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Melodic/Harmonic Minor Theory and stuff

Discussion in 'Music Theory [DB]' started by TroyK, Aug 11, 2005.


  1. TroyK

    TroyK Moderator Staff Member

    Mar 14, 2003
    Seattle, WA
    I was hanging out last night with a tenor sax player whom I play jazz with frequently and he said “I know that I really need to work on my Melodic Minor and Harmonic Minor Scales”.

    Background, this is a guy in his 50’s who worked his way through college in Chicago playing sax. He is clearly influenced by Stanley Turrentine and plays what people generally regard as good solos. He’s down on himself because he plays by ear and instinct. He thinks the solo in his head and it comes out his horn. He’s observed that other people obsess about theory, substitutions, etc and he feels like he is cheating or taking a shortcut by playing what he plays. I’ve pointed out to him the absurdity of the fact that the rest of us are doing those things because we can’t play smoking solos by pure intuition and that that’s what we are all aspiring to.

    I admire that my friend doesn’t want rest on his laurels, but I also feel like he’s being a bit too hard on himself. I think he should push himself and learn new harmony concepts for his soloing, but I also sort of think, since he has the talent to play things that sound like whoever he likes the sound of, he could probably get what he wants to by listening and transcribing rather than analyzing. But, I’ve encouraged him to pursue whatever path he wants, he’s a good player no matter what.

    But, and here’s my point, I said this to him and then remembered on that way home that I had no idea what I was talking about and wondered if I should have kept my thoughts to myself. I would like group feedback on whether I might not know what I’m talking about. I expect it to be mixed, but still want to hear from anyone with an opinion. I’m still trying to fill in the blanks too.

    So my point was basically: It’s good to practice those scales and arpeggios and definitely know that they are sort of expected when you see a minor/major 7 chord, but aside from composing or arranging or practicing rudiments, there’s only one point in the melodic/harmonic minor study (in jazz). That is that you can choose to play a major 7th tone over a minor chord, just like you can chose to play a minor 3rd over a dominant chord in a blues or a flat 5 in many places in jazz. It’s a choice, it’s not always the right one, but it’s just an option. Melodic Minor is Dorian mode with a major 7th in place of the b7 and Harmonic is Aeolian with a major 7th in place of the b7. Personally, I tend to use harmonic on tunes when I want to project a Latin/Spanish type of feel and melodic when it seems appropriate in BeBop. Conversely, I know that there is wisdom that some people subscribe to that says always play Dorian in jazz, never Aeolian, but some tunes heads are based on Aeolian (Dear Old Stockholm) and soloing with Aeolian in mind sounds much more grounded to the tune than Dorian does. When I’m playing something like Summertime in a traditional way, it feels like Aeolian to me. “So What” seems to definitely call for Dorian or maybe Melodic Minor.

    So, my thinking is that you can delve into the theory and you should practice these scales and arpeggios to get the fingerings associated with the sounds, but when you’re blowing, it’s just a matter of which note feels appropriate in the moment. Things like these derivative minor scale and the bebop scales just remind me that there is a note that I could consider if I’m feeling it. I’ve heard, for example, not to use blues scale too much. I don’t think I ever use the blues scale, necessarily. But I do know that in a song with a blues feel or structure, the blues scales suggests some non-diatonic notes that I could use to deviate from diatonic patterns and expect a blues sound from.

    Again, not discounting composing/arranging/reharmonizing on modes of melodic minor a la Levine. I know that is good stuff, but we were just taking about blowing. Diminished scales are also different and I have to think differently about them.

    So, who’s with me? Who’s against me? I’m sure that I’m missing the point of something and really do want to understand this. I also don’t want to give bad advice, but the best way to avoid that is to keep my mouth shut rather than try to know everything. I’ll work on that piece.
     
  2. Marc Piane

    Marc Piane

    Jun 14, 2004
    Chicago
    Every solo situation is different. The thing that makes jazz what it is is the fact that it only exists at the moment it is happening. All solos are, or should be, effected by the other players on a given night, the room, your mood, etc.

