Chord-scale theory for sceptics

Berklee College of Music, Boston MA, home of one of the best-known chord-scale methods. Photo by Tim Pierce – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Jazz Harmony Cube makes connections between chords and scales. So this is the dreaded chord-scale theory? I guess so. But bear with me.

The cube is based on the idea that a chord and a scale are the same kind of thing: a collection of pitches. We call it a chord if those pitches are sounded simultaneously. We call it a scale if they are spread out across a rhythm to make a melodic line.

Most jazz musicians since the 1950s seem to have found this a useful insight. But every cat who got seriously involved in chord-scale theory had their own take on it. There are now several big books, and several jazz education methods based on various versions of chord-scale theory. And this is where the controversy begins.

It is the teaching methods, not the theory itself, that have attracted the harshest criticism.

Like Forrest Wernick in this 2017 article, I believe the backlash against chord-scale methods is partly a problem of unrealistic expectations. One can understand the anger and disappointment of a student who has been told: this method will make you a brilliant improviser. And then it doesn’t.

Jazz educators are under pressure to turn students – who may have music training but sometimes little knowledge of jazz – into graduates ready to enter a tough and competitive professional world. Quick results are desired, and the early parts of a jazz course often concentrate on simple tricks for not sounding like a complete idiot.

“This system enables students to identify quickly a scale or mode that will offer the fewest ‘wrong notes’ against a given harmonic structure,” David Ake observed in his 2002 book Jazz Cultures. But he argued that drilling students in this approach had produced a generation of ‘pattern players’, and that too much stress on harmony had sidelined other important aspects of jazz, such as rhythmic feel.

So, approach any chord-scale training system with considerable caution, and don’t expect too much. 

No offence mate, but do you have to use that word?

The Jazz Harmony Cube is not tied to any educational system. I used the Berklee term ‘chordscale’ on the cube faces because it is compact and meaningful. It does not mean I am endorsing the Berklee method or any other. The word is not part of my daily vocabulary.

Here are a few of the questionable ideas that you may encounter on your chord-scale adventures. You can use the cube without buying into any of these.

“Every chord implies a scale.” Untrue. It depends which extensions are played. The simpler the chord, the more scale choices. The cube will always offer you as many choices as it can: one, two, four or as many as eight.

“There is a preferred, first-choice scale for every chord.” Several methods and theories make this claim. It is possibly a useful tactic for novice players, but it isn’t a law of nature. If you want to favour certain scales as part of your personal style, that is your business, not the cube’s. As far as the cube is concerned, all scale choices are equal.

“There is a default, first-choice scale for every chord symbol.” See above. But more than that: never assume you know what a composer or transcriber intended by a chord symbol. Chord symbols are hints, not formal specifications. The cube avoids misunderstandings by not using chord symbols at all. 

“Use the more dissonant versions of the dominant chord to create tension”. One of the hardiest of jazz harmony chestnuts. Seriously, this will not get you far. You need to recognise more dimensions in jazz harmony, more colours. You could almost say this is why the cube has to be three-dimensional. And what is this ‘dissonance’ thing? The chords do get a bit more chromatic towards the ‘ALT’ end of the cube, but in the right context they’re gonna sound sweet.

From Jamey Aebersold’s Jazz Handbook. Aebersold clearly recognises that scale choices exist, but simultaneously insists that a chord symbol such as C7b9 denotes a specific scale. Some students may find this confusing.

The cube does not pretend things are easier than they really are – particularly in relation to chord symbols. It can only help you to think about a chord once you have (1) decided the chord has dominant quality and (2) at least tentatively identified its root. Those are non-trivial tasks if you are transcribing a recording, or working from a score which shows only the ‘dots’. 

Even if you are working from another person’s transcription, you may not always agree with their chord spellings.

Surely you are OK if the composer has provided authoritative chord symbols? Not entirely. You still need to interpret them. Is the symbol telling you what you must play, what you can play, what you need not play, or what you must not play?

An example of ‘need not’ would be a G7#11 symbol at a point where the vocalist sings the #11. If you are comping, you should probably play chords compatible with the #11. But you are not necessarily helping the singer if you hit the #11 yourself. 

Before I wrote this I had to do some reading around chord-scale theory. In future articles I may explore some of the leading approaches, keeping a sharp eye for bullshit. I may even tackle the question every jazz musician has asked: if George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept was such a load of tosh, why did so many great musicians worship it?

LCC front cover
George Russell’s influential Lydian Chromatic Concept, known for its steep price, steep learning curve and a cover image which shouts ‘steepness ahead’.

In the course of this research I came across a forerunner of the Jazz Harmony Cube. The ‘chromatic cube’ is described in a 2010 book called Modalogy, written by Jeff Brent with Schell Barkley. It’s right there on the cover of the book. As far as I know, the chromatic cube was never realised as a physical object or developed as a practical tool for musicians.

Modalogy book front cover
A stylised image of the ‘chromatic cube’ appears on the front cover of Modalogy. As on the Jazz Harmony Cube, each corner represents a scale. However, the two cubes have different purposes and display slightly different sets of scales.

Both cubes use their eight corners to represent eight scales. And five of those scales are exact equivalents on the two cubes. I suspect the designers of both cubes were running up against the same constraints on what makes a good musical scale.  But we were trying to get to different places, and when we did hit a wall we sometimes turned in different directions.

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