A non-standard visualization method for chords and scales


Firstly, let me say I have no idea if this will be helpful to anybody. This is just abstract nonsense. I like abstract nonsense.

Hopefully, it might at least be interesting.

Let me first explain my motivations. When I started learning scale patterns on guitar, I found it difficult to immediately recognize the scale degree of each note in the patterns. As a direct result of this, I found it difficult to build chord shapes from these patterns. I eventually managed to learn and memorize this via repetition, but I always felt that method was inefficient.

Later, when I was learning patterns for other diatonic scales, so I could follow chord changes, I again had difficulty recognizing scale degrees, thus making it difficult to visualize the strong notes to target. At that time, I had an idea, which I’ve followed down the rabbit hole, and which I hope to explain here in this thread.

I visualize the octave as a set of 12 inequivalent pitch classes (“notes”) with a regular arrangement. Due to the regularity of this arrangement (by equal temperament), I naturally represent the octave as a regular 12-gon.

I now visualize the major scale as a 7-note subset of this 12-note set, arranged as a polygon within the regular 12-gon. See this diagram.

To distinguish scale degrees, I assign a “scale spectrum” to each inequivalent 7-note scale. For the major scale, the natural choice was the spectrum below.


I see scales as equivalent if they produce the same 7-sided polygon (that is, they contain the same arrangement of intervals). Thus, the modes of the major scale are equivalent to the major scale itself.

Notice that the 7-sided polygon clearly indicates that the major scale is reflectively symmetric through its 2nd degree. Actually, rotations and reflections of the 12-gon results in the same 7-sided polygon. This is the foundation of how I view modulations.

Now, I needed a method to visualize the chords determined by this scale. To me,chord, consisting of three notes, a seventh, and any characteristic additions. Visually, I represent the 7 chords as “chord flags,” which I’ve included below.

To read a flag, notice first the tricolour. From left to right, the colours of the tricolour indicate the root, 3rd and 5th. The interval between each chord tone is represented by the direction of the indentations in the tricolour. Notice that chord quality of the chord (major, minor, minor with flattened 5th) is then given a distinctive arrangement of the tricolour indentations.

The large central emblem represents the 7th, and is thus a 7-pointed star for a major 7th or regular heptagon for a minor 7th. If there is a shape contained within the central emblem, it indicates a characteristic addition. For the major scale, these are as follows

  • The 2 chord has a major 6th, represented by a 6-pointed star.
  • The 3 chord has a minor 2nd, indicated by the rectangle.
  • The 4 chord has a sharped 4th, indicated by the diamond (a 4-pointed star).
  • The 7 chord has a minor 2nd, indicated by the rectangle.

The 1, 5 and 6 chords are archetypal, representing standard major, dominant 7th and minor 7th chords.

Ok, now we apply this to the guitar via scale shapes. Since I don’t see modes as different scales, I decided to use the usual mode names to denote scale shapes. This helps me to visualize the patterns of other diatonic scales (harmonic major, harmonic minor, melodic minor) as alterations of major scale shapes.

We then apply the spectrum to the usual three note per string scale shapes, and we have the following fretboard diagrams.

  1. Ionian

  2. Dorian

  3. Phrygian

  4. Lydian

  5. Mixolydian

  6. Aeolian

  7. Locian

Now, with the scale spectrum applied to the scale patterns, it is easy to recognize the scale degrees and thus build chords and target the notes which define the chord.

I’ve repeated this idea for the other main inequivalent scales, allowing me to better see how the patterns intersect and how the chord structures change.

Let me know if this is interesting to you, and maybe I’ll develop this further in later posts.


Interesting, a friend of mine also does the color per modal root thing, the flags I had never seen before.

Here’s a spooky coincidence: All three of us (my buddy, you and me) actually think of Phrygian as yellow…
Here’s my colors, just for kicks (though I visualize the whole scale in one color with a brighter Root):
Ionian - Bright Gold
Dorian - Light Blue
Phrygian - Yellow
Lydian - Light Green
Mixolydian - Red
Aeolian - Dark Green
Locrian - Dark Grey

Also, check out:


Ooh this is cool!

