About Improvising with Scales and Chords

Many musicians stick exclusively to improvising with scales, leaving them feeling frustrated and creatively stunted. This episode reveals how to integrate the idea of chord tones and harmony into your improv to really tell a story with your playing!

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In our last couple of episodes we’ve talked about the model of “patterns and playgrounds” we teach at Musical U, where you’re applying certain constraints to your improvising in order to more confidently explore other dimensions. How using patterns for notes or rhythm can help you get more quickly to a musically-effective improvisation while still leaving you lots of creative freedom.

A scale is one example of a pattern – meaning it’s something that is used a lot in music and is useful to know about. You can create a constraint for yourself of sticking just to that scale pattern, meaning you’ll play just the notes from the scale of the key you’re in. That will help ensure that you won’t play any notes that sound obviously wrong or like a mistake.

The problem with scales

For a lot of improvisers this is almost the entirety of their improvisation toolkit. They know which scale to use and they noodle around in that scale and that’s how they improvise.

This was 100% me when I was a teenage guitar player. I knew my pentatonic scale pattern and you’d tell me the key, and I would noodle around in that scale pattern and I’d feel pretty satisfied. But looking back it really didn’t sound all that musical or effective – and I felt completely oblivious to how to make it sound more musical except to have more “talent”.

As we touched on in our first episode for improv month, going that route can leave you feeling very restricted and not very creative. And that’s certainly how I felt.

Part of the problem is that the full major scale is simply too big a playground to start with – there are too many notes to choose from and so you can feel like you’re just wandering up and down the scale or jumping around at random. Without ear training like learning solfa or studying intervals you won’t really understand the role of each note in the scale so you are essentially choosing at random. So one good step forwards is to do that relative pitch ear training so that you know in advance how the notes you’re choosing will sound, and so make a more musically-meaningful choice of notes as you improvise.

Another good step is to learn to improvise with smaller scales first. At Musical U we really focus in on the major pentatonic as the starting point for playing by ear and improvisation because with just five notes it’s much easier to wrap your ear around, while still providing enough notes to be interesting, musically. In fact you can usefully start improvising with just the scale of “do re mi”, the first three notes of the scale, that’s something we do with some of our improv exercises. That constraint really pushes you to explore when and why you’re choosing one note over another and it’s a great basis for expanding to the pentatonic and then full major scale.

Scales are a useful pattern but there’s still a risk of your solo sounding just like a random jumble of notes. They’re notes from the key which is a good starting point, and with some ear training you can learn to choose notes in a way that creates the musical message you want to – but it can be hard to create any bigger-picture impact with your solo. It might not sound like it connects with the music you’re soloing over and you might start to struggle for how to move your solo forwards from one bar to the next.

To start improvising well you’ll want to apply some of the ideas we’ll be covering in our next episode about phrasing and form – and also the second topic of this episode which is improvising using chords.

Connecting with chords

Before you jump to conclusions I’m not talking about playing chords. So if you play a solo instrument like trumpet or you’re a scat singer, don’t tune out!

Harmony is what gives a piece of music its journey. Yes, the melody is the prominent story-teller, but the emotional journey of a piece is often conveyed more by the overall progression of chords than the details of the melody line. Whatever notes you choose for a 12-bar blues improvisation for example, it’ll still have the character of a 12-bar blues. If you’re improvise with the same notes over a I-IV-V rock progression versus a ii-V7-I jazz progression it’ll convey a different kind of musical story.

So if you want your improvisation to tell a good story you’ll want to take advantage of this idea of harmonic progression. We’re not going to go deep into this on this short podcast episode but I do want to share with you the one crucial concept you need to know, and that is: Choosing your improvised notes based on chord tones.

If you remember our episode 21 on “Chord Tones” and episode 27 on “Finding Chords in Scales” then you’ll understand the relationship between the notes of the major scale and the notes of each chord in that key. If not, please check out those episodes for a step-by-step explanation, I’ll put a link in the shownotes. For now the critical thing to understand is that each chord in a key is built from three or four notes from the scale. When that chord is played in the song, those are the notes being played.

That means that if you’re improvising over a chord progression one of the best things you can do is to choose your notes based on the current chord. The obvious thing to do is to simply choose from those notes to create your improvised melody. And although it’s quite restrictive and will sound a bit formulaic, this will sound one notch “more musical” than just choosing notes at random from the scale. For the listener, your solo will fit in nicely with the rest of the music.

The next step is then to be very aware of the chord tones that are active at any time – and to consider choosing those notes in your improvisation but not stick to them strictly. For example just choosing to start or end your phrases with a chord tone, or lingering for a moment on a chord tone – or indeed a non-chord tone – will all give your solo a bit more musical significance to the listener.

And what’s cool is that these ideas can all be used even if you don’t actually have a harmonic accompaniment. For example, a saxophone player busking solo in the street can actually use chord tones in the melody he improvises to imply a harmonic progress and give his solo the same kind of journey that it would have if he had a pianist or guitar player providing chords underneath. In his head he’s thinking about the chord progression he’s soloing through, and by bringing out those chord tones in his solo he’s going to subtley convey that progression to his listener.

We go into this in more detail in our new improv training modules with lots of examples to listen to and hear this all in action, along with exercises and practice tracks for you to get the hang of it. But I just wanted to share that core idea because it’s really simple but really powerful. If you’ve been noodling around based on a scale without really thinking about the underlying chord progression before then this simple insight is going to have a big positive impact on how musically effective your improvisation is.

Next time we’re going to pick up on something I mentioned in passing there – the idea of phrasing and giving structure to your improvisation, and that’s something that works beautifully with this chord tones idea. It’s a big enough topic to get its own training module in Musical U and its own podcast episode coming up after our next improv month interview.

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