Know in advance where to go? It’s usually easier to get there? How does that work with pianism? With improvisation? Where do we want to go? How do we get there? What about scales and modes? Are they useful?
Here’s the outline, the plan for this post:
We’ll focus on how and why to get to get to a there. There, the endpoint of our plan, is a skill or skills we can use for improvisation. Along with those skills we’ll add in some conceptual ideas, or theory if we want to call it that.
The skills and the concepts we’ll address include pre-hearing and voice leading. On the way to those things we’ll discuss scales, modes, and melodies.
And, somehow, we’re going to speak about the mundane medium of email. That’s because while yes and also for sure, email in of itself is a mundane topic—let’s get that admission out of the way—also, it can be the medium in which we write, or perhaps capture is the better word, our own, personalised how-to manuals for improvisation. An example is forthcoming.
About the image at the top of this post: It’s Miles Davis pointing at his ear. If MD thinks listening is important well then, dare I say it, so should we?
Pre-hearing and voice leading lead and on to scales (and email)
But. Well. First, the interesting thing: Our path to pre-hearing and voice leading can transmogrify in our email boxes. So before email and and definitely before transmogrification, let’s focus on a lowly scale. But email, it’s upcoming …
A lowly scale meaning a simple scale such as it might be conceptualised and used by improvisers. A simple scale to which we’re alluding isn’t the same as learning major and minor scales with specific fingerings across, say, four octaves.
Here we focus on scales as they relate to pre-hearing and voice leading. While we might build technique along the way, we’re looking first and foremost at what we can do with scales and not how to play them.
Chord scale theory
There’s a mainstream idea: That ideas is at least one scale fits over every chord and, vice versa, at least one chord fits to every scale. Many books about jazz improvisation present information along those lines.
The information comes in the form of use this scale with that chord or vice versa. Google for books about jazz improvisation to find things like
A three-volume series that includes the scales, chords, and modes …
The major modes and ii-V-I
Some call this sort of thing chord-scale theory or CST for short. And, when asked how to improvise, some say that’s how to do it. PERIOD: use CST.
Most commonly that means: Use a dorian mode for a ii chord and a mixolydian mode for a V chord. Use a phyrgian mode for a iii chord and a locrian mode for a vii chord.
To clarify, a dorian mode is a C major scale from D to D. A mixolydian mode is a C major scale from G to G. A phrygian mode is a C major scale from E to E. A locrian mode is a C major scale from B to B.
Dorian: D E F G A B C D
Mixolydian: G A B C D E F G
Phrygian: E F G A B C D E
Locrian: B C D E F G A B
Or, we can transpose the modes so they all begin on C. If we do that, we’ll see how and where the modes have both differing and common sequences of intervals.
Dorian: D E F G A B C D
Mixolydian: D E F# G A B C D
Phrygian: D Eb F G A Bb C D
Locrian: D Eb F Ab Bb C D
Should we see what those modes sound like? To do that, first, we need some drones. No, not these drones
Rather, drones as in play a low octave or a low 5th or both together with your LH. Or alternate between octaves and 5ths as you wish.
- Improvise with your RH with the dorian mode over a low drone octave built on D.
- Improvise with your RH with the mixolydian mode over a low drone octave built on G.
- Improvise with your RH with the phrygian mode over a low drone octave built on E.
- Improvise with your RH with the locrain mode over a low drone octave built on B. In this instance, the 5th will be a tritone.
Or, use an appropriate drones to ground improvisation with the modes as they’re all written starting on D. In this case, the appropriate drone is probably an octave or an octave and a fifth in the lower register of the piano.
It’s a drone that starts and stays on D. But, for fun, we can use a drone built on any note or scale degree that we’d like.
In that case, the name of the modes and the idea of the drone as the root note of a mode may not agree. But that’s ok because in all cases we’re much more concerned with what we hear than with the name of what we have.
Therefore, in all cases, the easy and really the best way to explore is:
- First, play the drone with the LH.
- Then, when ready, add the mode with the RH.
As an example of how to begin we might even play the mode as an ascending scale in one octave. Then, when ready, we can play it as a descending scale. Keep in mind that, always, we’re listening to hear how and where the modes are similar to each other. And how and where each one differs from the other or others.
