Scales are a basic element of music.
After that, there’s the modes. They’re a type of scale too. The modes bring new colors to your music, even though they come from the major scale as well.
Between all that there’s probably enough material to keep you busy creating music for a long time.
But if you’re a diehard experimenter you might be searching for the wildest scales you can possibly find. If so—this article is for you.
In this guide I’ll cover my picks for the coolest sounding “other” scales out there.
Modes of melodic minor and harmonic minor
Many of the scales I’ll be talking about here come from forms of the minor scale.
Melodic and harmonic minor are important components of the minor sound. If you need a refresher on them can head back and brush up with our overview of minor scales.
In our guide to modes we broke down how to build the church modes from the seven note scales starting on each degree of the major scale.
But did you know you can do the same thing with melodic and harmonic minor? Here’s where things start to get crazy!
You can use this method to generate scales with unique patterns. They’re not all incredibly useful, but some have a flavor you won’t find anywhere else.
These scales are sometimes called by the church modes they’re similar to, but they also use numbers that correspond to their starting note.
I’ll use both methods as well as their common nicknames to help you keep it straight!
1. Acoustic scale (fourth mode melodic minor)
Also known as lydian dominant, the acoustic scale is the closest scale to the naturally occurring overtone series.
The overtone series is the order of harmonics that ring out above the fundamental of a complex, pitched sound.
If you wrote it as a stepwise musical scale it would sound a lot like the acoustic scale.
It’s a hauntingly stable sound with lots of bold whole tone intervals.
2. Mixolydian b6 (fifth mode melodic minor)
Mixolydian b6 is an interesting variation of mixolydian that will catch your ear right away.
The b6 note makes it sound a bit darker and more melancholic than the standard version.
Mixolydian b6 is especially useful for improvising over songs that include the borrowed minor iv chord.
The outro solo from Echo and the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon” is a great example of this scale in action.
3. Altered Scale (seventh mode melodic minor)
The altered scale is very important in jazz music. If you want to improvise well over V7 chords in jazz, this one should be in your toolbox.
The altered scale is the 7th mode of melodic minor. That means it’s the scale with the minor mode formula that starts and ends on the 7th degree.
It contains the chord tones of the dominant seventh chord plus all the possible extensions.
That means you get 1, 3, and 7 of V7—but also b9, #9, b5 and b13!
The altered scale is one way to create the notorious “out” sound in bebop. It’s the edgy modern sound of playing all around the chord.
Here’s a nice clear explanation of the altered scale and how it sounds in a jazz context:
4. Spanish Phrygian or Freygish Scale (fifth mode harmonic minor)
This scale is well-known for its association with flamenco and klezmer music. It’s one of the few commonly used modes of harmonic minor.
The major third gives this scale a warm and resonant feel despite its brooding b2 and b6.
It has a unique sound that conjures up a distinct mood when you use it.
Next up are the symmetric scales. These scales play on a unique property of the 12 musical notes.
Certain arrangements of whole and half steps produce scales that can only be transposed so many times.
How is that possible? Well if you move a symmetric scale more than a few tones, it simply turns back into itself! The pattern of notes stays the same, but now you’re starting from a different position.
This unique property has attracted composers for centuries.
Once you hear the mysterious qualities of the symmetric scales, you’ll be on the lookout for ways to incorporate them into your music!
5. Whole tone scale
The whole tone scale is the 6 note scale built by moving a whole tone at a time.
The wide intervals sound expectant and unsettling, yet intriguing at the same time.
The whole tone scale is symmetrical, so there are only two variations. You can think of it as one starting on C and one starting on C#—dividing the octave neatly in half!
The whole tone scale is sometimes used in old film soundtracks to signify a sense of confusion or disorientation.
It appears in the synth arpeggio at the beginning of Kraftwerk's track “Spacelab.”
6. Diminished scale/Octatonic scale
The octatonic scale is sometimes called the “whole-half” scale because It’s the eight note scale built by alternating whole steps and half steps.
There are three possible octatonic scales (also called octatonic collections) each with two modes.
The octatonic scale contains multiple diminished chords, giving it a highly tense feel. That's why jazz musicians sometimes call it the diminished scale.
Curious composers have toyed with the interesting structure of the octatonic scales for years.
Here’s a video that takes a deep dive into what makes them so irresistible.
Interesting and uncommon scales
Music theory is a great way to expand your inspiration.
Even if you never use these scales in your music, taking the time to explore them and hear how they sound can broaden your horizons.
Now that you know some of the weirdest scales out there, get back to your DAW and experiment with your new sounds.