Relating Scales to Key Signature for Improvising

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by Gaius46, Dec 17, 2013.

  1. Gaius46


    Dec 15, 2010
    I recently took an online improvisation class with vibraphonist Gary Burton. In talking about scale selection he naturally starts with selecting the scale based on the chord in use and in cases where multiple scales would work look at the preceding chord for clues to the right scale.

    I can do that well enough if I have time to sit down and analyze the song ahead of time. But if an unfamiliar piece is in front of me I have a hard enough time just saying "okay G7, C major works" let alone thinking of all the other scales that work with G7 and relating them back to the previous chord and what I played over that. Maybe that will come with time and practice but right now it's a tough go.

    So I was wondering does looking at the key signature and the accidentals in the written music make reasonable markers for figuring out scales that work - maybe not necessarily the best scales to use but ones that will at least get the job done?

    For example if I'm playing a piece that's in G major but in bar 12 there's a C# in the melody can I reasonably use G Major and it's modes for the first 11 bars and then shift to D Major for bar 12?
  2. There's your answer right there.
  3. MalcolmAmos

    MalcolmAmos Supporting Member

    IMO -- yes key signatures do tell you what will work.

    Finding a C# that does not fit. Consider it a passing not and go on.

    I look first for the key signature. If I'm working from fake chord that has no key signature showing I do the following:

    What chord/note ends each verse? If they all end on the same chord or note that's your scale/key.

    Next I look for the dominant sevens and see what key they fit into. Like you mentioned.

    I used to list all the chords, and see if they all fit into one key. Have not done that in a long time.

    Failing all that I listen to the piece and walk my G string up the neck. When what I'm listening to and what I'm doing on the G string come together, sound good together, you've found the tonal center, thus the key, look down and see what note (fret) that happened on. That's your key.

    Good luck.
  4. mambo4


    Jun 9, 2006
    Following and understanding chords and harmonized scales will get you much more mileage,
    with much less data crunching, than cataloging multitudes of scales and "chord N means play scales X, Y, Z" formulas.

    My advice is just follow the chords. think of all 12 notes as either "chord tones" other "other tones"
    For example If you got a G7 then you have 4 chord tones and 6 "other" tones to play with.
    Mess around , emphasizing the chord tones, use "other tones" to travel or hold some tension.
    Sure, some of them will sound bad. Try to find a graceful exit from those.
    If you get lost, know the 4 chord tones are safe harbor. If you get completely lost, land on the root.
    Use your ear and to determine what works and what doesn't.
    Use your sense for the genre -what works in funk might not in country - as well.

    doesn't that sound more fun than memorizing scale encyclopedias?

    After you develop ideas that work for you, *then* you can sit down and figure out what mode you're playing
    - because chances are you will have ended up playing some mode.
    But this way you did it using your ear and chordal information,
    instead of "looking up" what works in your "encyclopedia"

    Just my thoughts. YMMV.
  5. onlyclave


    Oct 28, 2005

    If the harmony is a G7 then you can play anything you want and it's just part of an alteration. V is where the fun's at.
  6. I found that the problem with using chord scales as a basis for improvising, when I first started out, was that I misunderstood the concept and saw modes and scales as a one size fits all kind of thing. I thought of minor 7 chords as Dorian, Dominant 7 chords as Mixolydian, Maj7 chords as Major or Lydian etc. Loads of problems arise from that.

    On a really basic level, if we're in C major and we play an E Dorian over an Em7, the F# (2nd) and C# (6th) will sound out. That sound might be you intention but using a one size fits all method means any intention like that is only consequential.

    It wasn't until I studied functional harmony in more depth that things started to make more sense. By studying the way chord progressions are developed and the intentions of the composer it's much, much easier to understand what will work over what chord and, more importantly, what you should play over that progression to express what you want to hear.

    That said, as a quick fix, for a progression you've never seen before, grasp onto all the information you've been given. There are usually 3 things: The key, the tune and the chord progression. For us bass players, the most obvious of these will be the progression and the key. So the progression provides us with a bunch of chord tones to work from. We know those notes will work 100% so that's a good start. The second thing is the key, but that's subject to change and can modulate to other temporary key centers without a change in signature so don't rely on it completely. The tune can give an idea of various alterations to the tonality like minorisation and you can use it as the basis for the entire improv if need be.

