Oh Berklee, How We Love to Hate You

For about a year and a half in my later semesters at Berklee I worked as a music tutor in subjects such as theory, ear training, common practice composition/counterpoint, etc.  I was also a “music tutoring supervisor” for while, leading training sessions on various topics within the Berklee curriculum. I was well versed in the entire Method, having talked at length with the Harmony department head Joe Mulholland and others about various minor details within the curriculum, and how they might be best taught to students struggling with the vast body of theoretical information being thrown at them. Usually, this boiled down to a discussion of what Berklee is known for within the Jazz education community – that infamous musical concept that everybody loves to hate, nobody seems to fully understand, and is misunderstood by most of the people teaching it.

I’m talking, of course, about chord scales.

The whole concept of chord scales came about in the 1950’s when George Russell was first trying to come up with a theoretical model for all of the advances within Jazz at the time. The idea that a 7-note vertical structure (a 13th chord) could be “flattened out” into a linear scale was revolutionary to the bebop mentality, and provided the basis for the Lydian Chromatic Concept. Russell’s specific approach has fallen out of favor pretty much everywhere except the New England Conservatory, but the idea of a separate scale being associated with every chord is now more a less a norm in music education, especially when discussing the diatonic modes. More often than not, figuring out the individual nuances of a tonal system of scales is thrown out the window for a more crude approach, simply suggesting “D-7 = D dorian, G7 = G mixolydian,” with little about how the notes of the specific scale relate to the chord, to the key and to each other.

Berklee has been ground zero for this approach since the 1970’s, and is often called “the scale factory” for this reason. Originally, Berklee’s chord scale method was an arranging device that gave a very sturdy platform for new arrangers and composers to use “mechanical voicings” such as drop 2, drop 2+4, etc. The corpus of information qualifying all of the scale choices soon was adopted in the Harmony department (theory department), and instead of just being taught to arrangers as a specific technique, it was soon being taught to everybody for the purpose of…I’m not quite sure. Why the complicated system of associating specific scales with diatonic chords, secondary dominants, extended dominants, substitute dominants, modal interchange chord, diminished chords and other miscellaneous tonal harmonic structures, and then identifying tensions, avoid notes and chord tones on each scale was never explained to me as a student, and as a student tutor, and I never could quite explain it to my students. Yes, by doing so, we could amass a list of ALL POSSIBLE NOTES on EVERY CHORD, but that’s kind of like expecting to come up with a list of all possible words you’re going to use in a book before you write it. As a consequence, a lot of improvisers come away from Berklee thinking that mastery of chord/scales is the holy grail in improvisation, which is somewhat akin to a writer thinking that memorizing the dictionary is how you get better at writing.

The thing that’s aggravating to me is that the whole Berklee chord scale system is sound from a theoretical perspective (when taught correctly). It does what it seeks to do – provide a categorization of all the notes that might define a given functional harmony on a chordal instrument. Avoid notes are notes that, for whatever reason, can obscure the harmony when used in a voicing. A voicing for II-7 can contain some or all the notes of the Dorian scale, with the exception of the 6th tone*. V7/III can contain some or all of the notes of the Mixolydian b9, #9, b13 scale, with the exception of the 4th tone. Etc. The problem is that it’s never contextualized in this manner, and instead is just offered as “theory” that needs to be learned. There’s this massive amount of information that just isn’t put in any relevant context outside of the arranging classroom. Joe Mulholland actually feels the same way about the curriculum, and there’s a big push to de-emphasize chord scales and instead emphasize composition and practice in the Harmony deparment. Still, without a “bigger picture” being attached to chord scales both at Berklee and elsewhere, there runs a huge risk in academia and elsewhere that aspiring musicians will come away with a very stilted improvisational and compositional approach that relies entirely on a memorized system of scales.

A good example of the danger of chord scale lies in how one person completely misinterpreted my video lesson on improvising in a diatonic context. Here’s an excerpt from a message they sent me…

You mentioned in a previous video that by mapping out the 3rds and 7ths of the diatonic/relative chords to the key, you’re providing a solid foundation to represent that key. As an example, if we’re in Cmaj7 and the tune starts on Dmin7 (D dorian) to G7 (G mixolydian) resolving to Cmaj7 (C Ionian)…are you saying that we should first consider what D dorian’s 3rd and 7th are and then determine how that relates to Cmaj7…yielding, in this case, C’s 4th and 1? In other words, would we play F lydian and C ionian OVER D dorian?

