Lesson: Scale Patterns from Tetrachord Combinations

We normally think of scales in terms of eight-note patterns and treat them as a unit. There are the standard modal forms for both major and minor, the bop variations, blues variations, but all of these still cling to the paradigm of an octave based scale unit (even if the total number of notes in the scale changes). As bassists we learn these patterns and work to ingrain them in our muscle-memory. That way we don’t have to think about every note in the pattern, just the starting point and we know the rest will fall into place. This is great, but it is also very narrow-minded. If we change our reference point and think of the scales as combinations of two halves – an upper and a lower, we open ourselves up to new combinations and a new way of finding patterns on the fretboard. In this lesson we’re going to explore the concept of tetrachords and how they change the way we look at scales.

First a simple definition: a tetrachord is a collection of four notes. We’re going to confine this a bit more and restrict ourselves to four scalarly adjacent notes. Therefore an eight note scale would be made of two four-note tetrachords. We can describe all seven major modes as the combinations of four different tetrachords. I’m going to label the different tetrachord patterns in each figure so we can keep the combinations straight later on. These labels apply to the relative pattern not the absolute position on the neck. In other words, I’m labeling the pattern on the fretboard as a shape independent of the key or notes.

The first tetrachord to define is what we’ll call the major tetrachord. It is the first four notes of the traditional major scale – two whole steps and a half-step.

C Major Tetrachord

There are four distinct fretboard patterns that can be used to play this tetrachord. Here is the tablature for each pattern (moving progressively from a single string to using two strings):

C Major Tetrachord Pattern 1

C Major Tetrachord Pattern 2

C Major Tetrachord Pattern 3

C Major Tetrachord Pattern 4

Each tetrachord will have four unique fret-board patterns associated with it. You’ll have to decide which patterns fit your playing needs best for a given situation. The more engrained these patterns become the faster you’ll be at moving around the fretboard!

The second tetrachord is the minor tetrachord – the half step is between the second and third notes (so the step pattern is whole-half-whole). This is also the first four notes of the minor scale.

C Minor Tetrachord

C Minor Tetrachord Pattern 1

C Minor Tetrachord Pattern 2

C Minor Tetrachord Pattern 3

C Minor Tetrachord Pattern 4

The third tetrachord is known as the Phrygian tetrachord and places the half-step between the first two notes. Similarly to the other tetrachords this is the first four notes of the Phrygian scale:

C Phrygian Tetrachord

The associated tab-patterns are:

C Phrygian Tetrachord Pattern 1

C Phrygian Tetrachord Pattern 2

C Phrygian Tetrachord Pattern 3

C Phrygian Tetrachord Pattern 4

Our final tetrachord pattern is the Lydian tetrachord and – you guessed it – is the first four notes of the Lydian scale. It has a step pattern of whole-whole-whole and does not use any half-steps.

C Lydian Tetrachord

C Lydian Tetrachord Pattern 1

C Lydian Tetrachord Pattern 2

C Lydian Tetrachord Pattern 3

C Lydian Tetrachord Pattern 4

Now that we have our tetrachord forms defined, we can apply them to the major scalar modes. Each of the seven major modes is made up of two tetrachords from two different keys. Conceptually having two keys at your disposal for every major mode gives you a lot of options for improvisational ideas. Additionally, you have a consistent way to break up your fretboard patterns for each mode. Our options have expanded – rather than having one pattern in your head for each mode you have the possibilities of four different patterns for each half-mode. That means you have 16 possible finger patterns for every modal scale. It would be a serious feat to remember 16 unique patterns, but with the tetrachord system it is much easier to keep them straight. Here are the tetrachord combinations for each major mode:

Modal Tetrachord Matrix

So how does this factor into your playing? The best way is to run through the patterns and become as familiar as possible with each combination on the fretboard. For example, start with the C Ionian scale – a combination of the C major tetrachord and G major tetrachord – and play through all the fretboard combinations. Your practice pattern would look like the following:

Practice Matrix

That covers the possible combinations using the first two C Major patterns, you would do the same thing with Pattern 3 and Pattern 4.

Learning these tetrachord patterns will give you a lot of agility on the fretboard. The ultimate goal is to always know exactly where you can go at all times. Getting the patterns into your finger muscle memory will allow you to be faster than if you were consciously thinking of every note in the scale and having lots of options for how to finger the scales will give you the flexibility you need. As always, practice, practice, practice!

