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Music for Practicing Scales and Modes

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This article originally appeared on Ethan Hein’s blog.

Are you trying to learn scales and patterns, but finding it hard to make yourself practice?

Do yourself a favor, and practice over actual music. A student asked me to make him a playlist of harmonically static music that’s good for practicing over, so I thought I would share it with everyone. The music in this post is perfect for working out scales. Each track stays in a particular key or mode for long stretches of time, and has a slow or medium tempo. You can dig deep into the scales associated with each one without needing to worry about form or rapid chord changes. Here’s the Spotify playlist.

And, brush up on any of the following scales and modes in Soundfly’s free online course, Music Theory for Bedroom Producers.

Miles Davis

“Shhh Peaceful” — D Mixolydian (or blues, or major, or really anything).
“In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time” — The slow part is E major (or Lydian, or blues), the funky part is F Mixolydian (or blues, or Dorian).

“He Loved Him Madly” — C Phrygian (or blues, or natural minor, or any minor scale).

John Coltrane

“India” — G Mixolydian (or blues, or major, or really anything).

“Spiritual” — C natural minor (or blues, or Dorian, or any minor scale).

Fela Kuti

“Overtake Don Overtake Overtake” — G Dorian (or blues, or any minor scale).

“Beasts of No Nation” — G natural minor (or blues, or any minor scale).

Thelonious Monk

“Green Chimneys” — A♭ Dorian, goes to B major on the bridge.

Herbie Hancock

“Fat Albert Rotunda” — F Dorian (or blues).

“Chameleon”B♭ Dorian (or blues) — Just skip the strange chromatic parts toward the end.

Michael Jackson

“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” — B Mixolydian.

John Lee Hooker

“Bad Like Jesse James” — E blues (or Dorian, or natural minor).

Brian Eno

“Music for Airports” — Piano section is D major, voice section is F minor, brass part is sort of in B♭ major but is too out of tune to be worth playing over.

Various Artists

Here’s a great, long playlist of ’90s hip-hop instrumentals. You can figure out the key centers for these by trial and error easily enough. It’s a good exercise.

Please feel free to make more suggestions in the comments!

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Ethan Hein
Ethan Hein

Ethan Hein is a Doctoral Fellow in Music Education at New York University. He teaches music technology, production and education at NYU and Montclair State University. With the NYU Music Experience Design Lab, Ethan has taken a leadership role in the creation of new technologies for learning and expression, most notably the Groove Pizza. He is the instructor of the free Soundfly course series called Theory for Producers. He maintains a widely-followed and influential blog, and has written for various publications, including Slate, Quartz, and NewMusicBox.