Using Scales to Create Moods

Posted by James Cullen on

Do you ever find yourself wanting to create a specific mood or feeling in your music but you’re not sure where to start?

Are you one of the many producers who lacks any formal Music Theory schooling or qualifications?

While Music Theory can definitely be quite convoluted at times, and its applications in electronic music production questionable considering how much daunting information about Classical Music there can be to learn, it is also an extremely useful skill to have in your repertoire. 

I see producers on forums and Reddit asking all the time ‘Do I need to learn music theory?’ or something along those lines. The short answer is no, you don’t need to, but the long answer is if you do decide to learn Theory, you’ll be able to elevate your productions to the next level by being able to employ complex harmonic and melodic ideas.

Understanding key signatures, chords, scales and harmony will put you one step above the producers who don’t know this, or who just use loops for their melodic ideas. 

Consider how much better your musical brain would be if you could instantly know what key signature you wanted to use in order to create a piece of music in a specific tone or mood. Instead of spending lots of time experimenting as many do, you could jump straight in knowing exactly what you were doing.

A similar analogy is between producers who know how to design a synth sound and those who rely on presets. You can create exactly what you’re looking for in terms of sonic characteristics, instead of having to rely on the best sounding preset after looking through them all - a process which can often take up lots of your time and sap lots of your enthusiasm.

The Power of Music

Learning Music Theory, then, gives you the knowledge and skills to shape your music accordingly. The power to create emotion is now in your hands!

Music is unique in that it has the power to elicit certain moods and feelings within us, which is very interesting because while these are largely universal -to an extent- there are factors which determine how music makes us feel. One of these is culture; the society and environment in which you’re raised has a huge impact on how you perceive music.

Think of all the music in your life and how that makes you feel, do you have certain songs that bring back happy memories or put you straight back into a time in your past? How about sad memories, or scary ones? This is music’s unique and wonderful power over our emotions, and probably why music is so ubiquitous in human society.

But what causes these emotional tones to music?

Scales and Tonalities

One of the huge underpinnings of why music makes us feel certain things is the harmony and scale used. Most of us in Western Culture perceive Major as happy and Minor as sad, but if you were raised where these connections were flipped on their head, the emotional response to the music would change.

Consider a Major Chord vs a Minor Chord, maybe even play them on your keyboard if you have it to hand. Major sounds happy doesn’t it? And Minor sounds sad, right? 

This is partly because the Major Third note is closer in tone to the root than the Minor Third is. The Minor Third is sonically further away from the root, causing a sound of isolation and disconnection from the tonal centre of the chord. This is interpreted as a sad or desolate sounding chord.

As previously mentioned, culture is at play here; traditional Asian or Middle Eastern Music uses quarter tones, something a Western audience isn’t used to, so will naturally find it difficult to listen to. Consider how the culture you’re raised in, and the music you’re exposed to, affects how you perceive mood and emotion in music. It’s an interesting mix of music theory and culture at work.

Harmonies also create emotion, as harmonies that sound pleasant together create feelings of relaxation, peace or happiness, whiles clashing harmonies create feelings of discomfort or unease.

Melody, Pitch and Tempo

There is also Melody, Pitch and Tempo that contribute in their own ways to how we perceive music. The melodies in music can sound pleasant if they stay within a tonal centre, and use predictable jumps and intervals, while they can sound jarring and unusual if large jumps or strange intervals are used. This is because melodies often mirror human speech, especially if singing is involved. Human speech naturally stays quite uniform in the tones it uses, so music that does this sounds pleasant. 

Similarly, lower pitches can create more ominous tones, while higher pitches are often perceived as happier. Think of the theme tune of Jaws, and how imposing it is. But then imagine the exact same tune played 4 octaves higher. It would lose some of its impact wouldn’t it?

Tempo, too, dictates how music makes us feel, from slower songs ranging from relaxed to melancholy, and faster songs ranging from energetic to chaotic. Most chilled out genres are fairly slow and laid back, while it’s hard to sit back and relax to some Jungle or Drum & Bass.