    Try to look at the notes between the chord tones as passing notes and neighbour (or auxiliary) notes. All melodies can be analysed like this and allows for looking at odd chromatic notes as melodic devices rather than as full blown scales like the Bebop scale etc. This way you can also see chord scales as arpeggio skeletons, fleshed out with passing notes between them.

    With that in mind, practice playing a variety of arpeggio patterns through chord progressions at first sight until you become used to how they sound and you'll eventually become adept at weaving lines through loads of different progressions. There are only so many popular chord sequences. II-V-I, I-VI-II-V-I etc. all appear many times and so you'll learn different ways of weaving these arpeggios through them. So, make sure you have a good knowledge of arpeggios up to seventh chords. There are only 8 of them in terms of tertian construction: maj7, 7, m7, m(maj7), maj7#5, 7#5, m7b5, dim7. Rally nail those and play around them as much as you can. Remember that the extensions 9th, 11th and 13th eventually provide a complete scale so using chord tones can become a complete replacement for scales in improvising. This scales vs chord tones debate goes on and on and on and even the BIG names argue over what works best. Usually based on how they learned over the years.

    Anyway, that's a start and will get you through most charts but of course that's far from proper development of your musical voice.
  7. Clef_de_fa


    Dec 25, 2011
    The idea is if you have a chord progression that does :
    ii7-V7-I7 let say : Dmin7, G7 and Cmaj7

    they are are related to the key of Cmaj7 ... so you could use whatever mode found in C maj and it will work. No need to do D dorian, G myxolydian and C Ionian ... in reallity I could play E phrygian over the whole thing
  8. Bainbridge


    Oct 28, 2012
    mambo4, Mark, very good posts. I wish this was the prevailing mindset, rather than chord scales.
  9. Gaius46


    Dec 15, 2010
    Thank you all.

    If I can clarify a little I was thinking more in terms of soloing and not outlining the harmony. When I'm doing the latter I normally stick to arpeggios and will use the odd passing note to move from one chord to the next. Thank you Mark for the suggestion about playing through common progessions; my normal mode of practicing arpeggios is to pick something at random in the Real Book and work through it but that's kind of scattershot.

    I also don't really think in terms of modes - If I saw an E-7 for a piece in C I'd think "C major scale" not "Is this E dorian, phrygian or aeolian" and simply select notes from that scale. That's kind of where my initial, possibly misguided, idea came from.
  10. Bainbridge


    Oct 28, 2012
    The chords are there to organize the scale. "C major" is better than "E minor, dorian, phrygian, whatever", but only just so. Really, if you're in the key of C major and you see Em, your thoughts should go to "iii" rather than a specific scale. The reason? The functional name tells you more about the bature of the phrase than a scale will.

    iii vi IV ii V I

    ^ That has a direction. If you're improvising, then you can screw around in the key of C (or whatever the key is) and as long as you pay attention to where the harmony is going and when the cadence is coming, you'll be fine. The note "E" does not have the same effect on the first chord as it will on the last chord, becase the harmony is dictating the phrase, and your melody should follow that.

    Looking at the other options, "C major" gets the tonality, but is a cloud of notes with no specificity. "E phrygian, A aeolian, F lydian, D dorian, G mixolydian, C ionian" is by far too much to write, let alone think of, and distracts from the organizational principle of harmony. Plus, you have to transpose it for every new key, and you're inviting trouble as soon as you get a chromatic chord. Understand the chord tones, then understand the non-chord tones, and you'll be good.
  11. FretlessMainly


    Nov 17, 2010
    All of this talk about E Phrygian, F Lydian, etc. is confusing in that, the notes these terms represent are correct, but there's a fundamental flaw. If we are in C Major, the notes of an E Phrygian scale fit, but we're really in C Major, not E Phrygian. To use the chords diatonic to C Major:

    We are in D Dorian if Dmin(7) is the I chord (or tonal center, if you prefer)
    We are in E Phrygian if Emin(7) is the I chord (")
    We are in F Lydian if FMaj(7) is the I chord (")
    We are in G Mixolydian if G7 is the I chord (")
    We are in A Aeolian if Amin(7) is the I chord (")
    We are in B Locrain if Bmin7(b5) is the I chord (")

    If the chords are functioning as ii, iii, IV, V vi, or vii chords, then we are in C Major, and the only thing "modal" about this is we are in C Ionian.
  12. There are so many ways to approach soloing through changes and people often become very attached to a certain method.

