The Value Of Scales

Musicians in all walks of life seem to give far too much, or far too little time and attention to the playing of musical scales. Scales are NOT music,but a means for making music. They are predictable, orderly, and sequential, but do not contain the life force found in a strong melodic statement. Playing scales helps an instrumentalist gain facility and become familiar with his or her instrument and, the tonal "territory" of the key they happen to be in at that moment.

For example, think about this harmonic pattern: C E7 A7 D7 With a thorough knowledge of the scales that relate to these four chords, you could not only play a melody and some relevant variations but also move freely through the form and come to understand what the progression itself is all about; instead of "fishing" for random notes that might fit without clashing against the sound quality of each underlying harmony. While a deep familiarity with scales is desirable and commendable, it is still nothing more than a preparation for making music, and falls short of good melodic and rhythmic inventiveness. To use an analogy, each musical note is like a letter of the alphabet. A scale is like a group of letters arranged alphabetically, and a brief melodic string of perhaps one or two measures is like a word of phrase. A melodic statement of perhaps four or eight measures is like a sentence, therefore an entire song of perhaps 32 measures is like a paragraph. An arrangement of the song with a introduction, interlude(s).

and coda is like a short story or article. A full production of this song in which the length of performance is increases, with perhaps singing and/or dancing segments with a vocal chorus or elaborate choreography, is similar to a book that tells the whole story. A symphony based on the thematic material is like a large carefully thought of literary work.

The purpose of this analogy is to show the true position scales occupy in this hierarchy of musical values - they are purely and simply - our tonal alphabet. Overall, the use of scales in improvisation does not contribute much of musical value - except as an effect or coloration that may be desired at a particular moment. There is neither spontaneity nor creativity in playing a scale while improvising; there is no musical statement in a scale. Since it is a predetermined succession of sequentially-arranged tones it is, in a sense, no different than a "lick", or a 'run", or an arpeggio, or any musical fragment or device built upon a formula. A scale is preset, void of the living, emotional, and dynamic elements which are produced through spontaneity, creativity,imagination, and instanteous experimentation. A scale is a musical treadmill - it keeps moving, but it does not necessarily go anywhere - a kind of music spackle that can be used to fill up the cracks in a composition or improvisation.

Reducing a song down to its harmonic content and then further reducing it down to a set of scales based on that harmonic structure, can be a starting point for elementary improvisation - but it can never be the whole journey. Void of the rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic textures inherent in the thematic material, all songs become a series of scales. It is like looking at a person and seeing a numerical equation instead of a human force simultaneously possessing personality, intelligence, character, and ability. How depersonalized can you get? Scales are, in a way, musically depersonalized textures, lacking the elements that can bring the full musical picture into focus. In conclusion, of course, it i of great benefit for every musician to know the theory behind building scales and know how to play them on their instrument.

These two capabilities will help the guitarist improve their physical technique on the instrument and increase familiarity with the entire musical area surrounding each tonal center. But remember, playing scales is a preparation for making music; it cannot be the final product. In improvising the decision to play a scale or to draw something from it must be spontaneous, but without proper understanding of their true role in the improvisers's work kit that much sought after spontaneity will be the first thing to go out the window.

Playing scales is like a boxer punching a bag, skipping rope. and sparring with a partner. Making music - employing scales as the underlying alphabet to generate a limitless supply of melodic ideas - is like the main event of a boxing exhibition.

Mike Hayes is a guitar teacher, author, performing musician and session guitarist with over 30 years of professional experience. Find out more about how to learn guitar fast with his popular free ecourse, available at: =>

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