Learning a new scale means memorizing its interval pattern – its unique series of half-steps and whole-steps.
However it always surprises me when a student recites the set of 7 intervals for a scale or mode – ‘whole-step – half-step – WS – WS …’ etc.
I don’t think of scales scales this way, because memorizing 7 half-step / whole-steps in a row is a lot of work. Especially when you attempt to do this for every new scale.
So here’s how I think of scales instead:
MY SHORT CUT
I divide every scale into 2 halves – root – 5th, and 5th – root:
And I memorize both parts separately.
So for the major scale, I remember the interval pattern from the root – 5th, and then I remember the interval pattern from 5th up to root:
For the minor scale, I remember the interval pattern from the root – 5th, and then I remember the interval pattern from the 5th up to the root:
Side Note: Although scales are usually written up to their 7th note, it’s important to memorize the intervals right up to where the root repeats (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1). Since there’s still an interval between 7th and root which you’ll be playing and hearing.
I do this for almost every type of scale – the modes, harmonic minor, blues scale, etc:
Here’s how I remember the blues scale:
Both halves start with the same interval pattern, so I just remember the bottom half of the blues scale – and then build that from the 5th, before cutting it off short at the root.
Here’s how I remember the harmonic minor scale:
Here’s how I remember the ‘octatonic’ / ‘diminished’ scale (same scale, different names):
And since almost all scales have a natural 5th, this works nearly every time.
The more scales you learn, the easier it becomes to memorize new scales – because you can mix and match the scales that you’ve already learnt – and you’re not learning new material.
You’ve probably already encountered a scale with the same bottom half (root – 5th), and you’ve probably encountered a scale with the same top half (5th – root). So just memorize the new scale as a mixture of the 2:
I remember the melodic minor scale as:
I remember the lydian scale as:
I remember the mixolydian scale as:
I remember the lydian-dominant scale as a combination of lydian + mixolydian scales (which is actually what ‘lydian-dominant’ refers to):
Joining 2 scales together is sometimes referred to as creating a ‘hybrid scale‘. But who’s to say which scales are a hybrid of which? You could argue that every scale is a hybrid of something else.
As far as learning goes, I memorize all scales as hybrids of other scales.
THE FEW EXCEPTIONS
What about the few exceptions that don’t have a natural 5th? The only 2 scales that I commonly play without natural 5ths are the whole-tone scale, and the altered scale.
The whole-tone scale is easy to remember – it’s all whole-tones. However I still find myself still thinking of this scale as a hybrid:
And for the altered scale, I still find a way to think of this in 2 halves – since I remember this scale as the ‘melodic minor scale built off the flat 2nd’ (Db melodic minor – Db Eb Fb Gb Ab Bb C) – which is how most jazz players think of this scale.
Instead of learning each scale as a completely new set of 7 intervals – find ways to memorize it based on the scales you already know.
When you do this, learning new scales is quick and becomes easier with the more scales you learn.