    I find that outlining the changes with chord tones can be really good advice to someone when playing jazz gigs and the band are likely to drop out on bass solos. Not only does it help to keep your bearings but it also helps the other band members in following where you are.

    My main reason for avoiding a key scale over multiple chords (at all times) is because of the skeleton arpeggio I mentioned before. The notes of a key (and chromatics for that matter) all provide particular degrees of tension in relation to both the tonic and every other scale degree. But the foreground tensions kind of change with the chords in use. The tension and resolution concept of tonality is a major factor in note choice, phrasing and cadence. The arpeggio skeletons of the changes allow us to keep track of the changing points of resolution. When we use a single scale over these chords we can land on unwanted tensions (4th being a good example) without realising it.

    That said, different scales and arpeggios other than those from the root note are used over chords all the time. The bebop vocabulary is a perfect example. It can be great for exploiting various tensions in different extension combinations. Dm over Cmaj7 exploits the 9th, 11th and 13th. D dorian over Cmaj7 would do the same thing because of the skeleton arpeggio principle I mentioned. I just don't like using a single scale or chord over multiple changes as a means of blagging because it's a quick fix. Guitarists are guilty of doing this all the time and you can spot it a mile off. You hear a solo in an E blues scale and then get some brief chromatic chord movement and all the cool blues licks sound awful as the modulation passes by.

    I suppose it's whatever works for different people. We all have different ways of viewing notes and the neck.
  13. I totally agree. I think a lot of people get confused regarding modes. I remember seeing Billy Sheehan talking on one of his vids about how it was a revelation when he realised that modes were a way of getting around the neck ie. D dorian is the 2nd position of C major, E phrygian is the 3rd position etc. That is such a misleading way to describe them. Far be it from a schmuck like me to criticise Billy's way of viewing the neck, especially considering the fact he flies around it as well as anyone ever, but it can be confusing for people.
  14. FretlessMainly


    Nov 17, 2010
    Thinking this way also leads to this false sense that one actually understands modal music. But understanding modes seems to be a rite of passage into some mysterious club these days, but what gets lost is that the pure use of modes is for modal music, which, in a colloquial sense, doesn't include your garden variety Major/Ionian and minor/Aeolian.

    Another primary use is to treat all Major chords as Lydian and all minor chords as Dorian, but that takes a real sense of moderation to be effective (which sort of defeats the premise), in my experience.
  15. I think one way to look at all the tonicisation stuff, using one scale over multiple chords and the modal approach to chords is that it is when you want it to be and it's not when you don't! If you know what you're doing and the intention is there then it's fine. It's particularly bad if your ear isn't developed enough to know what degrees of the parent scale will cause problems with phrase cadences.

    Using a Lydian over a Maj7 works when it does (or if you want that sound) and not when it doesn't. But using a blanket "This mode/scale should be used over this chord" is misleading. I know it's used to avoid the clash between the major 3rd in the chord and the perfect 4th in the major scale but a Lydian scale has the sound of a Lydian scale and if you want that then that's great. But what if you don't?
  16. wrench45us


    Aug 26, 2011
    very interesting discussion

    Thanks for providing some balance

    The whole chord/scale theory has shifted too much thinking into a one size fits all package. Even my iPad's iRealB app wants to provide the mode scale that pairs with the current chord. If software can be developed to follow the rules of chord/scale theory then it's all a little too rigid and convenient, but still useful.

    I like to step back and look at functional harmony. Why are those chords there? What function do they serve -- with their common notes and shared key notes.

