or 7-5-3-1) and you’ve done an arpeggio. Add the octave (the 8) to that and it sounds a little fuller.

    When I had more time to practice, I would just use chord tones and sometimes 1-2 other notes from the scale and just come up with short, repeatable phrases that I could use for basslines.

    If you do that, then you can play those patterns in another sequence – a chord sequence. Play the pattern on the 1, then play the same pattern on the 4 and then the 5. You’ve done a I-IV-V blues sequence.

    But yeah, patterns help us do a lot of stuff. I’m still very basic in my understanding of theory and patterns help me to begin to apply what I read so I can actually play stuff.


    1. I think what I’m driving at is they don’t seem much different in terms of function. Patterns seem like they’re very much just rearrangements of scales. You’re still within the scale, you’re just moving through it in a specific way. I could be wildly wrong about that, in which case I will eat my words later, but it’s the impression I have at the moment.

      Since music, at its core, is about making songs, how often are we really likely to play a scale from top to bottom to that end, which, to me, makes them functionally very similar concepts. A scale tells me ‘these notes work together and convey this mood’, a pattern seems to tell me ‘play those notes in this order and it will sound like this genre’, so, sort of, more specific, but the same at the core.

      Admittedly, I am not basing my impression on any thorough reading on the subject, but at the same time, the idea of knowing patterns but not scales seems a strangely compartmentalized way of discussing the subject , because the patterns couldn’t exist without the scales.

      I possibly should have waited to think it through, but the blog is more journal than everything, so saying whatever is on my mind stays true to that.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re doing fine, and I think your readers enjoy the journal format and the “Until next time” closing statements. 😉

        Patterns aren’t *all* necessarily derived from scales, but yes, scale patterns are absolutely a physical, functional application of a scale. I remember discussing the 2-4, 1-2-4, 1-3-4 thing with you a while ago. Its a moveable shape/pattern.

        I think maybe it was too early, but you’re starting to put the pieces together, which is great, because since you enjoy practical application, its something that’s right up your alley. Analysis later on will help you with understanding the why’s of the patterns.

        I learned the same way. I memorized some scale patterns, learned how to pick out the chord tones, made basslines with them and then started to try to learn the note names and what the function for each of the 7 notes in the scale were.

        After that, other concepts like passing notes and approach notes and that stuff comes in. You’ll use them before, but I didn’t know what they were or what they were called until after.

        Remember though – there are other patterns. There are chord patterns, for example. Its important for bassists to know where to reach for chord tones. I have a few basslines or rhythms that I liked to warm-up with that I built purely from playing chord tones or notes from a scale in a I-IV-V progression. Its fun to do that because you’re making up songs and finding how to make the notes you’re practicing sound good while learning where they are.


      2. Okay, if they’re not all based on scales, then clearly they’re not as I understand them. I didn’t presume they were all focused around the major or minor scale, but there are a Fuck ton of scales, so I think the presumption I have is that, if you play a bunch of notes, and they sound good together, they must be part of some scale, somewhere, by virtue of them not sounding discordant.

        It’s not so much that it was too early, precisely, but rather that I can’t focus on things which aren’t my primary thought at that specific second in my life. I knew then it was movable, and I still no that, I just wasn’t bothering to move it. Now that I do move it, the first time was pretty awkward. ‘What fret did I start on?’. …but it was also 7 am. Who knows when I’m fully conscious if I’ll still hiccup like that.

        I think I’m just going to be likely to keep learning the how of things long before I can force myself to give a crap about the naming conventions, really.
        I find myself battling against those conventions, like ‘if these two things have the same job, why do we need to be so specific? What’s the point if, at the end of the day, it all amounts to ‘this sounds good/creates this vibe’ versus ‘that doesn’t.’ The specificity is hard to stomach when your focus is on a broader scope. I don’t know if narrowing it all down to that kind of precision is always the right choice.


      3. If you approach it like that, then you’re probably right – there are a million scales and its likely that any given combination of notes could fall into one. I mostly think in terms of the major and minor scales, and the blues scale & minor pentatonic. But even then, I mess around with chord tones more than anything, and add a few other notes as passing or approach notes.

        Definitely practice the moveable patterns when you’re more able to focus. They’re not hard at all. All you’re remembering is 7 or 8 notes, depending on if you include the octave, and for the most part, they’re in the same position wherever you start, so its a really easy exercise.

        If you’re doing things like learning songs, then learning 2 scale patterns will be cake. They’ll also help you figure out songs.

        And don’t worry about the naming conventions. Just remember the patterns. Then, COUNT the notes in the pattern so that you know where the 1, 3, 5 and 7 are. That’s all there is to super-basic theory.


      4. I think I’m just allergic to the word “theory”. lol. I say that in all due jest, but really, I do seem to have a very limited amount of time in which I can focus on the theoretical before I need to DO something. I’m sure eventually all those little details are going to be a focal point for me, but right now, I’m still sort of taking in the panoramic view, I guess.

        I do know the major and minor scale are the biggies, so to speak, of course. And, it turns out I can remember the progressions (who knew?) but still end up having to check a book to remember which is which. I think I remember the major now, which is why I started to move it this morning (that and what else can you do but a few scales when you have about 5 minutes, tops?) It may just be that shifting the mental space into a more mobile zone causes a temporary glitch in the ol’ brain – only time will tell.

        I definitely want to start attempting to memorize a few songs, but it’s a bit funny. With guitar and ukulele, it’s sort of ‘I want to learn that song’. With bass, I never had one specific song that I was like ‘that! I need to learn THAT.’ There have always been cool points and what not, but not specifics. And then I run into trouble if I go, ‘let’s just pick a favorite’, because all of those players play pick-style, which I hate, with a lot of palm mutes, which I’m not great at yet, so while that might be worth experimenting with eventually, they’re definitely not the ‘out of the gate’ songs. I need to just pick something fairly basic and commit to memorizing…but man, my ADD habits kick in hard core on that, because I just don’t have a specific bass line that I really feel compelled to learn. I think until that clicks, that bass line that I go ‘ah, THAT’S the one I want to start with, definitely!’ I’m going to have a hard time committing to specific details. I feel like I have this bizarre relationship with bass. Like, I can’t tell you who my favorite bassist is, there’s no one moment out of time where I can pinpoint ‘that’s the moment I said ‘omg, bass is awesome!!!’ I just…sort of decided it looked fun somewhere along the way.
        Where ukulele, i can tell you very specifically – there was a certain song that I just really wanted to learn. Guitar is…something in between. I think I may just be having one of my more nebulous weeks, atm. 🙂


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