What’s that scale again?

Posted on Posted in Harmony, Improvisation

When beginning to improvise over chord progressions, a budding musician may approach soloing chord by chord. Similarly to beginners figuring out how melodies relate to harmony by analyzing vertically instead of horizontally, they can become blinded and miss the bigger picture of phrasing in a composition. This commonly happens in the jazz arena in terms of improvisation. Frustrated and confused, beginning improvisers usually play some sour notes over chord progressions.

Sour notes, or no notes at all, occur over a progression because the brain hasn’t processed and absorbed what notes in a scale work best. Processing these notes can take some time simply because multiple methods to analyze chord-scale relationships exist. For example, when a student begins to relate modes of the major scale to chords, they can think of them as:

1.) Parallel: C Ionian is to CMaj7, D Dorian is to Dmin7. Each diatonic chord has seven specific modes.

2.) Derivative: C Ionian is to CMaj7, C Ionian is to Dmin7. Each diatonic chord shares one specific mode.

All together, 28 modes exist if a student explores major, melodic minor, harmonic minor and harmonic major modes. Albeit specific, a problem arises when the student begins to think parallel for each and every single chord in a tune. It’s the moment when all the sudden the improvisation stops. Why does it stop? It’s not because the improviser wanted space. Moreover, by the time one thinks of C# Locrian, F# Altered Dominant, B Dorian, etc., the moment has already passed. Simply, one cannot think and play at the same time and by doing so in real time, hiccups will occur.

Take for instance a word problem that’s common in some testing circles:

Jill arranged these 5 balls in order:

Five Balls

If she wanted to continue the same pattern, what is the color of the 37th ball?

Method 1:

Parallel thinking in music is much like solving the problem this way, by drawing out each individual ball:

Colored Balls……finally, the 37th ball is drawn. It’s red!


Method 2:

The last ball is brown and the pattern is in 5’s. The 37th ball is red.

Let’s now relate this example to a minor ii V i progression:


ii v d minor




When soloing, some may think parallel (well a mixture of parallel and derivative for this matter (I’m using the altered dominant mode for the A7)):


ii v i opt 1




Or simply:

ii v i dmin opt 2





Both parallel and derivative thinking have their places. As musicians grow, it’s important to consider multiple options. This will help ensure continued growth and discovery. When practicing, one must differentiate the concept of practicing vs. performing. Ideally be able to explore and assimilate multiple methods to soloing, however forget about it when it’s time to perform.

About Nick Grinlinton

Nick Grinlinton has written 113 entries on this blog.

Nick Grinlinton is a guitarist, composer and educator based in Brooklyn, NY. He is a two-time ASCAP Young Jazz Composer Award finalist and has composed and played music for Jerry Seinfeld's web series "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee". A speedy runner, Nick currently focuses on racing distances from the mile all the way to the marathon. As he continues to train daily, he is currently examining what effect music has towards running. To learn more and to contact Nick, visit his website.

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