What is a bebop scale?
What is a melodic triads bebop scale?
What do they have in common, and what’s different?
All great questions.
I’m not a scholar on the historical evolution of jazz pedagogy. How the educational styles, curriculums, norms, and sacred cows of jazz eduction evolved through one-on-one mentors, band leaders, and transcription up through printed instruction books, jazz institutions and colleges like Berklee, and now YouTube videos and online lessons… I’ll let the academics of jazz education history write on this topic.
What I am interested in is laying out the prevalence of education based around the traditional seven-note diatonic scale and how it differs from the 8-note bebop scale. Just to setup the true intention and purpose of a traditional bebop scale and the benefits it provides us, so that I can then introduce the six, nine, and 12-note melodic triads bebop scale. This way we can see the similarities and differences and understand how they’re all related and why you might want to consider practicing or using any of these scales.
The traditional seven-note diatonic scale is by far the most commonly taught in classical music theory as well as jazz harmony and theory. This is our basic C major scale.
From the standpoint of learning chord-scale theory, modes, and diatonic harmony, this is an extremely important scale to know. Unfortunately, after spending 20+ years learning music myself this way, and attempting to teach improvisation and “musical theory” (music theory with the specific purpose of helping create music and improvisation, and not simply for the goal of memorizing intellectual ideas), I’ve found some major problems with this being our default scale system to rely upon.
First, it makes everything seem democratized… like all seven of the notes presented are equal in their role within the diatonic palette. We see the notes written on the paper or notated on a scale chart, we memorize the geometric design on the fretboard, and poof… suddenly we’re supposed to be playing music on the level of our heroes. Like memorizing all the words in a new foreign language but having no idea how to string together sentences properly, let along poetic or philosophical masterpieces.
Then comes the frustration of, “now what?” Then comes the years, or decades, of memorizing countless sequences and patterns struggling to figure out how this geometric design can be used to create music… like we’re supposed to be some sort of musical alchemist. If you’ve been learning your scales the traditional way and can relate to this feeling of frustration like there’s a secrete being withheld from you… there is. It’s called your ear. You need to learn to approach scales with your ear. This is one of the biggest things we do differently in The Melodic Triads Study Group using our concept of ‘the quadratonic’. But that’s a different story for another day. In the meantime, your frustration is normal.
The second problem with this seven-note diatonic major scale as it relates to jazz and improvisation is that it’s not symmetrical. I don’t mean that in the same way that a diminished or whole tone scale is symmetrical. I mean that’s it’s not properly balanced between harmony, melody, and rhythm.
In jazz, a huge part of our language is spoken with phrases built using 8th notes. It’s not, and shouldn't be, the only rhythmic value we use to play. But it is a huge rhythmic element.
But here’s the problem...
When we play the C scale with constant 8th notes, we get all of the traditionally important chord tones (1-3-5-7) to fall on the STRONG beats during the 1st measure. But then because there are an odd number of notes in the scale, that flips starting in measure 2 and we see all of those important chord tones falling on the WEAK beats and the upper extensions (9, 11, 13) falling on the STRONG beats.
This creates a disconnect harmonically. The harmony, melody, and rhythm are not functioning together to create a unified sound. Sometimes we end up placing important notes during weak rhythmic moments and lesser harmonically important notes during stronger rhythmic moments.
These seven-note diatonic scales play a HUGE role in understanding music, especially academically and intellectually… and they can be very instrumental (pun intended) in styles like rock and fusion… but if they’re the only scales you practice, and you’ve spent years or decades playing them over and over and over (like I had), you’re actually making jazz and bebop improvisation feel more challenging then it needs to be. You’re not training yourself to FEEL where those important beats are. And because you’re seeing the scale as a democracy where all the notes are of equal value, it is near impossible for you to know how to spontaneously be able to place the more important notes on the more important beats to create improvised jazz vocabulary.
Enter the bebop scale.
The only real ways around this problem are to transcribe and play with others a lot for many, many years and/or to switch up seven-note scales for the mythical, often misunderstood traditional bebop scale. Or both.
So what is the bebop scale?
Well it’s important to understand that it’s not like saying “the major scale”. There’s more than one. And what’s more important is understanding how and why it functions.
The purpose of a bebop scale is to properly align the harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic information the scale is offering in a way that all three elements work together to help tell the same story simultaneously. We do this by ensuring that the important harmonic chord tones fall on the important beats.
Here’s one example of what this might look like.
Students of Barry Harris will recognize this as the 6th diminished scale. It’s basically just a C major scale with one additional note added - G#, the #5/b6.