Nothing mentioned so far has any real difficulty if we add the caveat that there’s no need to rush anything or play anything quickly or rapidly. Scalar descent doesn’t have to follow immediately after scalar ascent and vice versa. That’s because we’re doing described above to experiment with and explore the sound of the modes.
So once we’ve played the modes up and down a few times we can re-arrange each of them into other combinations and orderings. Or juxtapose the different modes. Improvise for a few phrases with one mode. And then switch to another.
The point is
Hearing, sound, listening: those are the goals. Acquisition of finger technique by playing the modes, or piano technique in general: Not so much of a goal.
As we experiment with the modes, we’ll listen, especially, for the sound of no leading tone. Meanwhile simple melodies will emerge naturally as we get the sound of them in our ears and in our head.
A simple melody
What’s a simple melody? It’s a sing-me-a-simple-song kind of thing.
A simple melody is anything you’d like it to be. For example, I studied with one teacher who said, regarding melodies:
Pretend you’re the loneliest person on the earth on the highest mountain top. What would your song sound like?
Now, that’s an extreme scenario! But it worked for me. Or as Stan Getz recalled about Lester Young, or so the story is told:
… Young was catnapping on the bus in an aisle seat when Sonny Stitt took out his saxophone and began walking up and down the aisle playing all his licks. Nobody paid any attention to him, so finally he went over to Young and said, “Hey, Prez, whadda you think of that?” Prez, his eyes half closed, said, “Yes, Lady Stitt, but can you sing me a song?”
Focus and awareness
As we do all described above we’ll also maintain awareness of what we’re doing. Awareness, meaning, we’ll focus and direct our fingers according to what we hear.
At the same time, we don’t and we won’t judge whatever it is we’re doing.
We don’t and won’t judge what we’re doing because the doing is itself sufficient. And here’s where experience kicks in: The more we do something the better we become at it.
Over days and weeks
That simple exercise above can be something to do over a period time. It’s not just a do-it-once-and-forget-it kind of thing.
Rather, it’s listening and doing and then doing and listening . And it’s always ok to transpose all of the above into as many keys or onto as many starting notes as you’d like.
Five notes—even simpler
Actually, we can even make all above even simpler. That’s because for now, in the beginning, it’s enough and sufficient to work with only the first five notes of each mode.
- D E F G A represents D dorian.
- G A B C D represents G mixolydian.
- E F G A B represents E phyrgian.
- B C D E F represents B lydian.
- D E F G A represents D dorian.
- D E F# G A represents D mixolydian.
- D Eb F G A represents D phyrgian.
- D Eb F G Ab represents B lydian.
Only those five notes will give some of the flavour of each of the modes. If you’d like to find some pre-composed examples of that, check out the first volume in Bela Bartok’s Mikrokosmos All of the pieces in the that first volume are restricted to five notes from any particular mode.
Therefore, what we want to notice with each of those first five-note groups is:
Each group consists of a different sequence of intervals. Those different sequences, each of them, present unique opportunities for making melodies.
After some time and with experience:
The noticing and doing we do now in this moment will transform into pre-hearing we’ll do soon enough in future moments. Or, we may be pre-hearing already!
However it works, with and through accumulated experience improvisation, it simply happens such that we might even say:
From where did that thing we just improvised come?
CST and convenience
CST, the idea that a chord matches to a scale and vice versa, is fabulous as a short-term convenience for teachers and students alike. Yet, it’s limited in scope because CST is aways going to be about matching a chord to a scale or vice versa.
Another mainstream concept that exists at a lower level than voice leading is a technique that comes from the common practice theory of the western art music tradition.
The theory we’re about to discuss exists at a lower level than CST, or so we say, because voice leading is about how one note moves to another. So, it’s much more fine-grained and nuanced than CST which, again, is about how one scale fits to one chord.
But, just because the one, voice leading, is more fine-grained than the other, CST, doesn’t mean it’s better. Rather, being more-fine-grained-than-the-other says that now we have two different ways to structure improvisation.