    When I solo I think this way. I think of a dot to dot. I think of my targets (dots) then how I connect them is based on what 'color' I am trying to create. Knowledge of scales certainly helps this but can also make your playing mechanical rather than intuitive. The best is to hear what you are doing first rather than just pushing buttons. It is a delicate balance. I think it was Bird that said 'you have to learn all that sh** then forget it.
     
  3. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY

    I teach legit and jazz theory for a living, but when I play my mission is simply to be in the moment with my ears wide open and my brain turned off. It's all about the sound, and nothing but the sound. The only time I find theory useful is in the shed, where it can be used to help "program" the ear to hear a new sound, and when reading, when it can help a "trained" musician to hear through the eyes in the moment.

    Other than that, it's basically just like grammar: how often do you fall back on that when speaking? How often do you find yourself in the middle of a sentence thinking, "ooh...this would be a really hip place to use an adverb...yeah, I'll look really smart if I insert an adverb here!" ...? I think of licks and scales as being basically as useless on the bandstand as random adverb insertion. If it really fits in the sentence you've got going, it'll come out. If it doesn't, keep your sentences simple until more complex thoughts flow naturally in conversation.
     
  4. nypiano

    nypiano

    Feb 10, 2003
    NYC
    On the subject of minor scales and the like, I have very specific ideas about that. And I think it's more in line with the rationale behind scales and the contexts which they are used. Some of this is what you describe in terms of playing by instinct or feel.

    The harmonic minor scale is for me-- the classic "I'm going to" minor scale because it carries the signature tones of minor (the m3, m6) but it also has the dominant 7 motion with the raised leading tone. It can typically used over the entire IIm7b5 V7b9 progression to tonic minor or to one of the minor scale degrees (II, VI, and somewhat less, III) in secondary dominant progression. I hear a lot of horn players doing this HM lick to minor for ex: A Bb C Bb A G F# A C Eb D (a-7b5 D7b9 /G-). In generally it seems to have a migratory flavor V-I V-I V-I etc. The tune Bebop shows this. Your preference for use in latin tunes has to do with it's application to andalusian harmony & flamenco styles and phyrgian augmented (essentially harmonic minor 5th mode)

    The melodic minor, apart from it's modes (the Levine topic) is an "on the minor" scale or tonic minor. It has stability as minor because of it's similarity to tonic major (save the m3) But aside from that it is a more "on the chord" concept. Meaning it will typically color the chord you're on and then require a color change or different melodic minor scale for the next chord. This is different than harmonic minor which sort of binds everything together, pulling it into the target minor.

    Using melodic minor with modes is kind of like shades with tendencies. For example a different root, like any mode will suggest a different direction for example Alt dom, lyd dom, loc#2, phryg could all have the same source scale (let's say Cmelod min) but have different meanings depending on what comes after. But because of the continuity of sound they could be applied in similar ways over different roots amounting to equivalent progressions. For example C MM and Eb MM could be the source scales for these progressions C- D7alt
    A-7b5 D7alt or Ebmaj Ab7b5. Although they are both based on the same idea as tritone equivalents altered dominant and lydian dominant can have different characters depending on your intention. When it's a bII sub for V7alt it has tritone equivalence (for ex F13#11 or B7alt to E-). But when it's a IV7b5 or II7b5 (for example F7b5, or D7b5 in C)it has a more hanging it out on the chord feeling to it (temporary rest with a little edge). For example "A Train"

    In terms of dorian, aeolian and the other scales. What you describe about preferring aeolian as more minor sounding reinforces the point I was making that the m6 (F in Aminor let's say) is the other sound besides C against the root A that suggests the Aminor tonality. These chords B-7b5, D-7, Fmajor in the context of A suggest Aminor because these chords are distinct from A major (which has F#, C# vs. F, C). Everything else is the same. Dorian w/maj6 lacks this quality in the diatonic context. It's used as the II in a II V because it's bound to the V7mixolydian, same purpose and language. In a modal context (So What) it has a different meeting--more like the minor with that maj6min7 sound and open sounding.