I am also a fan of abstract nonsense :slight_smile: I think a lot of useful discoveries and explanations start out that way.

This is a bit above my pay grade music theory-wise, but one thing it reminds me of is a book we came across by Miles Okazaki, full of similarly fun and nerdy diagrams representing both pitch / scale relationships, and complex rhythm stuff:


Awesome! I’ve wondered about that book for a while.

Pat Martino is also way into the Sacred Geometry and Polarity/Opposites stuff.

I’ve also heard of people visualizing rhythms, like geometric shapes on a “clock” for ex. I tend to use Konnakol when things get a little weird, like polyrhythms, but it might be worth exploring.


I can’t decide if my CTC membership is a good thing or a bad thing. I’ve found more great book recommendations in the last six months on these forums than I’ve found in the previous six years. And now that stack of “stuff I’m working on” just got one book bigger… :wink:

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Hi @beandsay. I think I had heard players mention the idea of imagining notes “lighting up” on the fretboard as a visualisation method. I think Allan Holdsworth says something to that effect on his instructional video. I remember thinking it would be helpful if the lights were different colours for the different notes, so that was probably where I began this approach.

I’ve always doubted that the idea of assigning colours to scale degrees was uniquely mine, but I haven’t heard anybody describe a visual representation for the sonic content of a chord before. The chord flags really do encode a lot of information about chord structure.

Incidentally, my choice of scale spectrum for the major scale was not particularly based on any synaesthetic associations. The scale spectrum I chose for the major scale is just the colours of the rainbow. I felt this was a sensible canonical assignment.

I do associate a Lydian tonality with a bright green colour too, so it was fortuitous that the 4th degree of the major scale becomes the green note. While I do make synaesthetic associations with music, it’s not typically visual for me, but tactile.

Also, I felt the material I was presenting here and I didn’t want to derail your thread. I’m glad you find this interesting.

I believe wholeheartedly in the power of abstraction. Abstraction allows us to understand more by considering less.

I have not come across the book you’ve mentioned before. It looks very interesting. I think I might order a copy.

I have colour coded the Major, Harmonic Major, Harmonic Minor and Melodic Minor scales in this way, and I’ve drawn the flags and produced the scale shapes. I feel that these are the four most valuable scales.


What you’ve diagrammed here looks a lot like the common Hue-Sat-Brightness view in applications like Final Cut, where colors are arranged in polar fashion. Primary colors are every 120 degrees - red is zero, green is 120, blue is 240, back to red again at 360. Half that are yellow at 60, and teal/cyan at 180, magenta at 300. Half of that are orange at 30, lime/chartreuse at 90, sea foam at 150, aqua at 210, violet at 270, and so on.

Just some further “color” to this!


Notice that the 7-sided polygon clearly indicates that the major scale is reflectively symmetric through its 2nd degree. Actually, rotations and reflections of the 12-gon results in the same 7-sided polygon. This is the foundation of how I view modulations.

This is interesting–I’ve never noticed this before. So if you’re changing keys, you essentially use the 2nd major scale degree as an axis point for symmetry’s sake? Could you unpack this idea a bit more, maybe with an example of how you use this concept?

Otherwise I pretty much get the idea and it’s pretty neat. I’ve heard about people doing colour association before and I never really understood why it would work, but it might be worth looking at it in more detail

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If we go back into musical terms, both Tetrachords of the Dorian scale are the same so if you build it using the same interval order but descending you’d get exactly the same scale again, so it “inverts” (not exactly, it would be the same forwards and backwards interval wise, not note wise) into itself, which doesn’t happen with any other Diatonic Mode.

This is the whole Jacob Collier Negative Harmony thing at work, but using the Root as the axis.