The first way match scales to chords and vice versa. The second way look at music, literally, on a note by note basis to see:
Why does this note go here and not there?
That, in a nut shell, is what voice leading is about:
1. how notes move from one to another.
2. what are the patterns we find as they move from one to another.
It doesn’t forget
Meanwhile, mundane email: We use it. It’s a permanent, persistent part of the digital ecosystem. Among the interesting things about this permanent, persistent part of the digital ecosystem is:
We don’t usually question how we use it until someone loses 30k+ mails from a private server.
But that particular example is political rather than artistic. So all we need to know is:
Our web, and email servers, our social media and and all other digital things that live in the clouds—they have long memories. They don’t soon forget. Rather, they persist.
An immediate benefit from persistance is get, without even thinking about it, searchable digital archives. On the web that means we use a browser. With email, the we use, well, our lowly mundane, email browser. Searchable digital archives means we can go back and forth to see what we or someone else said about something at some previous time.
So it’s mundane but it’s true, if we discuss what we’re learning about improvising in email, then … we’re writing our own books about how to improvise.
Blocks of time and email
Lessons consist of blocked-out portions of time. In those blocked time periods, teachers meet with students and vice versa. In contrast and on the other hand, mundane asynchronous, timeless email, it’s always on—it’s THERE when we want to use it. That’s been noticed by the BBC, among others.
If we can communicate in the moment as we want—as we can with email—then before or after a lesson we can amplify the continuity and continuation which we seek to build when learning and teaching.
It’s simple. Mundane email can steer an upcoming lesson towards some specific discussion or interest. Or it can be the medium for discussion afterwards. Of course instant and text messaging provide much the same sort of thing, as do many social media platforms.
Is there a role for Instagram?
Digital office hours
When I taught in universities, part of being a faculty member meant maintaining open office hours for students to drop by, ad hoc, when and as they needed extra help. But what if we think about lessons not as the blocks of time they usually are?
What if a piano lesson consists of time blocks augmented with asynchronous communication such as email enables? The unlimited email assistance I offer with lessons is my way of of maintaining digital office hours.
What follows are notes and questions Tim Foster, one of my students, sent to me in an email. Included are my responses to him which I wrote inline in between his questions.
Now I say: Thank you Tim Foster. Thank you for letting me build this post with your email as it’s core inspiration. What follows includes additional context in italics. I added it while writing this post.
So, to recap, we began with ideas about scales and modes for improvisers. We took a detour into the mundane but always asynchronous medium of email. Now, we return to the specifics of improvisation
To structure the return, here’s Tim’s email and my responses. Furthermore, there’s additional content I added in italics to contextualise things we either covered when we met for the lesson—or things we should have covered but didn’t because of time.
19 September, 2017: the email from Tim and my response
TF: Get comfortable with all triads in all scales so they come naturally. In due course add 7ths to them
MP: Exactly. Over time, as you get comfortable with this, we’ll add a few more scales. When I say a “few,” that’s exactly what I mean. There are probably 3 or 4 or 5 at most.
There are so few scales because we’re going to transpose the basic ones and build the others we need from the basic ones.
Once you can play triads and seventh chords within major and minor scales, many other things become possible. When I say minor scales, remember on the way up it’s the EXACT same thing as a major scale except there’s a flatted 3rd. On the way down, it’s that same minor scale with the flatted 3rd, except we also flatten 6 and 7.
Now, that said, there’s no rush to get through all of this. That’s because it’s ALL stuff we want to know REALLY well.
So, we always take our time when learning. If something takes a while to learn, that’s fine. Anytime we find difficulties, we dial back to some easier way to do the same thing. For example, we can go back to in examples in C major, as we did in the lesson.
Lastly, and we should say this so that it’s clear: just knowing this stuff—the scales and chords—won’t let you improvise. For that, to actually improvise you’ll need to pre-hear what you want to play.
Pre-hear: an essential concept!
However, chords and scales will help your fingers to play whatever it is you do pre-hear! To be sure, when we say pre-hear, that means our goal is to hear everything we’re going to play, all 100% of it, BEFORE we play it.