If that’s the case, do we run that mind-processing for every diatonic chord? Like…when the G7 comes, do we play the B Locrian and F lydian? Would we play B locrian and E Phrygian over that Cmaj7 resolve [if you don’t want to just simply play a Cmaj7]?

Wow! This takes the whole thinking to a new level of obscurity. Not only thinking of one scale per chord, but MULTIPLE scales per chord, all of which contain the same notes. This of course, is not what I meant at all, and is a direct reflection of a lot of the misinformation and misunderstanding that is propagated when teaching chord scale theory, especially in the age of the internet. Berklee’s chord scale ideas are translated out into increasingly more and more irrelevant and confusing educational concepts, so much so that even in a book as well respected as the Jazz Theory book by Mark Levine, Levine suggests that over a simple minor II-V-I, the easiest possible improvisational method is thinking in terms of three melodic minor scales, two of which are unrelated to the tonic (F melodic minor, Ab melodic minor and C melodic minor in the key of C). This is supposed to be the best way to tackle a minor II-V!

I think the main problem with chord scale theory is that it takes away all focus from the key and the tonic of the harmony. Melodic development makes a extraordinary amount of sense when you’re focused on a single key center. Not so much when you’re thinking about a different tonic on every chord. Yes, it’s possible of course, but as an educational tool it’s just about worthless in creating a coherant melodic statement. It gives too much too quickly to the student, and the whole line of thinking is distilled into a worthless heap of information without context.

As a theoretical tool, I’ve completely embraced the Berklee chord/scale thinking. It makes sense. But so does lexicography. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be particularly informative in devising narrative structure.

*The tritone formed between the 6th tone and the 3rd tone of the Dorian scale on a II-7 is the diatonic tritone of its related key. When contextualized in a II-V-I chord progression, this tritone obscures the subdominant function of the II, and instead makes the chord progression sound more like a V-V-I.

9 Responses to “Oh Berklee, How We Love to Hate You”

  1. 1 Emma May 8, 2010 at 12:35 am

    So, now I’m a little confused (and not just because I can’t completely follow the music theory you mention without sitting at my keyboard — which I’m not doing right now).
    At the very end of this entry, you write that this chord theory is good “as a theoretical tool” but it may not be any use in actually creating melodies. But, haven’t you spent the last few entries showing us how you’ve created melodies based on this stuff?

  2. 2 adamneely May 8, 2010 at 5:36 am

    Well, Emma, the way that I was equating chords and scales earlier in my theoretical ramblings was radically different than how its taught in jazz education. My ideas were very specific to composition and were completely divorced from tradition and precedent. Chord scale theory as it exists at Berklee and elsewhere seeks to explain previously realized music and give an EDUCATIONAL framework to those students new to the tradition. My contention with this theory is that it is a poor teaching method and practical method. Not, however, that it’s not useful to some degree in composition (arranging) and theory. It just leads to confusion when trying to explain the nuances of jazz improvisation.

  3. 3 catefneely May 9, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    I am trying. really. but my head hurts half way through.

  4. 4 catefneely May 9, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    But what I am getting is that you are trying to break through into another educational model. Which is why I may not get it, because if you haven’t been grounded enough in the traditional model, you aren’t going to have a frame of reference.

  5. 5 chronowarp May 27, 2010 at 7:20 am

    I really liked this post, it resonates with me. I’ve been around the net, and I’ve served as a participant in a multitude of theoretical conversations about modes on guitar-centric websites (MX tabs, for example).

    As a beginner I was bombarded by misinformation about modes, and was launched into the idea that mode per chord was a viable improvisational approach even as it relates to diatonic chord sequences like plain vanilla ii-V-I. Obviously, the chord scales for these three chords generates the same exact set of notes with a transposed root, thus, negating the point of even making a distinction, because, well, we don’t don’t hear tonality per chord we hear it as it relates to and reaches tonic (I).

    When I realized this in my theoretical development I shunned the entire concept of chord scale and threw it out the window. That was a bit short sighted on my part, as it actually becomes rather useful in understanding how to treat more complex sonorities, like, I don’t know: Maj7#5, dom7#5#9, m9b5, m6/9, you know, stuff that doesn’t fit into a mode of the major scale. It helps to organize and understanding what fits inside these chords and above them.

