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Music Theory

What Is the Lydian Scale?

Photograph of the blog post author, Sebastian Wolf

Sebastian Wolf


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What is the Lydian scale

The Lydian scale is a musical scale that has been used for centuries in various genres, from classical music to modern pop. Used to create a sense of intrigue and tension, the scale’s unique sound is a favourite among musicians and composers looking to add a touch of sophistication and complexity to their music. But, despite its popularity, many music enthusiasts are still unfamiliar with the scale and its unique properties. 

In this article, we will explore the history and characteristics of the Lydian scale, as well as its applications in various genres of music. Whether you are a musician looking to expand your musical knowledge or simply a music lover interested in learning more about the theory behind the music you enjoy, this article will provide you with a comprehensive introduction to the Lydian scale.

What Is the Lydian Scale?

Lydian Scale

The Lydian scale, or Lydian mode, is a type of modal musical scale used in jazz, rock, and other contemporary music genres. It’s a major scale with a raised fourth degree, giving it a unique sound and character.

The Lydian scale is built on the fourth mode of the major scale. It has a distinctive sound because of the raised fourth degree, creating a sense of tension and resolution when played against the other notes in the scale.

One way to think of the Lydian scale is as a major scale with a sharp fourth. For example, if we take the C major scale (C-D-E-F-G-A-B) and raise the fourth degree (F# instead of F), we get the C Lydian scale (C-D-E-F#-G-A-B). This gives the scale a bright and airy sound that is often used in jazz and fusion music.

As a result, the Lydian scale is a popular choice in improvisation, where musicians can explore its unique sound and experiment with different melodic ideas. It’s also common in chord progressions, where it can be used to add colour and interest to a song.

History of the Lydian Scale

The Lydian scale has been used for centuries in various cultures and musical traditions. Originally, the scale traces back to ancient Greece, where it was one of the seven modes used in music. The Lydian mode was named after the ancient kingdom of Lydia, located in what is now modern-day Turkey.

Over time, the Lydian scale became an important part of Western music theory. In the Middle Ages, it was used in Gregorian chants and other forms of sacred music. During the Renaissance, composers such as Josquin des Prez and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina used the scale in their compositions.

In the 20th century, the Lydian scale became an important part of jazz and popular music. Jazz musicians such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane used the scale in their improvisations, and it became a staple of the bebop and fusion styles. In rock music, the Lydian scale has been used by guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix and Steve Vai.

Today, the Lydian scale continues to be an important part of music theory and composition. It is used in a variety of genres, from classical to jazz to rock and beyond. Significantly, its unique sound and versatility make it a valuable tool for musicians and composers alike.

Lydian Scale vs Lydian Chord

The Lydian scale and the Lydian chord are two distinct musical concepts that share a common origin. The Lydian scale is a seven-note scale that’s similar to the major scale but with a raised fourth degree, giving the scale its characteristic bright and mystical sound.

On the other hand, the Lydian chord derives from the Lydian scale. It’s a major chord with a raised fourth degree, which gives it a unique sound that’s different from a regular major chord. The Lydian chord often appears in jazz and fusion music as a substitute for a regular major chord, adding a sense of tension and colour to the harmony.

While the Lydian scale and the Lydian chord share a common origin, they serve different musical purposes. The Lydian scale is used as a melodic tool to create interesting and unique melodies. However, the Lydian chord is used as a tool to add texture to harmonies. Both concepts are important in modern music and can be used creatively to add depth and interest to musical compositions.

Over the years, a number of artists from various genres have explored the sonic possibilities that the Lydian scale presents. Here’s our list of classic songs and compositions that include the scale in their arrangement: 

The Eagles – Hotel California

One of the most famous examples of the Lydian scale in popular music is the guitar solo in the song “Hotel California” by the Eagles. The solo, played by Don Felder and Joe Walsh, uses the Lydian scale to create a soaring and melodic sound that perfectly captures the mood of the song.

Beethoven – String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Op. 132

Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132 is a masterpiece of classical music that showcases the composer’s exceptional skill and creativity. The piece is known for its emotional depth and complexity, as well as its use of unconventional musical techniques. One such technique is the use of the Lydian scale. Beethoven employs the scale in the opening of the third movement, which is marked “Molto adagio” (very slow). Many regard this movement as one of the most profound and moving pieces in all of classical music, and the use of the Lydian scale adds to its otherworldly and haunting quality. 

The scale’s unique tonality creates a sense of tension and unease, which is then resolved in the movement’s final section. The composition is a stunning example of Beethoven’s genius and music’s ability to evoke deep emotions.