But, we’ll also recognise that 100% is a goal, indeed, but it’s not always a realistic goal. So, while pre-hearing’s a standard to which we aspire we’re not going to get caught up in striving for the impossibility of perfection.
Or, Dizzy Gillespie, so I’ve read, said something to the effect of
Shout what you want to play inside of your head. That way, you can be certain of what you want to play!
Of course, the idea behind that comment was and is we can’t shout what we can’t (pre-)hear!
Here’s an example of playing triads as arpeggios on the first three steps of a major scale:
C E G
D F A
E G, B
Most improvisers find it helpful is to be fluent with scales in this sort of way. The idea is to go up and down a scale with chords built in thirds over each note of the scale.
Exercises these are, but they’re also licks Wynton Kelly used with Miles Davis and others. A lick is a phrase an improviser literally burns and brands into their musical practice so that it’s just there, waiting for the right moment.
Of course, it’s not the lick that makes the right moment. Rather, the right moment has to come from the improviser. Improvisation, among other things, is about timing: searching for and feeling for and then finding the right moment.
TF: Dorian cycle is 2nd to 2nd of original key
MP: Exactly! ….If we have a C major scale and if we play it from D to D then we have a dorian mode.
Let’s add to this that mixolydian mode is 5 to 5 of the original key. 5 to 5 meaning in the key of C the mixolydian mode is from G to G.
With those three modes … we’re mostly all set. Now, again, as with all else, don’t rush the learning process.
Don’t relentlessly practice scales in twelve keys to learn scales and related modes as quickly as possible! But do work towards the goal of eventually being able to play as much as possible within and across all twelve keys.
But, however, and for sure, that’s a long-term project!
Learning happens over time in its own time!
Mentioning modes built on the first, second, and fifth scale steps sets things up so at some later point we can discuss Barry Barry Harris and how he teaches scales in improvisation.
Let it be said:
Barry Harris is one the great teachers in jazz. Here’s a link to a Youtube video of a master class he gave in 2010 at New York University. However, the best source for the information he imparts in his teaching practice are his Workshop Videos. The videos are a MAJOR, MAJOR resource.
TF: F minor in could be built on the 2nd of E flat maj or the 6th of A flat maj (being its relative minor).
MP: Entirely true! What happens in later stages as you get comfortable with all of this is instead of seeing a chord in one key, you’ll see (and hear) possibilities in several keys.
That means we can reinterpret a chord at any moment as if it was in some key other than the one from which it came! But, again, that comes with time!
Reinterpreting a chord in one key as belonging to some other key is one of the fundamental ways composers in the western art music tradition play with and upon tonal harmony. Sometimes the reinterpretation is called modulation-with-a-common-chord.
Somewhat related to that is any chord can be preceded by a V chord. We usually call that a secondary dominant.
So, for example, in the key of C, a G major chord is V, the dominant. Also in the key of C is a D minor chord. It’s the ii chord built on the second degree of the scale.
Precede ii with its V as if we were in the key of D minor. When we precede a D minor triad, ii with an A major or an A7 chord are, in fact, dominants in the key of D minor. IF we were in D minor.
If, then, we’re thinking ii in C major can function temporarily as i in D minor, then we might precede or follow our D minor chord with it’s iv chord, in this case a G minor triad. That’s just one possible example of how different paths and roads emerge when we reinterpret a chord, or it might be phrase, a little bit of a melody, as if it was in some other key.
Arnold Schoenberg sometimes used the word “borrow” to describe the process of reinterpretation. “Borrow” meaning to use a chord that’s common to two or more keys as an intersection—a roundabout—a way to turn towards another key.
And then the concept that really brings “borrowing” to life are the techniques of voice leading. Recall that we mentioned that at the beginning of this post, along with pre-hearing.
Much more needs to be said about both of those things: pre-hearing and voice leading!
TF: Fm ascend in melodic min mode ( i.e. 2 flats) but descends in natural mode with 4 flats
MP: Exactly!!! To add detail, on the keyboard we’ll SEE two flats in the ascending form of the scale. As the scale descends we’ll SEE all four flats.
However, if we saw a notated indication for the key of F minor—a key signature—then we’d see four flats.
