But Is It Music?

Chord/Scale Theory

Practicing scales is great for your musicianship, but it’s not music!

I recently got an email from Hector in Florida asking for my thoughts on chord/scale theory and whether it’s okay to play notes outside the generally accepted chord/scale sounds. Hector boiled several far-reaching questions down to this one, simple question:

“Is it ok to play any note against any chord (without restricting your notes to those from a particular scale), as long as you’re aware of the chord tones, especially in jazz and improvisational music?”

My short answer to Hector is:

Yes, if you have trained your ears and fingers, and use your musical instincts, you can play any note on any chord, as long as you resolve the note in a way that makes sense and sounds good. You can play an Db on a CMaj7, but it’s going to pull towards the 9th (D) or the root (C). You can play a B on a C7, but it needs to resolve to the root C, or down to the b7 Bb. If you don’t resolve the notes, there probably remains some tension in the line that sounds either unfinished, or in the worst case, like a mistake.

The notes of the chord are what are important. Scales are just a linear description of the notes of the chord:
Dmin11 = D F A C D E G
D Dorian scale = D E F G A B C

Those are 7 seven notes in the Dmin11 chord, and those notes laid out horizontally make up the D dorian scale.

There are 5 notes that are not in the scale. You could also use those notes chromatically, as passing tones, or as part of a melodic phrase that goes outside of the basic chord sound. If you play a note outside, the ear wants to hear the sound go back inside.

Sounds Good, So Far  . . .     

In traditional swing and bebop bass playing, outlining the root movement is most important. A common method that I use to describe the spontaneous creation of walking bass lines in 4/4 time to beginning bassists is: root, something, something, leading-tone, root. The two “something” notes on beats two and three can only be chord tones, scale tones, or chromatic passing tones. That’s all there is . . . simple!
But many of the great players were doing something else: They were only using their ears and their available technique . . . also simple! When I listen to great musicians playing jazz, I often hear the likes of Jimmie Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, Sam Jones, Israel Crosby, Paul Chambers, Percy Heath and thousands of others deviate from the root-something-something-leading-tone formula. When they are playing well, they are creating spontaneous counterpoint by using their ears, available technique, and musical instincts.

Percy Heath Talking About The Role Of The Bass

Master Class: Percy Heath Backstage Interview

Most of those players—like Percy Heath—obviously knew the progression Dmin7, G7, CMaj7, but they did not think of that as a ii-V-I that can be described with D Dorian, G Mixolydian, and C Ionian scales. They knew the C Major scale, and were most likely aware of the modes of C Major. In their performances however, they were outlining harmony by using counterpoint in their bass lines, and an ear for tension and release in their solo lines. They simply used their ears and played within the limits of their bass technique.

My point here is that the currently prevalent chord/scale methodology is not wrong, but it is not the only way that players think of chord tones, scale tones, and tones that are outside of the scale and chord. Indeed, many of the master swing, bebop, post-bop, R & B, pop, rock, funk players never think about, or thought about chord/scale theory. As the seminal New Orleans bassist Pops Foster says in his autobiography, “I just play any old go-to-hell note, as long as it swings !”

Hector’s long question requires more in-depth response. Here’s what he asked in full:

Hi John,
I recently had a “mind blown” moment. I’ve been playing bass for 21 years. I’ve practiced scales and arpeggios for a long time. I could basically spell out (in bass clef standard notation) and play for you any chord and most of the common scales and modes.

I had read an interview in Bass Player magazine many years ago with bassist Scott Thunes of Frank Zappa fame. In it, he said the following:

“What I learned in music school was that in modern music, you can play any note against any chord and make it mean something. If you don’t know how you’re using it, or where it resolves, you’re an idiot-you shouldn’t be in music. I learned a couple of simple laws, and I utilized them.”

Then, I opened my copy of Aebersold’s How To Play Jazz and Improvise and looked at the scale syllabus. He lays out every common type of chord, and then the scales you can use with each in order of preference. If you look closely, you’ll realize that, when you combine all the notes from all the scales that you can play with, say, a Maj. 7 chord, all 12 tones are represented in one way or another.

So, my question is this: How right is Scott Thunes? Is there really an issue if I play a Db against a Cmaj7 chord while every other tone I play is from the C major scale? How about if I just add a flatted 6th? I don’t think there’s a scale that goes C-Db-E-F-G-A-B,  is there? But the point is, I think it wouldn’t matter.

Scott Thunes playing with Frank Zappa in 1988

Frank Zappa - Barcelona 1988 (Full Show)

My Long Answer

Hector, it depends on so many factors.
In the Jamey Aebersold scale syllabus, he concisely describes all of the basic types of chords, and spells the scales that are usually played over each chord. Aebersold’s theory and methods are correct — but after you master the scales and chords, then your ear should be your guide. Ultimately, your ear is what determines the notes that sound good to you, and your choices and instincts determine and support your unique musical personality.

Scott Thunes is a brilliant bass player who played highly complex, thoroughly orchestrated, sometimes-written, sometimes-improvised music with Frank Zappa. When I hear Thunes play, he is precisely outlining harmony and rhythm and serving the music. His comment that any note can fit any chord is indicative of a master player who does not feel constrained by any particular theoretical concepts—he’s got tons of chops, but he is using his great ears and musical instincts.