The Simpsons Theme Song

The theme song to The Simpsons is an iconic piece of music that has become synonymous with the show itself. It was composed by Danny Elfman and features a distinctive melody that is instantly recognisable. Interestingly, one aspect of the theme song is based on the Lydian scale. As a result of using the scale, Elfman injected the melody with a unique and somewhat quirky sound that fits perfectly with the irreverent and offbeat humour of the show. The use of the Lydian scale also adds to the sense of playfulness and whimsy that is such a hallmark of The Simpsons.

Simon & Garfunkel – Scarborough Fair

“Scarborough Fair” is a popular folk ballad from the 16th century that was revived by Simon & Garfunkel in the 1960s. The song’s notable use of the Lydian scale lends a distinctive and haunting sound that contributes to its enduring popularity. 

The use of the Lydian scale is particularly effective in the song’s melody, which is simple yet memorable. Overall, the combination of the traditional lyrics and the unique musical arrangement makes “Scarborough Fair” a timeless classic.

Jimi Hendrix – The Wind Cries Mary

“The Wind Cries Mary” is a classic song by Jimi Hendrix that features the Lydian scale prominently in its melody. Hendrix uses this scale to great effect in the song’s guitar solo, creating a sense of tension and release that perfectly complements the song’s melancholic lyrics. 

The use of the Lydian scale is just one example of Hendrix’s innovative approach to guitar playing and songwriting. As a result of such experimentation, “The Wind Cries Mary” is one of Hendrix’s most enduring and beloved songs.

West Side Story – Maria

The song “Maria” from the musical West Side Story features a prominent use of the Lydian scale in the opening melody and throughout the song’s bridge section. The use of this scale adds to the emotional intensity of the song, creating a sense of yearning and longing that perfectly matches the lyrics. 

The use of the Lydian scale in “Maria” is a great example of how music theory can be used to enhance the emotional impact of a song.

Rush – Freewill

“Freewill” is a classic rock song by the Canadian band Rush, released in 1980. The song’s lyrics explore the concept of free will, questioning whether individuals have control over their lives or if their actions are predetermined. The song’s instrumental section features a guitar solo by Alex Lifeson that incorporates the Lydian scale. In doing so, Lifeson’s solo adds to the song’s philosophical and introspective themes by creating a feeling of uncertainty and ambiguity that mirrors the lyrics’ exploration of free will and determinism. 

“Freewill” is a thought-provoking and musically sophisticated song that showcases Rush’s talent for combining complex lyrics and intricate instrumentation.

Fleetwood Mac – Dreams

“Dreams” is a classic rock song from 1977, written and sung by Stevie Nicks, one of Fleetwood Mac’s lead vocalists. The song features a distinctive Lydian mode guitar riff, helping to create a dreamy and ethereal atmosphere. Additionally, the riff perfectly complements the song’s lyrics about love, longing, and uncertainty. The song’s popularity has endured over the years, with many other artists covering it. 

In 2020, a viral TikTok video of a man skateboarding while drinking cranberry juice and singing along to “Dreams” brought the song back into the public consciousness.

R.E.M – Man on the Moon

“Man on the Moon” is a classic song by the American rock band R.E.M from 1992. The song is famous for its catchy melody and memorable lyrics. Furthermore, it includes prominent use of the Lydian scale in the song’s opening guitar riff and chorus melody. The use of this scale contributes to the song’s otherworldly and mysterious feel, which is fitting given the subject matter of the song. Significantly, the lyrics take inspiration from the life and career of the comedian Andy Kaufman, famous for his eccentric and often surreal performances. 

“Man on the Moon” is a great example of how the use of a unique musical mode can enhance a song’s emotional impact and make it stand out from the crowd.

Jane’s Addiction – Jane Says

“Jane Says” is a 1988 alternative rock song by Jane’s Addiction. The song features a distinctive Lydian scale melody, giving it a unique and somewhat alluring sound. The usage of the scale in “Jane Says” creates a dreamy and ethereal atmosphere that perfectly complements the introspective lyrics.

Tears for Fears – Head Over Heels

“Head Over Heels” is a classic 1980s hit from British band Tears for Fears. The song features a catchy melody and upbeat rhythm, which is driven by a distinctive guitar riff. Furthermore, the Lydian scale is used to great effect in the song’s chorus. Accordingly, it helps to create a sense of tension and release, perfectly complementing the song’s themes of love and longing. 

Closing Thoughts on the Lydian Scale

Undoubtedly, The Lydian scale is a unique and versatile musical scale with a variety of uses in multiple genres and contexts. Its raised fourth degree gives it a distinctive sound that is both beautiful and intriguing. As a result, the scale is a valuable tool for any musician looking to explore new sounds and ideas.


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