TF: Listen to Wynton Kelly d min in So What
MP: Yes. So What consists of two chords. It’s a 32-measure long tune in what’s known as A-A-B-A form. Each letter represents 8 measures. The chord changes for So What are
8 measure of D min (an A section)
8 measures of D min (an A section)
3 measures of Eb minor (a B section)
8 measures of D min (an A section)
So, A A B A, that’s the so-called form of the tune. It’s a common, standard form.
Song for My Father, by Horace Silver, is in the form of A A B. That’s not as common as A A B A but, it’s common enough. We might say the standard Autumn Leaves is in the form of A A B.
Standard tunes comprise much of the common repertoire in jazz. They consist of a limited number of forms. Instead of improvising from from note-to-note we can conceptualise whatever it is that we improvise so it all falls over larger portions of a form.
As an example, we might have a 32-measure tune, such as “So What.” Instead of improvising over it on a note-to-note basis, we can conceptualise and hear it as four sections that together make up the whole.
With those four sections that make up a whole, we now have a way to look ahead and forward and create some structure—that, rather than going from note-to-note. But, there’s nothing inherently wrong with note-to-note improvising.
It’s just that working at the level of note-to-note is not unlike walking step-by-step. So, yes, we can one step at a time. But when we do that our concentration, at least for the purposes of this analogy, often wanders to something else.
More context for D minor: Most jazz musicians when playing “So What” and it’s a traditional way to do it for that tune, treat what we’re calling D min as D Dorian and Eb minor as Eb dorian.
HOWEVER, many jazz improvisers, when playing So What, also treat D minor as D minor and NOT as D dorian. Treating D min as D minor means there’ll probably be a C# in an ascending scale and there may be a C natural and a Bb when the scale descends.
That means the modality Miles Davis wanted to explore in “So What” flew and flies out the window! And, in fact, on Miles Davis’ and John Coltrane’s solos on “So What” on “Kind of Blue” we can hear that they depart from the modal firmament of the tune.
So it is that improvisers mix up modes and scales as they hear them. But that’s what we find—yes?—in music by composers in the western art music tradition, including J.S. Bach to name one prominent example.
Here’s a transcription of Miles’ So What solo, with some discussion included. And, ah!, the wonders of the web! Here’s a transcription of a different version of “So What”. The reason for “ah!, the wonders of the web” is the transcription, including solos by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Wynton Kelly, is embedded in a video of them performing “So What.”
The written transcription sometimes goes out of phase with the recording and the video. Nonetheless, it’s wonderful—it’s there. Someone took the time to transcribe the solos and then embed them so they flow along with the original video.
TF: Try triads going up and down as in 1 ( ?yes?)
MP: Absolutely yes! Wynton Kelly!
Wynton Kelly: He frequently ran up and down scales with arpeggios built on each ascending or descending step. So frequently that running up and down with triads organised along the path of a scale is a trademark lick, a signature that’s part of WK’s overall style .
TF: Slow and pre-hear everything
MP: Absolutely yes!
As we discuss pre-hearing, there’s the example of Paul Bley, one of the great and influential jazz pianists, who said, somewhere—where exactly I don’t remember except that very likely it was in his autobiography Stopping Time —that he knew the full scope of his solos before he played them.
Paul Bley also said he didn’t hear every single note in advance but he pretty much had the whole solo mapped out. That’s a strategic view, a way to improvise that isn’t at the level of the note-to-note.
Actually, think about it: We have note-to-note techniques or voice leading as we’ve called it. That coalesces, more or less as we learn to use it, into scales over chords and vice versa. As we learn to apply scales to chords and vice versa, we’re using larger note groupings. Larger groupings, in turn, fit over several or more measures at a time. From there, how we think about what we’re improvising turns from tactics of the moment to strategies of the whole.
TF: Don’t repeat a mistake as our brain learns that!
MP: Absolutely yes! A maxim is make a mistake once and it’s just a mistake. Make it twice and something may be building.
Make it three times and now the mistake, as it were or was, is something we’ve learned. That means we no longer experience it as a mistake, but rather, as the right way to play something! So we play the mistake rather than whatever it is that’s correct.