    I heard a story once where Miles Davis played a set of 4 chords for somebody in his current band. I don't recall the story very well, but the chords were not in the same key, but he loved the 'progression' and he set about creating a 'scale' to play against that progression. That story has flavored my sense of what modal playing set out to be. It wasn't about shoehorning a chord/scale concept to fit every tune.
  17. Gaius46


    Dec 15, 2010
    I'm getting the picture that my thinking on the subject is too rigid and playing a set scale over a set chord is not the only option.

    My knowledge of harmony begins and ends pretty much with scale harmonization. I know what major and minor chords go with what keys. Can anyone recommend a decent resource that I use to learn from?
  18. MalcolmAmos

    MalcolmAmos Supporting Member

    Harmony - long story, takes years to tell.

    Back in my 6 string rhythm guitar days I found the book "Pentatonic KHANcepts" by Steve Khan. I've not seen it mentioned on this bass site. The book would give you a chord and then ask (tell) you what you could play over that chord and still harmonize with that chord. That's step one, sure there is more.

    Fmaj7 chord. Here are some of your choices.
    Scales / Modes options
    F major or Lydian

    Pentatonic options
    A minor.
    E minor.
    D minor.
    F major is self evident.

    Now if that chord would have been the Fm7 chord here are some of your options.

    Scales / Modes options
    F natural minor / F Dorian and here we are speaking of parallel modes where the key stays the same and the notes change. R-2-b3-4-5-6-b7.

    Pentatonic options
    F minor.
    C minor.
    G minor.
    Bb dominant seven.

    Reason all those will work together is they all share like notes so they all will harmonize with each other.

    That begs the question how many like notes must you have? And that is part of the long story.

    I think you will find this video interesting. It walks you through your chord choices that could harmonize Mary Had a Little Lamb. Lets the melody dictate what chords are used. You will have a choice between C major and Am, why did C major become the chord of choice? Hint; Mary Had a Little Lamb is a happy little song. Happy and major go together. Yes simple as that.

    Chords do two things; 1) move the verse along in the (I) rest,(IV) tension, (V7) climax, resolution and back to rest (I) journey they must take to make the verse interesting AND 2) provide harmonizing notes for the melody. So the melody line and the bass line will sound good together. It's a balancing act and you must take both sides into account. That sometime falls between the chairs.

    Take heart, if you play covers, the songwriter has already taken most of this into account. Now your improvisation can contain the tune's notes. The songwriter did give the song a tune. Take your lead break playing the tune, mess around (improvise) in the middle, if you want to, and then give the lead back playing the tune.

    A Google on how to harmonize a melody will get you enough to keep you busy for quite some time.

    Have fun.
  19. It's also worth bearing in mind that when people ask "what works over a particular chord?" they are often asking "How do I make the music I want to hear over those chords?"

    Let's face it, you could just rub your ass up and down the strings for a chorus if that's what you like. 'What works' is a fairly vague concept. It's really more about what you want to express or what kind of music you want to create. That could mean recreating the kind of music you like to hear or could mean striving for originality and innovation. Whatever it means, it usually (in jazz or any improvised music) involves communication and expressing your musical voice or personality.

    I suppose one way to view 'what works' would be a very diatonic approach. That would mean playing things that fit within a key framework without any chromatic distractions. For example, using C major as the palette of notes for the chords Cmaj7-Am7-Dm7-G7. This could also mean using Aeolian, Dorian and Mixolydian modes if you want to look at them in that way. But this is where the problem can lie because chromatic passing notes etc. are a major part of the jazz language. In that sense I think it's important to be aware of what you want to express. It would be impossible to look at these chromaticisms in terms of scales because it's possible to use chromatic passing notes between every scale degree. If they are passing by then they don't cause any problems rubbing against the harmony. Holding a Db over a Cmaj7 for a bar is a different thing altogether. Some people would say that doesn't work. Someone else might love it or want to create a very dissonant sound for effect.

    Listen to pretty much anything by a composer like Iannis Xenakis and barely a note goes by that could be classed as traditionally 'correct' or even 'hip' in the jazz sense. But that's what he wants to express.

    I know this doesn't really help with the original post question about chord scales but it's worth noting that what is often classed as 'correct' can be very subjective.
  20. Rick Robins

    Rick Robins

    Jan 13, 2010