Excerpt from "20 Irreverent Essays and Exercises"

Scales are one of the most popular tools used in jazz soloing today. But why replace a chord with a scale?

Typically a player studies a published list of scales and modes that will work with a corresponding list of chord symbols. The belief seems to be it’s a quick route to harmonic accuracy, freeing the mind to be creative with notes that sound correct.

Now I agree scales can be helpful to the beginner, providing an accessible start for a year or two. But after that, I believe it ‘s time to leave these training wheels behind.

Most college and professional players are aware of the horizontal vs. the vertical. But they may not realize they’re trading one for the other. We need both.

Using a scale to replace a chord is like taking the highway over an interesting town rather than driving through it. It’s faster and easier but you miss all the people, buildings and trees.

Chords have dimension. They move in progressions. Good functional harmony has suspense, resolution and cadence. The 3rd and 7th are more vital than the other pitches; the upper structure provides "color tones" adding rubs and mystery. Fine voice-leading can carry a sense of grace, a sleight of hand or a witty reference to another style. And yes, all of this is available on linear instruments as well.

But a scale is simply a row of pitches. They’re equally important, unrelated to the previous or next scale, and they imply no voice-leading whatsoever. The use of scales evades the chordal essence, glossing over the very harmonies that attracted us in the first place.

If that weren’t enough... even a lay jazz fan can point out that certain solos "sound like a bunch of scales." How many times have you had the sense that a player was showing off the clever scales and patterns they’d been practicing for years?

From a certain viewpoint, this isn’t even improvising. It’s re-shuffling a collection of licks and lines, formed in advance and pre-polished. Does that sound like improvising to you?

Same coin, other side... An equally misguided process is using the name of a mode to express a chord. Modal music creates a whole different harmonic terrain--beautiful unto itself, refreshing precisely because it does not sound like functional harmony.

Players would better understand unity in a composition by sticking with the proper nomenclature:

The lean modal shifting in Miles’ So What can become too thick when voiced as traditional 11th chords. Conversely, an F9 chord in a Hoagy Carmichael tune simply is not the Mixo-Lydian mode.

A particularly ludicrous element in the ongoing scale-mania is that there are dozens of scale/chord associations to be memorized. Then one has to think: let’s see, this is an Eb7#9 therefore I can choose one of these 3 scales for those 2 beats...oops, here comes the next chord...aha this scale will work, but it has to start on a different root...

Can you honestly play from your heart while processing that much math?

There are simple, direct ways to grasp the real harmonies, and they open up far more creative possibilities!! I am so perplexed at how scales came into such widespread use that I am going to type ten exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!

Well, it must be time for me to get off my high horse. Please send all your hate mail to my publisher...he doesn’t have my email address.


for Why Replace A Chord With A Scale?

These exercises show less-complex ways to process harmonies which will can lead to highly creative results.


Arpeggiate up and down the chord members only (to Blackbird or All of Me). Be careful to choose the proper 3rd and 7th each time (ie ma or mi 3rd, ma or mi 7th). Practice these until comfortable, trying to memorize/hear the 3rds and 7ths as they’re coming up. [refer to basic voice-leading principles of Theory I...listen to Mulligan's piano-less quartets w/Brookmeyer, Baker.]

Next, play an inventive solo based only on chord members. Make interesting melodies and rhythms using only these pitches. (listen to Louis A). Then, continue but add passing tones wherever your ear takes you, often landing on chord members on strong beats and at ends of phrases. Repeat this with several different tunes. (Tape all and listen!)


Solo on Four, Skylark and/or Lennie’s Pennies. [easier to harder]
observing the distinct harmonic (and melodic!) languages inherent in each composition.

Think of all 12 notes as avail for any chord. Explore freely while tending to land or resolve on root, 3rd or 7th here and there. Try not to think in terms of any other chord members by name or function (ie #11 or b9). Instead regard all tones other than 1, 3 7 as tension and 1, 3, 7 as release.

Continue to think of all 12 notes as available--some ‘spicier’ than others. Begin to make some sense of the contrast of the ‘in’ vs. ‘out’ notes. Then play lyrically and play less. Make every note count.


Start without a tune. Create your own scales with surprising chromatic alterations, or emphasized pitches you’ve determined to be more important than others. Write them out for easier reference. Scales can have fewer or more than 7 notes, be made of intervals other than stepwise movement, and wherever you imagination takes you. Write several you like, each starting on 3 different roots. Improvise freely (still not using a tune, just free form) using your written scales and interchanging as you wish. Leave space, play with feeling and shape. Record and listen back. (A classic work of brilliant scalar thinking is Nicolas Slonimsky's "Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns.")

Next, choose a tune of medium harmonic complexity--You Stepped Out of A Dream, or Solar for example. When soloing, superimpose your invented scales over (not inside!) the changes (being comped as written). Respond to the consonant coincidences vs the harsher rubs, each as a moment unto itself--let it come out as it does, true to your scales, but you can lean toward more or less ‘spicy’ by emphasizing what ‘comes out’ as you play it. Maintain logical melodic shapes throughout, so there is a vertical continuity (ie lines with character, some sequential patterns, resting places, building gradually to a higher peak...as one would in a more traditional solo).

Such a sophisticated polytonal statement can express the almost bi-polar nature of how the brain/ear processes different "sonic realities." It can create a deep "tugging" between 2 emotions, true to how we often feel. Record and listen back. Listen again on another day.

(Polytonal elements can be found in many 20th Century classical works. Although, of course they appear in jazz works as well (eg Ellington, Strayhorn, Mingus, Monk), more often than not, their context is conceived/perceived as "upper structure" 13th chords, et al, usually based on functional harmony with roots on the bottom - or implicit elsewhere in the voicing. In classical contexts it often has a more "free-floating" nature, not so bottom-rooted. Classical composers who use such polytonal elements, often with quite consonant/accessible results include Copland, Barber, HIndemith and Milhaud. More "biting" examples appear in works by Ives, Stravinsky and Bartok.)

Nurock is a veteran composer/arranger/conductor and jazz pianist, currently on the composition faculty of the New School Jazz and Contemporary Music Program in NYC. Visit www.kirknurock.net and www.kirknurockwritings.blogspot.com

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Kirk Nurock