Now, whether or not it happens within three repetitions, whether or not the brain actually works that way, that I don’t know. BUT, it’s a reasonable and cautious way—and ultimately it’s one way—to think about how, what, when, and where we should pay attention to mistakes!
TF: Thicken notes e.g. Make triads in Sentimental Mood; often take 3 and 5 and put below the normal note but listen and sometimes slightly differently; so we’re adding harmony that may not be there in the original
MP: Absolutely yes! Add triads below and see how that works out. ALSO, just add notes anywhere from the scale of the moment and see how THAT works out!
And remember the scale of the moment may be one of several scales of the moment! Or a combination, a mixture, of scales of the moment!
When Tim says to “make triads and put 3 and 5 below the normal note, what we were talking about is: To harmonise a melody, we can treat any melody note as the 5th in a triad. Then all we have to do is harmonise the melody, note-by-note, with triads. Of course, we can do that if we HEAR it as such. To do it without hearing: it may sound contrived or worse … maybe …
I first learned the technique of treating any melody note as the 5th in a triad from Jaki Byard, one of my teachers. Later, I heard in recordings and at some of his performances how it was a fundamental technique for Bill Evans. With Wynton Kelly who often solos by walking root-position arpeggios up and down the steps of a scale, then we have another example of that same technique. Many others have used it ….
Something Tim and I didn’t discuss but I just realised that I could also have described medieval “fauxbourdon.” The Wikipedia link describes it historically and technically. But, really, all it is, for t who want to use it, is
1. Find a melody, any melody! Although a melody that moves by step probably brings the best results!
2. Harmonise the melody by treating it as the top note of a first-inversion triad. That means if we’re in the key of C, for example, then to walk up and down the scale in a “fauxbourdon” style means: Play the scale so that’s it’s always the top note of first-inversion triads in the key of C.
It’s very easy to demonstrate with a a C major scale because then the first note of the scale is harmonised, from top down, as C G E. Simply continue up or down the scale moving all notes by step. And, yes, that’s voice leading!
TF: Experiment with simple tunes.
MP: YES! Working through a variety of simple tunes will often reveal patterns that exist across many tunes. Once we see common patterns we’re in a position to learn all sorts of things.
Experimenting with a variety of simple tunes often reveals the underlying A A B A or A B A C or A A B patterns upon which so much repertoire is built. Usually each of the letter names in the examples just given are eight measures long.
TF: Get used to improvising with right hand over a strictly timed left hand.
MP: YES! And we can also add get used to playing with LH over a strictly timed RH! And we can get used to strict timing in BOTH hands! And we practice freely without thinking at all about time! All possibilities are there as worthwhile things to explore.
Hope this all helps!
——End of email——
Miles Davis’ autobiography, co-written with Quincy Troupe, is a great place to find information about how and why he came to improvise with scales rather than with scales matched to chords. Let’s say that one more time with emphasis.
Scales only RATHER than SCALES AND CHORDS.
Arnold Schoenberg and voice leading
And, then, once again, there’s voice leading: the study or the practice of how notes move from one to another. What Arnold Schoenberg said is notes mostly follow: THE LAW OF THE SHORTEST WAY. He said he first heard that phrase from Anton Bruckner.
In a recent interview on BBC television, Nile Rogers, the composer of Freak Out and many other hit tunes from the disco era of the 70s and then later said voice leading was what distinguished his style from many others.Schoenberg and Rogers! Leaders of voices!
For fun, check out the LH in Chopin’s 4th prelude. Notice how the chords move from one to another. Usually, they hold a common tone or tones and then either one or two notes move by step. Sometimes there’s a small leap. Sometimes all three notes move at once.
- More about voice leading.
- Rhythm in jazz. How to acquire it? That’s an essential topic because the notes we work to pre-hear: It’s often the case that we want to play them in time! And something that’s very true is time in jazz, how musicians internalise it and project it, can be very different than time in the western art music tradition.
- More about matching chords to scales … or CST.
- More about improvising only with five notes that fit under the hands of a pianist.
All above coming soon. Very soon. If you have questions or thoughts to share, please send an email or leave a note in a comment box.
Hope all above is helpful!