    During my last school year I studied Jazz theory with bassist Steve Kim and we spent a lot of time talking about the accepted tensions over various chords, specifically dominants. What he would always say to me is “these are the tensions that have historically worked over the chords, that doesn’t mean these other notes are bad…”. This open minded perspective sort of opened the doors for me, and exploited the most obvious limitation of chord scale in improvisation: chord scale typically yields the inside nature of the chord, but if you think of that as your only means to improvise is blocks you off from exploring the plethora of other options available to you. Not to mention that the outside tones can be accented and used as freely as the inside tones. m9 dissonance isn’t even that big of an issue in modern jazz, it isn’t the 50’s anymore.

    On top of that the immediate relationship between “chord type x” and “mode x” can be misleading in a variety of contexts. If we automatically associate m7 with dorian (1-b3-5-b7-9-11-13), in a variety of diatonic situations it can yield faulty results: while in Jazz the majority of m7’s are functioning as ii chords, what about iii and vi, which diatonically stack with a b6 on top? Does it sound “right” to hang out over nat.6 on top of those chords?

    I’m just rambling now so I’ll stop, but I thought I’d just throw my thoughts on the subject out there.

  6. 6 Andrés Marín June 17, 2010 at 3:36 am


    I totally go with Adam!! I’m an engineer, and like Adam compared music to literature, it’s the same for Systems Designing; where you have mathematics as a great tool to understanding and analying things; but a good engineer is not that who can make all the math. It’s the one that can simply see the problem, through human eyes; and use common sense.

    So; I think what Adam wants to say is; go ahead study the theory, but don’t spend too much on it. Just read it, ask a few questions about it. And leave the book and start playing, use your ears!!!

    And also I think Adam answered his own question about why do they teach us all of that; he said twice it’s used in arranging. And I guess if you have a deadline and you have to lay those notes on a paper; maybe you can just apply a theory and come up with some notes on paper, that could sound “good”, before you listen to it.

    Of course that would be mediocre; but deadlines do exist, and sometimes we have to do it to get paid and eat. Just try to not let the soul out of what you do.

    have fun!!

  7. 7 JonnyPac April 2, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    Greetings Adam,

    I enjoyed your post. It was forwarded to me by an author friend of mine who found it interesting. We both self-published guitar books in the last year that focus on chord-scale theory.

    My musical development has been tremendously influenced by chord scale theory (CST) though I never went to a music college whatsoever. I self-studied through books, articles, youtube, forums, private lessons/classes, and gigging. Levine’s book was the gateway book for me back in 2000 when I was 19 years old and semi-interested in classic jazz.

    I fell for the Levine-CST bag hook line and sinker. I spent years tracking down almost every recording in the footnotes, had a pianist friend play all of the “two hand” examples. And even went through Levine’s piano book to get piano-like voicings on the guitar.

    Though, I liked Levine’s work, something always bothered me… a few things in fact. His neglect of the harmonic minor scale and exclusion of functional harmony (no mention of secondary dominants, melodic devices, guide tones, etc). At this point, I began to use CST in my own way based on my ear and what I was hearing in actually music (jazz and non-jazz alike). I naturally had a sense of the tonal hierarchies within a chord-scale. I heard the tonic, basic triad, guide tones, tendency tones, extensions, triadic upper-partials and so on. It never ended with the idiot-proof “play this over that, avoid that note” BS. That makes no musical sense and no one in classic jazz thought that way as I know. I have turned away from Levine and found Bert Ligon’s books much better all around.

    I don’t think throwing the baby out with the bath water is a good answer… Let’s turn to rock improvisation. I work in a guitar store (over 10 years experience, now a manager), and I have been teaching guitar lessons that long as well. It is typical for students (and some professionals) to ask “what scale do I play over that SONG”. They want one pentatonic, blues, or full diatonic scale that fits the entire progression, and then they want to noodle and shred from there. The idea of chord-scale pairing is beyond their wildest dreams, and a tonal hierarchy within each is out of the question. CST is a way to get lead guitarists (or other melodic instruments) to pay more attention to the underlying progression. A progression that “borrows” parallel chords via modal interchange (common in grunge, Beatles tunes, jazz, hip-hop, etc), back-cycling (country western, rhythm changes, sweet Georgia brown, etc), secondary dominants (most good music), makes the “one scale” idea is nearly impossible to pull off. Note that “harmonic generalization” is very different and melodically complex compared to noodling in one key.