    Diminished and whole tone--those are other things for the lick bag. They are coloristic and symmetrical and usually employed in sequence to detail that symmetry. Typically you want to give somebody a taste of your chops with these.

    I'm talking too much but the point I'm making is that through study I've learned to identify the why's of each so I don't feel I've undone my ear. It helps me get my bearings. I do my best to turn off everything while I'm playing. Because for me I identified the theory after, not before. As a teacher however it helps me avoid misinformation and give students my mindset in concrete terms--rather than a "bunch of stuff you can do"
     
  5. anonymous8547j7d7b

    anonymous8547j7d7b Guest

    Jul 1, 2005
    Yeah, nice analogy. Someone once taught me that theory exists solely to explain what you hear. The only consequence to not studying it is potentially limiting the music you can function within. He added the example of modal interchange with the C- to Db in "Speak no Evil". Either the theory is useful in explaining why it works, or you hear the progression on it's own terms & think "yeah, that works, it's cool." Pretty much the same vibe you guys are talking about - learn the options then forget it & just play. Dave's advice has always helped me in trying to keep a balanced perception on the subject, especially as his own academic knowledge is huge. In my experience it's pretty easy to beat yourself up about stuff you feel you should be doing (academically), rather than just letting go & playing.
     
  6. godoze

    godoze

    Oct 21, 2002
    Right, theory exists as an explanation of what has been composed. For example, the theory of counterpoint that is taught today is derived ffrom Bach. Of course theory existed before Bach, back to Boethius, but i think you get the point.

    Theory is as Chris said, like speaking, and it is always interesting to me to hear different dialects.

    EDIT: This made me think of a gig i did in Baltimore many years ago with a Ph.D guitarist who after playing a really boring solo explained it away as being theoretically perfect... which it was, it just lacked any sense of musicality.
     
  7. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY

    And this, in turn, reminds me of one of my favorite passages from Voltaire:

    "Her eyes were bathed in tears, night and day. She waited for the moment when Zadig's own might once more enjoy her gaze; but an abscess which had developed in the wounded eye gave every cause for concern. The great doctor Hermes was summoned all the way from Memphis with his numerous attendants. He visited the patient and declared that he would lose the eye. He even predicted the date and the hour in which this fateful event would occur.

    'If it had been the right eye,' he said, 'I could have cured it. But wounds in the left eye are incurable.'

    All Babylon, while lamenting Zadig's fate, marvelled at the depth of Hermes' knowledge. Two days later, the abscess burst of its own accord. Zadig was completely cured. Hermes wrote a book, proving to him that he should not have got better. Zadig did not read it. "



    The last sentence of that passage comprises what I consider to be the "Five most profound philosophical words ever uttered". Zadig would have made a great jazz musician, what? :)
     
  8. anonymous8547j7d7b

    anonymous8547j7d7b Guest

    Jul 1, 2005
    Indeed! :)
     
  9. TroyK

    TroyK Moderator Staff Member

    Mar 14, 2003
    Seattle, WA
    Dig it. Thanks for sharing that. And thanks to all for your responses.

    nypiano, thanks for your great post. Lavine's got nothing on you. I'll likely refer back to that from time to time. I realize there is a rich world of color that I'm just on the edge of understanding some times.

    So, I think the answer to my question was; If I did indeed give my friend some suspect advice, many of you would have given him the same suspect advice. That actually makes me feel a bit better about it.

    I think the "learn it and forget it" doctrine is a good one. My only slight variance from it is that I'm certain that in all diciplines, different people learn different ways. I tend to be a bit of a study and comprehend, then put into practice geek. I think that my friend has the ability to put into practice and then study to understand what it is that he learned. I wish at times that I was more like him, which is probably why what he was saying came off a little bit like "I'm so pretty that no one will ask me to the prom". I wanted to discourage him from wallowing in the bog of the science of a hip line when he has the innate skills and intuition to play hips lines as it is.

    With either type of person, it's certainly about the right balance of art, technique and knowledge. It's really a question of playing to your strengths or training your weaknesses.

    Thanks again to all who replied. Great posts.