Beginning Melodic Sequences

In music, a sequence is a series of short, repeated musical patterns. These patterns usually move up or down a scale.

There are harmonic sequences (repeated harmonic patterns) and melodic sequences (repeated melodic patterns).

By repeated we mean they have the same underlying structure while being played off of different notes.

For example, in the key of C major C-D-E and D-E-F have the same structure: step-step-step. Even though the intervals are a little different (Whole-step/Whole-step vs. Whole-step/Half-step), our ear percieves them as similar within that key.

Melodic sequences are an excellent technique builder, and you should make them part of your daily practice routine. Let me explain melodic sequences.

How Melodic Sequences Work

To play a melodic sequence you take a short melodic phrase and play it off of each note of a scale or chord pattern.

For example, your melodic phrase could simply walk up the first 3 notes of the major scale--Root, 2, 3. Then, play the same ascending three-note melody on each note of the major scale. e.g.

R 2 3
2 3 4
3 4 5
4 5 6
5 6 7
6 7 8

You can (and should) play the sequence descending as well. Just reverse the numbers:

8 7 6
7 6 5
6 5 4

If going down confuses you, you're not alone. It trips up everyone at first. Don't skip it.

Watch the Melodic Sequence Animation


Sometimes it helps to visualize the pattern. Here's an interactive animation of the sequence. Beneath the diagram there are buttons some users miss. Click the play arrow to begin the animation. You can also step through the animation note-by-note using the arrow buttons. And, if you want left-handed diagrams, change your settings in your user account.

What Melodic Sequences Do for You

Playing sequence patterns helps you in many ways. The first benefit you will see is your fingers learn to move in new ways.

You are also forced to think about the underlying scale or chord in a new way. Early on, people have a hard time playing a scale starting from somewhere other than the root. That's going to hold you back. A lot of music doesn't start off of the root. Melodic sequences will make you start to think about the pattern more deeply and gain a better understanding of the pattern's structure.

Most importantly, you will start to hear the underlying pattern better. I encourage you to hum or sing the patterns as you play them. This will strengthen your ear and its connection to the fretboard and the scale/chord on which you are working.

The stronger your connection to these musical patterns of scales and chords is, the more you will be able to express your musical thoughts.

You probably won't play these complete sequence patterns in a bassline. That would sound like an exercise. Instead, bits and pieces of it will come out. They become part of your musical vocabulary.

Remember this:
Just as you don't start saying words you've never learned before, you will never play something you haven't practiced before.

You might play something new, but somehow the elements on which it is based were practiced at some point.

The more ways you work on something, the more ways you'll be able to use it. Sequences can add a lot to your musical vocabulary.

Endless Possibilities

There are many possible melodies you can turn into sequences. In the exercises for this lesson, I will show you some of the most popular major scale sequences people play on all instruments. But, use your imagination and create your own ideas and exercises. Short patterns--2, 3 or 4 notes--often work best.

You don't have to limit yourself to the major scale either. Try any other scale you know. Try chord patterns. The fewer notes in a pattern, however, makes sequences too short. But, anything is worthwhile to try.

Make sure you play these in different keys all over the fretboard. Don't only play them in G like the examples.

Speed It Up (...a Little)

Your last concern should be speed. But, as you gain confidence with any sequence, slowly build up the tempo. Don't forget to play legato! If your playing sounds choppy, you're going too fast.