One of the questions I get that makes me cringe the most is “What scales can I play over…(a jazz standard)”. It’s not that scales are bad, or that it’s a dumb question. It’s that thinking about scales as a means to improvise is not the best way to go. In order to play jazz, one must learn the jazz language. In my personal opinion, scales are not a proper means to learn jazz language.

Does this mean we throw out scales altogether? No of course not! There is a reason why scales are taught so insistently to students, especially those who are just starting to learn their instruments. Let’s go over a few truths about scales:

What scales are good for:

  • Learning your instrument. Scales are important for learning how to navigate your instrument, understanding chord qualities, how to read music, and other cornerstone elements of learning how to play.
  • Technique. Scales can help train you to move freely around your instrument without restrictions, so that you can execute any musical situation you come across.
  • Conceptualizing musical ideas. Scales can help you identify pitch collections that conceptualize a harmonic or melodic concept. Understanding different aspects of music theory can be incredibly helpful. For example: knowing how to play an altered scale can help you identify the notes that make an altered dominant chord an altered dominant chord. Or I can play a minor pentatonic scale a minor third up from the root of the altered dominant, and now I’ve identified all of the altered notes in that chord from a completely different perspective.

What scales are bad for:

  • Learning jazz language. We talk about the importance of learning jazz language all of the time on our blog. To learn jazz language we need to be listening to jazz music, and learning solos and smaller musical phrases of the greats by ear. Scales are pitch collections, not musical phrases. They will not help us learn the way jazzers speak and communicate with others.
  • Learning how to play melodically. A scale is not a melody. A scale is a set of musical notes ordered by fundamental frequency or pitch (for a text book definition). In order to play melodically we need to learn melodies. Scales can show us what the “right notes” to play are, but they don’t teach us how to create actual music. I we want to learn how to play melodically we need to be listening, playing with others, and learning from other great musicians.
  • Improving your ear. I would say that one of the most important things to be equipped with as a jazz musician is a great ear. To truly improvise and start reaching the point where you are playing what you are hearing, you need to be developing your ear. Scales aren’t really so good for training your ear. Scales are calculated. If you are playing a ii-V-I chord progression and you know that you can play the major scale of the I chord over everything, you probably won’t be playing any “wrong notes”. But you also won’t be able to hear the difference between those three chords. Even if you play a Dorian minor scale over the ii chord, a Mixolydian over the V chord, and a major scale over the I chord, you will still sound calculated unless your ear takes over and forgets about the scales.

When we are talking about jazz, it is important that we understand what place scales have in our musical education. Scales are great for learning our instrument and conceptualizing things, but they aren’t a proper means to learn jazz language.

Is it wrong to know what scales to play over a given chord progression? Of course not! That’s all a part of learning your instrument and being educated about how different musical situations work. However, if you are feeling trapped by scales, and are resorting to them to get you through your solos, it’s time to try something different.

So the next time you want to know what scales to play over a jazz standard, instead go to the recordings of the greats and ask them what they played. They’ve got a lot more to offer you than a handful of scales.

30 Days to Better Jazz Playing
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Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for learnjazzstandards.com which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publications "500 Jazz Licks" and "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." To learn more, visit www.brentvaartstra.com.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Mr. Brickboo, I like your comment" Just do what you can do and enjoy it". I'm just starting out. Was a professional accordion player back in the70's and 80's and retired that instrument not long after. recently, I decided to take up piano and develop that left hand obviously. My journey has been tough but I'm getting there. When the day comes to perform for an audience, I surely will be self conscious of my ability or maybe some musician in the audience judging my ability. But not to worry I figure…As long as you feel the audience is giving you a positive vibe and you feed off of that then everything is fine. Just do it and enjoy it.

  2. Excellent article! This is such an important topic – I believe it's very easy for players of almost any level, except the highest, to get caught in the trap of playing to the scales and I feel that can greatly limit or inhibit raw creativity. When teaching or mentoring, I often encourage players to find their own voice through transcribing phrases & solos, and most importantly, exploring fearlessly on their instruments in order to find their own voices. Only then do I suggest serious scale work, which at that stage, I feel is very good for informing why an individual leans toward certain sounds, licks and intervals in their playing when expressing themselves, without getting caught up in them. This may be considered conventionally wrong, but I believe that the individual "voice" is the most important factor in expressing one's self musically, followed close behind by good technique and familiarity with one's instrument, of course. Thanks for the post!

  3. Ha ha! If you're right, I lucked out and accidentally learned to improvise the right way. Reading this has really lifted me up. I'm not Dexter Gordon, but I can keep an audience happy and tapping their foot. I do have an ear and a feel for ballads. The frantic tempos that Dexter and his peers play at, does scare me to death! However, I assume they do that to 85% or more of musicians on the planet. I have a friend who is 75 and he has only played music for a living all his adult life. He's never had a day job. He told me 15 years ago when I started to play again, that those guys are the Einsteins of music. He said most musicians will never attain that height of musicality. He said just do what you can do and enjoy it. The best advice I've ever gotten from anyone.

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