Archive for the 'Teaching' Category

It’s easy as 1, 2, 3!

True to my word, I’m going to cool off on the ridiculous theory topics that, while endlessly amusing to myself the composer/connoisseur of fine brandies, might not have the broadest audience. Instead, today we’re going to talk about the alphabet. No, not the whole alphabet, 26 letters is far too much for us musicians (leave the rest of them to the people with doctoral degrees in literary criticism). We’re just going to stick with 7 of then.

When we’re first learning the basic elements of music, we learn that the musical alphabet is 7 letters long – A B C D E F G, and that’s typically as far as we get as far as explaining the musical alphabet. What else is there possibly to learn? Notes are named based upon these alphabetical symbols, and that’s pretty much all there is to it. Something rather odd happens after this, however. Teachers of music, being the musicians that they are, tend to forget to explain (or forget all together) that the alphabetical system of naming notes extends extremely far into music theory and can make intially opaque concepts like double flats/sharps  much easier to understand. Everybody who is literate has a very intimate knowledge of the alphabet, a knowledge that new musicians don’t have about music.

Take intervals, for instance. One method for teaching intervals involves counting lines/spaces on a staff to derive the correct interval – a method that relies almost totally on the visual aspect of the staff and not on the logical deduction skills that are required to train the brain to think rather than respond to clever visuaProxy-Connection: keep-alive
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cues. Basic intervals are simply the distance between alphabetical letter names – A to F is a sixth because there are six letter names shared in between them counting A as 1.

The need for double sharps/flats and B#/Fb can be easily explained by applying the “unbreakable law of the alphabet” to the major scales (note to self: think of a more impressive title for this law. Perhaps, “the hallowed law of laws” or something like that). As long as its emphasized that all letters of the musical alphabet must be included in order for every major scale, things like enharmonic spellings make more sense in context. A# C C# D#, for example seems really weird in context, and any trained musician will intuitively tell you that it’s wrong, but it’s hard to explain why exactly without going back to the fundamental “alphabetical” nature of music theory.

Focusing on alphabetical letters is something that can help new students to music theory because they can relate so easily to it – they’re the foundation for the spoken/written language, and by taking that familiarity and applying it to another, potentially unfamiliar context.


It’s Gonna Rain

Contrary to my apparently no-so-deeply-held convictions against chord scales, I’ve started a YouTube lessons series on the very subject. I felt that I should at least explain some of the better ideas of chord scales, and preface the entire series with a massive disclaimer – no, they won’t make you t3h awesome shredlord. I also invented some handy jargon – “Heirarchy of Chord Sounds” – which I think I’ll be using a lot in the future as a theoretical tool and a teaching device. We’ll see how it goes over.

Chord Scale Series

Oh, this reminds me, I revamped the Lessons section on the website so it’s a little more streamlined and includes all of my YouTube lessons. Looking through it, I realized I have very little content for people with less experience, so I’ll try and get some more beginner type stuff up on the youtubez shortly. It’s hard, though, since there are so many great resources out there for beginning theory and performance out there. I quite frankly don’t know what else I would have to add! I’ll think of something, though.

On a related note…

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.

Thomas Risell, aka, MarlowDK, recently asked me to contribute to his awesome bass educational website, For those of you who don’t know, Thomas is one of those few people who has monster groove, monster chops, monster knowledge and can teach concepts clearly and competently. Not too many people like that out there, for sure. So it definitely was an honor to be asked to write as a guest instructor, musing on whatever topic I felt like musing on. I mean, I do that anyway here and on YouTube, but it now at least has the appearance of being legitimate.

Check out my first lesson on minor pentatonic sequences. Sweet.



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