Look at what happens to the rhythmic alignment of the scale when we add this note. We are now outlining a C6 chord (1-3-5-6) on all the strong beats of the measure. We’re playing C on beat 1, E on beat 2, G on beat 3, and A on beat 4. All the non-C6 chord tone notes are being placed on the weak parts of the measure… the & of each beat. This interlocks the melodic elements of playing single-note lines with the harmonic elements of the chord tones that imply the C6 with the rhythmic elements of strong and weak beats within a measure.
This is a great way to start getting more scalar ideas to fit better within the jazz and bebop language. I definitely recommend shedding this scale and other traditional bebop scales if it’s a topic you’re not already familiar with.
But like the seven-note diatonic major, this scale isn’t without it’s downsides as well.
We’re sort of stuck within it. If you want to alter anything about it, skip a note, play a triplet figure, or a quarter note, it can throw the whole pattern off. Is there a way to take advantage of the benefits offered by the bebop scale while avoiding these potential downsides?
Enter the melodic triads bebop scale
By starting with a triad and adding notes to it we can create a similar “bebop scale” type of vibe, but one that will allow for more freedom within it both rhythmically for phrasing and in terms of density (or the amount of chromaticism present).
Check this out. Here’s our C major triad.
Think of these notes as like the structural columns holding up an apartment. In the traditional bebop scale we have four notes acting as the stable pillars - like the 1-3-5-6/C-E-G-A mentioned in the 6th diminished scale above. Here we only have three stable pillars. And we’re starting with zero additional notes. It’s like moving into an apartment. It’s completely empty. That allows us to come in and pick how much furniture we want to fill up the space with and where we want to put it.
Let’s start basic. Just a bed and a couch. If we are thinking of this scale as sitting on top of a C6 chord and we add in one passing note between each set of triad notes that best defines that harmony, we get this.
This is our “six note” melodic triads bebop scale. Because it contains six notes before we reach the octave. And notice that the C major triad notes stay on the strong beats. This isn’t the hippest or “jazziest” sounding scale yet. But it’s very spacious lyrically and strong harmonically and rhythmically. And because it’s built using a triad rather than 4-note chord, we can translate this into the upper structure of chords really easily. For example you could play this exact C major scale over a BbMaj7 chord and it would put the 13, the #11, and the 9 on the strong beats… tonicizing the upper structure of the chord. Try it over Dmin7 chord or an G7sus chord. We can play this scale over any harmony that can support a C major upper structure triad with this particular set of passing tones.
But that’s a different story.
Let’s stick with our basic, root structure, melodic triads bebop scale and learn to expand and contract this to create different levels of density and chromaticism… like adding more furniture into the apartment.
What if instead of putting one, single passing tone/tension note between each set of triad notes, we insert two. Then we end up with something like this.
Now we have our “nine note” melodic triads bebop scale.
This starts to beef up the density of the line, creates some chromatic sounds, and gives us the ability to phrase with three-note groupings… like triplets or the 8th - 16th - 16th rhythm notated above… yet we’re still able to hear and feel the structural columns provided by placing the C major triad notes on the strong beats. The rhythm, phrasing, and number of notes is different… but the structural integrity of the “bebop scale” remains intact.
Let’s try one more option. Let’s add in three passing notes between every set of triad notes.
This gives us our 12-note melodic triads bebop scale, and it’s getting us into some really dense, intensely chromatic lines. In fact we’re playing 11 of the 12 notes available to us in the chromatic scale. We’re skipping the b7 in this case and repeating one other note, depending on whether we’re ascending or descending. Yet, as with all of these examples, while the density, chromaticism, and rhythmic options available to us are changing throughout each of these variations, the overall structural integrity of the bebop scale idea (the coming together of harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic information into a singular scale) is maintained due to the fact that the triad notes are always kept on the strong beats of the measures, while the number of passing notes in-between those beats get altered.
Each of these scale variations is great to practice on their own. Run them like you would any other scale. But then don’t be afraid to experiment and try mixing and matching them. Put as much furniture as you want in the living room keep your bedroom minimalist. As long as the triads stay on the strong beats, you can mix and match how many passing tones you’re using to connect them. Now we have the harmonic/melodic/rhythmic integrity offered to us through bebop scale construction, freedom in our rhythmic phrasing, and the ability to expand and contract density from spacious and lyrical all the way up to intensely chromatic and fluid.
In this example, you can see I'm using one passing note, then three, then two, then three as I ascend my way through the C major triad. Playing this way allows for a greater variety of rhythmic option and density levels while never leaving behind the harmonic sound of C major I'm implying.
For more help understanding this type of scale construction, demonstration of me using it, practice ideas to get beyond "just" memorizing this scale as a position but actually getting it into your fingers and your vocabulary, AND how it can be used alongside other, simpler, melodic triads concepts to create lines, make sure you watch the video provided from our open office hours.