Enough With The Scales

Enough With The Scales

Today’s post is not research but opinion. I’ll keep it short, as I’d like it to be a starting point for discussion. You are invited to comment!

I’m going to argue that chord-scale theory, the conceptual framework used in jazz college courses world-wide, is flawed even as a teaching tool. I swallowed it whole in jazz school, and frankly I think I wasted years trying to make music according to it.

The basic idea, of matching scales to chord symbols, is useful and I’m glad I learned it early. But it can’t be your only guide. I’m with the widespread view that learning bebop is key to navigating changes. Chord-scale theory is bad at explaining what bebop and bebop-influenced players did. (Music made by people who learned chord-scale theory at jazz school, unsurprisingly, fits it better. In fairness, the theory has enabled some great music and great advances in playing.)

Is chord-scale theory a useful simplification for teaching? I believe it loses too much in return for too little understanding.

(By the way, I’m going on my memories of ensembles and courses, and books such as Mark Levine’s The Jazz Theory Book. I may not be completely fair to them. But I’m talking about the overall results of this teaching system.)

The first thing chord-scale theory misses out on is the idea of key. Jazz until the 60s (and most of it after that) was in major or minor keys (with a lot of room to manoeuvre of course). Playing in key, whether diatonically or bluesily, is a basic element of jazz improv and melody. Yet this can’t really be expressed in terms of chord-scale theory. Sure, basic chord progressions like I IV or II V I, when explained with the theory, do yield the 7 notes of a major key. But that’s an unproductive way of restating that chords can belong to a major key.

It’s not that chord-scale advocates were against the traditional view of keys and chords. Rather, they took it as given, and tried to progress from it. Unfortunately, their supplementary ideas are taught as a complete system to beginners or rock-oriented musicians who don’t understand functional harmony.

So, in the theory, chords are reduced to signposting 7-note scales/modes – supposedly a pool of equally “valid” tones. This misses out on a lot. All the inner organisation of chords is de-emphasised. That’s a massive melodic resource thrown away. The crucial functionality of dominant chords via voice-leading resolution of their tritones becomes a vague notion of “avoid notes”. The whole lovely world of functional chord relationships within a key, as well as its developments via blues and alternate paths, is defused and obscured.

To be precise for a moment… it’s valid to try make a new system to deal with e.g. extended, suspended and altered chords. But chord-scale theory fails to look in detail at directionality, acoustic effects, or any other audible aspect of those chords.

For another example, the all-important fact that melodies inescapably suggest chord progressions (which needn’t be the accompanying chord progression), is barely glimpsed in Mark Levine’s famous textbook. I went back and checked just there.

… By the way, check out this funny quote: “Why does the blues scale – with so many “wrong” notes – sound so right when played over a blues? Your guess is as good as mine.” Cheers Mark, I’m only after spending 30 quid on your book.

His book

Sadly, this lack of specific talk on harmony means that African-American contributions may not get their due. Let me explain that. Going beyond chord-scale theory means recognising the importance of European classical concepts in jazz: tonality, chord- and non-chord tones, etc. But, observing those also forces you to observe when they don’t apply, which is often – so then you have to face African-associated forces like timbralism, pentatonicism, parallelism and alternate paths. Chord-scale theory completely flattens all this cultural/historical stuff out.

More abstractly, it doesn’t invite investigation into the underlying structures of music such as symmetry, the harmonic series and maximally even sets.

If I had to find something genuinely progressive in the theory, it’s the possibility of getting away from relating tones down to the root of a chord, and instead imagining a harmonic space to be freely divided. I like that.

Am I asking too much from a learning aid for students? Well, I think a lot of people, like I did, come to music courses without very clear ideas, searching for meaning which they sense is somewhere in the music. It’s insulting to put anything but the best ideas before anyone sincerely looking for knowledge.

I’m starting to get rather idealistic. Okay, I think chord-scale theory is popular because it is a shortcut allowing students to quickly start playing and interacting rhythmically while avoiding wrong notes, which is cool. The problem is they will probably play bad melodies.

(I did.)

What are your thoughts?


3 thoughts on “Enough With The Scales

  1. Forgive me, as your post is pretty vague on specifics; but it sounds like you either don’t understand chord-scale theory correctly or have not been taught correctly. It is EXACTLY concerned with key, tonality and harmonic motion. You seem to be confusing tritones and avoid notes….
    Also, it’s a matter of established fact that bebop harmony and chord-scale choices for melodic material come from western classical music (that’s according to Charlie Parker). Chord-Scale theory also applies to Bach’s music in much the same way as it does to bebop. It doesn’t work if it’s not taught alongside Harmony – or else you end up with Aebersold nonsense.


    1. (Copy and pasted from FB) My post is criticising, as you put it so aptly, “Aebersold nonsense”! As I wrote, I was focusing on the *effect* of using it in jazz education. What I meant about the tritones and avoid tones was: The voice movements that lead to and then away from the tritone in a II V I progression are very important for their deep functional power and for building lines over this progression. So important that those voice movements alone can imply the progression. The concept of “avoid tones” is a vaguer way of acknowledging the clearly harmonic implications of these voice movements. My criticism could be summed up like this: chord-scale theory as taught by say Mark Levine never gets into any of the detail of how harmonic forces (the power of fifths, 3rds, triads, or the relationship of chords in a key) sound or influence the music. The overwhelming importance of black forms of expression in Parker’s playing is well spelled out by Steve Coleman in this magnificent article http://www.jazz.com/dozens/the-dozens-steve-coleman-on-charlie-parker


  2. Thanks for pointing at Steve Coleman text. Very informative (and very long).

    And for your argument: it seems pretty obvious that these days people are reading & thinking too much and listen too less … Learning from a description/abstraction of something is never as fruitful as going for the real stuff and develop an intuitive understanding of the mysterious things hidden in its appearance.


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