    There are huge pitfalls to CST as it is usually presented, yes, but I still feel like it is a great launching point (though tedious to grasp at first for those without exceptional patience and memorization capabilities). There are no true short-cuts, but going the long route without CST seems even harder and creatively limiting. I cannot imagine playing a Wayne Shorter tune or soloing over the changes to “Strawberry Fields” without it.

    At this point I can solo over any oddball chord progression in a harmonically specific way that implies everything between the counterpoint of my part against the bass line (no chords needed). That’s where “linear harmony” comes in and fills the gaps of CST, and allows the rules to be broken (not “outside” mind you) in order to give the music direction; the elements of rhythm; especially “harmonic rhythm”. Chromatic notes, anticipations, and melodic devices make a lot of sense on this level. Again, this is miles away from the typical rock/pop guitarist’s one scale mentality. Thoroughgoing CST is very different than memorizing the dictionary!

    As you gathered, I have strong opinions in the topic and I wrote a book on my conclusions. I don’t want to toot my own horn here too much, but you can look it up on amazon: “Chord-Scale Theory and Linear Harmony for Guitar” by yours truly Jonathan Pac Cantin. It’s a slim book that I put together myself and printed locally. I’d actually be interested in your feedback on it. I’d be happy to ship one to you to check out at no cost. Thanks again for the interesting post.

    Best wishes,


  8. 8 Erick Kuhni January 3, 2013 at 9:26 pm

    This was a very useful article, on a subject I have struggling to understand for a long time. A couple thoughts/points that I’d like to offer in order to solicit some comments.

    Something that seems to rarely come up in discussions about the Chord/scale approach to improvising, particularly when we start dealing with issues like “avoid notes” is the level of cognitive processing that is required to the approach useful. The player is forced to play and process “theory” at rate and manner determined by the tempo and rythm, while reproducing ideas in a rather ineffecient way. This has generally led to duct tape solutions that try and simplify this gap, by memorizing arppeggio’s and contrived scale patterns to enable the player to reduce mental processing requirements, by outlining “zones” on their instrument (particularly, I’m referencing guitar and bass players) where they can play phrases from muscle memory, but that are overall just regurgitations of cliche lines that allow them play less consciously. This approach is just a slightly more developed way of doing what modern blues guitarists do with pentatonics, ie, shutting down direct awareness and just wandering around the the outlined spaces that they have memorized around on the fretboard. Ultimately however, it seems that the goal is to make improvisation a less conscious activity.

    I think this is because there is too little discussion about harmony, and too much emphasis, particularly for guitar players, on “positions”. I am surprised by how many guitar players, for example, do not realize that the modes are not wholly independent scales from the Major scale. That in fact they are derived through permutations on that scale, and that I can actually use a single position major scale shape, to play every single mode. Or that it is theoretically possible to experiment on a Dmin7, for example, using a D-dorian shaped scale pattern, and still miss every relevant note to Dmin7. This I think is because guitar players, and presumably bass players, approach their understanding of music theory from a visual perspective rather than a rigorous “musical” perspective that focuses on notes, harmony, chords, etc. The guitar player is instead focused on coordinates (“the note located on the 5th string, fourth fret”), positions, shapes, etc. It’s this esoteric form of musical language and perception that put’s them at odds with music that was developed and from horn players. Another example is that a guitar player, if they have memorized the modes, will always play them starting on the low string. For practice and excercizes this is a reasonable way to learn, but from composition, understanding the harmonic intervalic relationship between the notes in the scale, and how chords are derived therefrom, is far more useful.

    For me, the solution for simplifying the level of cognitive processing, while maintaining awareness, is to see the modes intellectually as a system for developing and interpreting harmony, but to seem them on the guitar as a single scale that maps across the entire fretboard, and then to overlay on that fret board chord patterns. So the memorizing I do is to identify all the diatonic chord shapes possible down to those that have the g-string in the bass, and then to take those patterns and memorize the intervals there. That sounds difficult at first, but once you realize this is largely just a series of repreating patterns, it actually becomes quite easy. Furthermore, while every musician will memorize “chops” or “licks”, this process get’s me out of the trap of simply just hashing out the same old lines all of the time, because I am visualizing the fretboard in a more workable manner, that allows me process the information in a much more “musical” way.

    Sorry for the long reply, you have a great article, and I am very excited to see the subject getting greater treatment. I’m not a professional musician, but I have seen a great deal of confusion on this subject, foremost of which was the amount of time that I personally have been confused over it.

  1. 1 Chord Scales, « Adam Neely Trackback on July 8, 2010 at 3:45 pm

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