Today, though, we are focusing on scales, and we will explore some of the best (and most unusual) scales you can use in your productions to create specific moods or feelings.

Which Scales create which Moods?

Everyone knows the basic function of a Major scale and a Minor scale. A Major scale is Happy, and a Minor scale is sad. These scales are organised starting from the root note, and moving up in steps.

A C Major scale, as an example, is structured like so:

Notes: C D E F G A B

Scale Formula: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Scale Intervals: W W H W W W H

The Intervals is what’s important here, as they signify the structure of the scale when transposed into any other key. W stands for Whole Tone or step, while H stands for Half Tone or Step. This structure creates a Major scale from any starting note.

A C Minor scale, for comparison, is structured like so:

Notes: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb

Scale Formula: 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

Scale Intervals: W H W W H W W

The Natural Minor scale of C flattens the third, sixth and seventh of the scale, as you can see in the intervals. You’ll notice I said C Natural Minor, as there are three different types of Minor Scales.

These are Natural, Melodic and Harmonic Minor, and the differences are; 

The Natural Minor scale includes the same notes as that of its relative Major. For example, A Natural Minor is the relative Minor Scale of C Major, and contains the same notes as C major but A is its tonic note instead of C. So if you play the exact same notes of the C Major Scale, but start on A, you’ll be playing the A Natural Minor scale.

The Harmonic Minor scale also contains the same notes as its relative Major Scale, except its 7th degree is raised. This was initially done so that the harmonised fifth degree (the Dominant) would produce a major triad as opposed to a minor triad, as is found in the harmonised natural minor scale.

The Melodic Minor scale has two forms; ascending and descending. The ascending form raises the sixth and seventh degrees, while the descending form is the same as the Natural Minor scale. This is used when you want to use Dominant chords in your arrangement.

So, those are the two basics; Major and Minor. You should be familiar with those if you’re writing music with melodies and harmony in. As we’ve mentioned, the general rule is that Major creates happy associations with the listener, while Minor creates sadder associations.

But what about when you want to create other emotions? Let’s explore some fun and unique scales you can employ in your productions.

The Miyako-Bushi Scale

The Miyako-Busho scale is a Japanese pentatonic scale, which doesn’t feature either a Major or Minor third. For this reason it can be really great when you’re wanting to create ambiguous or mysterious sounding music.

The notes of the scale in D are: D - D# - G - A - A# - D⠀

Using the notes of this scale, as well as creating chords from the notes can add a really dark and interesting tone to your music. It’s also used a lot in Native American flute music, so you can bear that in mind when deciding where to take your compositions.


The Lydian Mode

The Lydian Mode is great for creating ethereal or magical sounding music. Due to this, it’s used in a lot of video game themes, such as Zelda or Mario, as well as the Simpsons Theme, Back to the Future and many more popular pieces!

The Lydian Mode is named after the ancient Greek kingdom of Lydia, and derives its sound from the music of the period. A variation of the scale was used in ancient and medieval music, with some variations from the modern Lydian Mode we have today.

The Lydian Mode can be described as a Major Scale with the fourth raised a semitone, making it an augmented fourth above the tonic, e.g., an F-major scale with a B♮ rather than B♭.


It consists of the following notes in F: F- G - A - B - C - D - E - F

The Dorian Mode

The modern Dorian Mode (as there are ancient and medieval counterparts) has also been called the Russian minor by Balakriev, a Russian Composer. It is a diatonic scale, and in D, it corresponds to all the white keys of a Piano from D to D. 

D - E - F - G - A - B - C - D

This is an interval pattern of: 

Whole Tone, Half Tone, Whole Tone, Whole Tone, Whole Tone, Half Tone, Whole Tone

It can be transcribed to any key, with the above interval pattern adhered to. In D, it contains a minor third and minor seventh, so is most commonly found in blues and jazz improvisation. It has a distinctive sound that these genres are famous for. 

