Q: Recently I’ve been struggling with scale degrees and chords. Right now I practice my scales using in 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, etc. However my problem is being able to name the notes of the scale because for the most part I have memorized scales based on patterns (like how playing E major is the same as A major, just on different strings). I’d like to know the best way to practice scales so that I have the notes memorized and what scale degree they are and be able to call them out quickly. I can do it slowly if I think about it, but I feel like this would be helpful in memorizing jazz tunes based on the chord numbers and patterns rather than just memorizing the chords themselves. What do you recommend?
A: I think that the absolute best way to put that kind of practice of use it in a musical relevant way is to buy a “Real Book” or use something like the iReal Pro app on your computer or mobile/tablet device and start practicing through changes.
There are a number of columns here at No Treble written by myself, as well as a number of great players and educators.
Here are a few:
- Practicing Chord Changes (by John Burr)
- Exploring New Ways to Practice Chord Changes on Bass
- Playing Through Changes with Arpeggios: Exercises for Bassists
Playing and memorizing scales and modes by themselves is a great way to get a feel for the shape, an ear for the sound and a thorough mapping of the tonality across the fretboard. However, it doesn’t help you discern what the different notes are or how it can all be applied when making music in real time.
Practicing through jazz changes is the key (at least, it was for me). Picking any kind of pattern (chord tones, 1234 of the appropriate scale, 1345, etc.) and forcing yourself to play it through shifting chord types and tonalities is a phenomenal way to turn that information and learn how to make music out of it. It’s also fantastic for building up that kind of muscle memory that you are asking about. You need to force yourself into a situation where you HAVE to think of what note to play.
If you decide to play 3457 from the appropriate scale for any chord while working through a tune, you will have to know what the “3” is without playing the scale from the root. It is a bit tedious at first but it pays off huge if you stick with it.
In addition, I didn’t really learn my fretboard and all of the notes until I learned to read music. It simply forced me to learn where all of my A’s were, for example. There is no choice but to work out the notes one by one, both in the notation and on your instrument. Start reading and do it for 15-30 minutes a day. After the initial speed bump in the learning curve, you will take off and be amazed at how much you’ve learned about your instrument and making music in a relatively short time.
I hope this helps!