In plain English (W = Whole Step, H = Half Step)
1st tetrachord
1 2 b3 4
Distance between Tetrachords
4 to 5
2nd Tetrachord
5 6 b7 1

Hope it helps!


Physical position relative to the root note tell you which scale degree (interval) it is. This system introduces a layer of obfuscation that once you “see” the intervals based on their relative positions to each other, you would never need this system.

This is kinda like writing your name in your underwear so you don’t forget who you are.

I don’t think this forum is for me anymore. If I can leave the CTC forum with one concept, its “dont intellectualize” instead “memorize”. Its all about developing vocabulary.

In the time it takes to absorb and try to implement something like this, you could have mastered ten GOOD licks or songs.


My very first sentence was a caveat. I do not expect that this system is an ideal learning method for most, nor am I promoting it as such.

I knew the shapes of intervals when learning the positions of the major scale across the neck, and could recognise scale degrees based on this. I did this by brute force memorisation, and it worked fine when everything was static. I found issue tracking how roots changed with modulations or deriving borrowed chords not built off the tonic. This idea came about as a way for me to track those changes.

I don’t see how that analogy applies. It’s more like transport networks colouring different train lines and showing their map abstractly rather than geographically. It’s not necessary when you already know where everything is and how to get from any one place to any other, but it might be helpful for those who haven’t memorized that information.

If intellectualization isn’t effective for you, then by all means, don’t do it.

Trying to learn traditional music theory doesn’t work for me. What works for me is tracking sets of notes, how they intersect and how they can be deformed in one another. Diagrammatics helps me with this.

Maybe my approach is unnatural and unhelpful for most. For me, it’s the best approach. I’m a mathematician. As I said, I’m not promoting this as an effective method for others. This thread was just for the curious.

Vocabulary was not an issue for me. By the time I’d come up with is idea, I’d already learned hundreds of songs and thousands on licks.

This method was about trying to get all of that vocabulary to fit together. It helped me, and was easy to derive and implement for me.


As an engineer, I’m unimpressed.

You may find yourself winning a lot of arguments because its just not worth the time and effort for the other guy. If your method is not useful to anyone else (and its not), then its just (transparent) self aggrandizement.

I was on the fence about continuing a CTC subscription, but some of the people in this forum have really turned me off.


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I wasn’t trying to insinuate that being a mathematician makes me somehow superior, or that anybody who discounts this method is somehow inferior.

I was trying to express that is helps for me to structure my understanding around the methods of reasoning that I, personally, am most comfortable with.

I decided to share this only to start a discussion, with the hope it may at least be interesting to some. I didn’t write or share this so I could feel clever.

I also didn’t think this was an argument. If I came across as argumentative or condescending, then I apologise.

If you don’t want to continue to discuss, then that’s fine.


As someone who mostly lurks around reading rather than contributing I just felt like saying that I do find your system interesting.

I find it useful as a teacher because it represents another approach to thinking about music theory and therefore composition and how it can be applied to the guitar.

So thanks for sharing @Tom_Gilroy!

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Tom comes for free whether you pay for your subscription or not, you don’t get this sort of value-added stuff just anywhere online.

Seriously though, all he’s saying is “I think like this, I know it isn’t standard, I thought some people might be interested”, not sure it’s worth flouncing from a forum over.


Meant to be a reply to the original post.

You have a mistake here between phrygian and lydian. I had to question myself for a moment about it. these forms have another possibility check this out if you can. The mistake actually lines up the phrygian and mixolydian which is correct as one is the opposite of the other in terms of construction.


Yes you’re correct, the order should be reversed. I’ll edit the OP later.


Ha, I think if I overlapped your use of color with my use of color, my head would explode. I assign a color for each of the 12 notes and keep them fixed. But I do look at triplets of color as triads, I guess similar to your flags, except yours is key movable, where I always see an E Major triad as the same set of 3 colors, where you would see E major as multiple sets of triplets of color depending on it’s location in the harmonized scale.

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