However, it also contains a major sixth, so this gives the Mode an unexpected characteristic of brightness in an otherwise minor setting. Because of this, it can work well in any melancholic yet upbeat setting. It can add interest to genres outside its home of jazz and blues, so consider this when you want to add a little distinctive flavour to your compositions!

Minor Pentatonic Scale

Pentatonic scales are scales comprising five notes, and the Minor Pentatonic is a scale that is often used in a Blues context, but can also be found in World and Rock music. It is often hailed as the ‘most used, most heard and most recognisable’ scale in the world of guitar based rock music. 

Its notes in C are: C - Eb - F - G - Bb

Pentatonic scales are useful because they can sound great over any chord change in their given key, so for this reason you can make melodies out of the notes of the scale over whatever chords you have underpinning it. It can also be played over the chords of its Relative Major key to give a minor flavour to a major sounding piece.

Whole Tone Scale

As the shrewd readers amongst you will have been able to guess from the name, the Whole Tone scale is a scale in which all notes are separated by an interval of...wait for it...a Whole Tone!

 The Whole Tone scale exists with two sets of notes:

  1. C - D - E - F# - G# - Bb (shown above)
  2. C# - D# - F - G - A - B

This is because there is no leading note in a whole tone scale, since it can be played symmetrically from any note on the keyboard, and all the intervals are the same. So depending on your harmonic centre, either of the above iterations will do.

The Whole Tone scale is particularly unique and uncommon because no single tone stands out, and this creates a blurred and indistinct effect. The scale can be described as dreamy or underwater sounding, creating strange ethereal melodies. 

This strange effect is particularly noticeable and emphasised due to the fact that all triads (three note chords) created with notes from the Whole Tone scales are Augmented triads. An Augmented triad is a chord made up of two major third intervals, giving the resulting chord a dominant fifth. 

Play one on your keyboard (C-E-G#) and see how strange it sounds. This is the trademark unusual characteristic of the Whole Tone Scale.

Octatonic Scale

An Octatonic Scale is a symmetric scale composed of alternating whole and half steps. These are trademark Dark sounding scales, used often in spooky or scary settings. Think any movie about Dracula; it probably uses an Octatonic scale in the music somewhere.

The harmonies that result from the use of an Octatonic Scale create very exotic and unusual sounding music, the scale contains familiar elements of a minor scale, but combines them in an unfamiliar and unusual way. 

The Chromatic scale ( the twelve notes of an octave played one after another) contains three disjoint diminished seventh chords. The notes from two of these seventh-chords combine to form an octatonic collection or scale. Because there are three ways to select two from three, there are three octatonic scales in the twelve-tone system:

E♭ diminished (F♯/G♭, A, C diminished): E♭, F, F♯, G♯, A, B, C, D, E♭( shown above)

D diminished (F, A♭, B diminished): D, E, F, G, G♯, A♯, B, C♯, D

D♭ diminished (E, G, B♭ diminished): C♯, D♯, E, F♯, G, A, B♭, C, C♯

Have a play around with these in your DAW and see what kind of unusual sounding melodies and harmony you can create!

Hopefully, you can have some fun using the scales mentioned above in your productions. These aren’t the only ones out there, so bear that in mind, and make sure you look for a full list of scales you can use to be creative.

Building your melodies using one of the scales above will require that you also use the chords of that scale to make sure everything sounds in key (unless you’re making deliberately atonal music that is!) which is another key factor to keep your mind on.

As we mentioned at the start, there are tonnes of benefits to learning Music Theory, despite how daunting it may initially seem, so if you’re looking for a way to up your game and put yourself above the thousands of other producers competing for the ears of an audience, consider learning Theory. There are formal qualifications you can take, as well as youtube based tutorials, courses and even apps. The knowledge gives you the skills, whether you have a formal qualification or not!

Thanks for checking in with us here at Top Music Arts once again, for this look into how you can use Scales to create various moods within your music. As always, hit us up in the comments below if you have any favourite scales or music compositional tips, and check out the rest of our site for more great production resources! 

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