Scales are some of the most fundamental building blocks of Western styles of music, including jazz. As musicians, we’re often told how important it is to practice scales and how useful they are for helping us navigate jazz standards. But too often working on scales and using them while improvising can turn into a dry and uninspiring activity.

In addition, when improvising we don’t want to be thinking about playing scales in a formulaic way. Scales in and of themselves are not musical. But when we think of them as pitch collections, it can open up our understanding of what note choices we can choose from in a given musical scenario. Therefore, wouldn’t it be helpful to approach practicing scales in a variety of different ways?

How can we make scales more musical?

Here are a few strategies to help you incorporate scales into your practicing and improvising in ways that are fun, challenging, varied, and more pleasing to listen to and play:

#1: Vary Your Rhythms

One of the areas where we have the most leverage is with rhythm. We can easily fall into the trap of always practice scales and inserting them into improvisations using the same rhythmic patterns. To avoid this, here are some ideas for varying the way you play scales rhythmically.

Start on Upbeats:

Switch to Triplets:

Mix 8th Notes and Triplets:

Invent Freer or Looser Melodic Rhythms:

#2: Add Accents and Other Articulations

Even the blandest sounding 8th-note line can be transformed into a musically exciting idea merely by strategically adding accents, staccato notes, and slurred notes. Ideas to get you started include accenting downbeats, upbeats, set groupings (such as 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, etc.), or random groupings. Here are some examples:

#3: Shape Scales with Dynamics

Too often we play scales all at the same static, dynamic level. Just by playing around with how soft/loud you’re playing can make scales sound more like melodies. Here are some sample ideas:

#4: Add Octave Displacements

If you get tired of playing all of your scales in a step-wise manner, trying displacing notes into different octaves. Doing so makes it sound less like a scale and more like a melody! Here are some examples:

I hope these ideas inspire you to take your use of scales to another level. These aren’t the only ways to reinvigorate scales, so try to come up with your own ideas to transform your scales into more musically interesting melodies. Happy practicing!

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Josiah Boornazian is a saxophonist, composer, educator, and scholar primarily active in New York City, Miami, and California. He has performed with a wide variety of jazz artists including Jimmy Heath, John Faddis, Dave Holland, Dave Liebman, Diane Schuur, Dave Grusin, Arturo Sandoval, the New York Voices, Tom Scott, Chris Potter, David Binney, Wayne Krantz, Ari Hoenig, Donny McCaslin, and the Gil Evans Orchestra. As a composer, Josiah has been commissioned to write for groups far and wide, including ensembles in California, New York, Texas, and Istanbul, Turkey. Josiah holds a Master of Arts degree in music from the City University of New York's City College campus and a Bachelor of Music degree from California State University, Northridge. In 2016, he began pursuing a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the University of Miami's Frost School of Music as a Henry Mancini Fellow. As an educator, Josiah has taught on faculty at the City College of New York and given masterclasses at various colleges and high schools across the country. He currently teaches at the University of Miami part-time as a graduate assistant. As a scholar, Josiah was awarded a Björn Bärnheim Research Fellowship at the Hogan Jazz Archive during the 2017-2018 academic year. For more information, please visit josiahboornazian.com.

9 COMMENTS

  1. In my opinion, the methods in this piece are closely based on scales. You will still sound “scaly” and mathematical. Imo the a way to get out of this, is to establish mutually exclusive thought patterns wrt practicing and improvising. Mental Sounds should be a guide for improvising melody and the swing ( or bossa etc.) feel for rhythm. Notes scales or 8-note rhythms should be practiced separately as routine to internalize sounds being mindful of the pedantics.

    • Hi Jonathan, great input! Keep in mind though, this lesson isn't necessarily aimed at improvisation, but practicing scales which are important to learn for understanding our instruments. This lesson helps you take scales and work them even further by adding musical elements into them. Certainly, Josiah wouldn't prescribe improvising using scales this way.

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