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Share your thoughts

  1. erix

    Thank you, this is extremely valuable.
    How does it apply to modes coming from harmonic and melodic scales?

    Best regards, Erix.

    • phillip moore

      Add the harmonic tetrachord to the mix.

      I also add what I call lydian minor tetrachord. stack on perfect fifths and you have 24 perfect heptatonic scales.

      I imagine Evan has probably or plans to get around to the altered scales.

  2. Glad you found the lesson useful Erix – since you asked for it I'll make a full lesson based on tetrachords in the minor modes ;) there's too much to explain in one comment

  3. erix

    Excellent, thank you.

  4. Josh

    GREAT LESSON!…Wow I know this concept will be amazing for my playing to move to the next level!
    Can’t wait to put it to practise!
    Thanks again

  5. johngoldsby

    Hi Evan, This is a great lesson! Tetrachords are physically easier to grab on the bass than full, 7-note scales. I have students work on tetrachords so they have the basic intervals under their fingers–and then combine the tetrachords for the full scales, as you describe here.This is also valuable to do for double bass players ;-)

  6. Daedalus

    Absolutely amazing! Just stumbled across your site these lessons on tetrachords sparked something for me, and the neck has become so much clearer.


  7. Evan Kepner

    Daedalus – thanks for the positive vote on the lesson, it’s strange how a small concept can really make a big difference at times. Personally I find thinking in tetrachords to be extremely useful, and I’m glad it’s helped the neck layout make more sense. There is a corresponding minor-tetrachord lesson available as well http://www.notreble.com/buzz/2010/04/01/lesson-minor-tetrachord-patterns/ – good luck practicing!

  8. Tim

    This is amazing! I’ve been stuck with practicing major and minor scales (as well as pentatonics) and I’m so glad to be able to see even more recognizable patterns being broken down within scales to exercise my appreciation and adaptability for theory. Thanks!!! :D

    I’ll be sure to check out the minor tetrachords as well!

  9. Bass Miller

    I understand the point of the tetrachord, but wouldn’t it be just as beneficial to think of the scale or mode as adding or subtracting from a certain pitch? For me, it always works to think of melodic minor as a major scale with a minor third, and then to alter the synthetic modes of the minor scale based on what note is altered.

    For instance, the second mode (the melodic minor scale starting from the 2nd scale degree) technically has a b2 (flat two), which is way easier for me than trying to remember two different keys. Then I can break the scale up in any way I wish when approaching the fretboard if I know the notes relative to the root rather than to two different keys. This way I can learn the scales all the way up and down the neck on one string, two, three, and then four strings, while still maintaining the sound of key rather than two keys.

    I’m going to try the tetrachord approach, but this just another approach to think about, by trying to get the entire scale sound in the head instead of breaking it up into it’s constituents.

  10. F Barbu

    Very usefull!!! After 25 years of playing bass this opens my mind in a way I couldn’t think it was possible. Thank you Sir!

    Florin Barbu

  11. Clifton

    Awesome stuff! Well put together!

  12. Great lesson, inspired me to do a series of videos on the different positions of tetrachords on the bass.

  13. I am facing a strange situation regarding the tetrachords. I am building a mode from the III degree of a melodic minor scale, and I get a lydic tetrachord as a first one and some kind of mixture of a phrygic and major tetrachord as the the second one. Anyone knows what’s this called?

  14. will certainly give this a try and expand my playing options, never thought of this use for a tetrachord.

  15. I really wished that I had been musically trained as a youngster. Then I could understand what the heck some of these articles are talking about. I understand the notation and tab diagrams but I can’t figure out the significance of these tetrachords and modal forms or when to apply them. One day I hope to meet someone who can patiently illustrate and explain (in dumbed down terms) what all this means.

    • Terrance: I know what you’re talking about. I started out playing by ear, and then went on to buy books about scales…but none of the books taught me when or where to apply the scales I learned.

      I recommend a great book called “Scales and Modes in the Beginning” by Ron Middlebrook. When I first read it, I was like: “FINALLY! The book I’ve been looking for!” It explains the relationships between scales, modes & chords in a clear and easy to grasp manner. It opened up the floodgates for me, and I came to understand a great deal more about music theory.

      (I know that I sound like the paid stooge of Ron Middlebrook, but I assure you that I am a real person, and this IS my real opinion. Heh.)

      It worked for me; hope it works for you. Good luck!

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