What’s the style of music? If everyone is playing freely and reacting to a certain rhythmic and harmonic structure, then anything goes. There are no set formulas. On the other hand, if we are playing Zappa’s “Black Page,” then we really have to play it precisely—there’s no room to play notes that are not the composer’s intent.

If we play a jazz gig in the style of ‘50s bebop, then there are certain unspoken agreements that the players abide by: The bassist outlines the root movement; the pianist plays the chords with proper voice leading, the soloist outlines the chords  (usually emphasizing chord tones on beats 1 and 3), and the drummer plays a repetitive swing ride pattern with the hi-hat one 2 and 4, and comps on the snare and bass drum. That still does not mean that the bassist is only playing the theoretically correct notes in the bass line—he or she should be listening to determine the best sounding counterpoint line to support the ensemble and play the song.

For example, in Israel Crosby’s classic bass line “But Not For Me,” there are plenty of non-chord and non-scale tones.

Israel Crosby With Ahmad Jamal, 1958

Hector Continues:

Here’s how I’m conceptualizing it. As long as I know what the chord tones are (so that I emphasize them in important moments), I could really play ANY note against any chord.

My response:

Yes! This is jazz and improvised music at it’s finest. Know the harmony, melody, rhythmic feeling—and then let yourself be free within the music. This might not work with a pop or rock band, where the role of the bass is more constrained.

Hector’s Conclusion:

I’m not saying I’m going to stop practicing scales. As the saying goes, “you gotta know the rules before you break them.” But, I’ve practiced the “correct” theory for far too long. I think it’s time to loosen up a bit. I don’t REALLY have to be thinking “I’m gonna play a diminished scale fragment for a few moments against this Maj7 chord.” I could just go with my ear, and, as Scott said, know where you’re headed in the form, what the next chord is and how to resolve from one to the next.  and you should be ok.

As bass players, we have to contend with our function as well. So, I figure that when it comes to building bass lines for most genres, this concept would not necessarily be applicable. But, in jazz, I believe it can work both during solos and walking bass lines. Again, you’d have chord tones on the important beats. Other than that, just go with the flow and your ears without worrying with stuff such as “Oh, this is a min. 7 chord, I gotta play Dorian now.”

My conclusion:

Practicing scales is great for your musicianship, but it’s not music.

Right—don’t stop practicing scales! Scales are building blocks of technique, and we need technique to express ourselves. There are reasons why certain theoretical practices have become hard, fast rules: they describe things that sound good in particular situations. Scales (and arpeggios) are the musician’s bread and butter. The better one can play scales, the more fluency he or she has on the instrument. As I wrote in my first book, Jazz Bowing Techniques for the Improvising Bassist, “Great musicians are in control of their technique. If a great musician does not possess extraordinary technique, the musician still keeps his or her performance within the boundaries of available technique. If a musician knows the limits of his or her technique, great music is possible.”

A musician practicing scales is like a basketball player doing wind sprints, stretches, drills and lifting weights. The exercises are not the game, but they provide the technique and facility to play the game well. Scales in themselves are not music, but they provide the framework that connects our instrumental ability to our musical intuition.

The value in studying theory books and methods, is that we can look inside the mind of a particular author/improviser. Many great musicians have written practical books about jazz theory and how they apply their theoretical technique to achieve musical results. Recently I had the pleasure of working with saxophonist Gary Campbell, who has written several books that have influenced my thinking and playing very much: Connecting Jazz Theory, Expansions, and Triad Pairs for Jazz.

One of the first and finest scale compendiums was written by pianist Dan Haerle, Scales for Jazz Improvisation. Haerle’s book shows you many of the typical scales that are used by jazz, rock and pop players—it’s a thorough compendium which I often used when I first learned to play. And the best bargain on the market is Jamey Aebersold’s Free Jazz Handbook (that’s “Free” in that it costs nothing).

So, practicing scales is great for your musicianship, but scales and chord/scale theory do not by themselves magically yield great music. I think the following video from a true jazz master sums up how great players really learn to play.

A Master Speaks: Jimmy Raney On Chords and Scales

The legendary Jimmy Raney was one of the greatest bebop guitarists, alongside Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel, Jimmy Smith, and Jim Hall. In this brief workshop video, he talks about using scales and chords and how he learned them. “We didn’t have it worked out like Jamey (Aebersold) and all those guys do now,” recalled Raney. “I of course learned scales, because the classical teachers they assume that you are going to play classical … scales are very helpful. I think I just did it on my own more. I knew chords. I just picked up what I call grips.”

Talking about the value of only relying on theoretical knowledge, Raney says “To be very honest with you—playing scales or modes, or seventh chords—in the last analysis, it’s here — your ear guides you or fails to guide you. As E.B. White says about prose—all the rules of grammar and syntax ain’t gonna’ help if you don’t hear it. It’s good to know all that stuff, but it’s not going to make you play. Don’t think it will.”

Jimmy Raney On Using Chord/Scale Theory

Jimmy Raney on Chords and Scales

Jimmy Raney Playing ‘Out Of Nowhere’