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Where Jazz Theory Got It Wrong

POSTED ON October 23, 2015   |   25 Comments

The status quo of jazz education has transformed songbook standards into bizarre jumbles of church modes for decades. I want to give you an overview of the theory problem and how you can have greater success playing standard jazz repertoire.

Chord Scale Mess

The modal jazz revolution

Today’s jazz theory is rooted in chord/scale unity from George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept. This revolutionary concept influenced the writing of Miles Davis and Bill Evans on the iconic 1959 album Kind of Blue. (If you have never heard George Russell’s brilliant compositions, check out Manhattan from 1959 featuring John Coltrane, Bill Evans, John Hendricks, Art Farmer, and many other greats.)

The foundation of Russell’s concept is that a seven-note Lydian chord is more consonant than a seven-note Ionian (major scale) chord. Play these chords on the piano and experience the concept for yourself:

Ionian chord

Lydian chord

In the harmonic language of modal jazz, chords and scales are unified. C Lydian and CMaj13(#11) share the same seven tones. Modal chord/scale theory is the harmonic language of the tunes “Maiden Voyage,” “Milestones,” “So What,” “Impressions,” and “Little Sunflower.”

The theory problem

Before 1958, jazz was based on tonal harmony from the European classical tradition. Understanding and internalizing diatonic harmony, chord function, tension and release, and voice-leading will help you play music from the New Orleans, swing, and bebop eras.

George Russell’s concept was an abandonment of tonal harmony.

The Lydian Concept is based on the unity of chord and scale. When Miles saw how he could use the Concept, he said that if Bird were alive, this would kill him.

George Russell, The Making of Kind of Blue

The status quo of jazz education applies chord/scale theory to all jazz repertoire, even pieces written decades before modal jazz revolution. This theory doesn’t reflect how jazz musicians before 1958 approached improvisation, and it’s confusing for students.

To illustrate the problem, let’s look at the harmony of the first eight measures of Jerome Kern’s 1939 standard, “All the Things You Are”. Here is a tonal analysis:

all the things tonal

This piece opens with a diatonic progression in Ab major and modulates C major in measure six. The right hand voicings (with added 9ths for color) show linear voice leading through each of the four voices.

Here is an chord/scale analysis of the same passage:

This jumble of notes contains less useful information because it obscures chord function the voice-leading. Acknowledging that chords and scales aren’t actually unified, jazz education introduced “avoid tones.” George Russell’s theory is about unitythere are no “avoid tones” in modal jazz. When chords change twice per bar, a modal analysis is insanely complicated (see the graphic at the top of this post).

In measures 1-5, the chord tones change, but the tonic (scale degree 1) is Ab throughout. The first eight measures of “All the Things You Are” contain seven chords from two scales. In tonal music, the tonic names the scale, not the root of each chord! When approaching a tonal piece, instead of asking, “what scale do I play over this chord?” ask yourself, “what scale did this chord come from?”

My criticism is more than an academic argument. In my experience working with hundreds of young musicians, presenting tonal and modal harmony separately is more effective pedagogy than the status quo. Once you have mastered both harmonic languages, you can layer colorful modal sounds onto tonal progressions. If you want to dive deeper, my book The Living Jazz Tradition guides you through the basics of tonal harmony and modal harmony with integrated repertoire.

– ST

Also see my follow-up post, The Status Quo and the Purpose of Theory

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  • Lucky Widén

    Could be that the lydian mode is mor upward while you still use a low seventh going downward, it is more using seperate scales from other keys, playing whole scales for improvisation more then just phrases. There you go.

  • José Menezes

    Great article. Although I teach it and do it, it’s great to see it written… I’ll keep an eye on your blog. Thanks

  • Scooby

    I just watched a video where Alan Holdsworth talked about how he independently “figured out” music as a young player. He said he didn’t think of scales being root to root, but rather letting the confines of the guitar determine the range. In other words, on a C major scale the lowest note in that scale on guitar is an E. etc… He plays in a way that seems freer to me and I kinda feel that this is the point of the article. He also encouraged young musicians to develop their own way of learning music so that their voice would be unique. Great stuff! thanks!

    • Thanks Scooby–I’d love to check out that video of Holdsworth if it’s online.

      • Marcel Rocha

        Hi! I’ve found it here:
        Great article, by the way, I always thought this way!

        • Alex Strekal

          I’m a big fan of Allan’s, he’s in his own category really. One thing I want to say though, is that Allan is a highly intuitive musician who pretty much skipped over conventional theory, as far as I understand from what he says in interviews. His music is based more on 20th century harmony with lots of non-obvious shifting tonal centers. The chord-scale concept works really well for his music. It’s just that it doesn’t really apply to Autumn Leaves.

      • Scooby

        Hi Steve! Check it out.

  • Max Dible

    Based off your article, how would you justify how roman numerals are always related to the parent key (in some way or another) and since the resulting chord scale is based off the relationship to the given chord…therefore the scale is not existing outside of the realm of functional harmony.

    • Hi Max, I think I understand your questions.

      Roman numerals are related to a key by definition. Check out any resource about classical tonal harmony.

      Modes superimposed on to diatonic chords do exist in the realm of tonal harmony. Advanced players do it all the time, but that approach is an extra layer of complexity that overwhelms and confuses many less experienced players.


  • eschnack

    The chord scales + avoid notes concept was originally taught in arranging classes, so you could easily see what notes you had available for voicings during any given chord. In that context it makes a lot of sense. But at some point someone thought it’d be a good way to teach improvisation as well…

  • Alex Strekal

    What’s explained here is exactly why I’ve said for some years now that your average gutarist – especially one who has gotten their information on the internet – thinks they know what modes are for but really doesn’t. This is why I often say that the idea of scale-per-chord or mode-per-chord is a convoluted and even useless way of explaining what’s going on in most jazz, or most music in general for that matter.

    However, I was not under the impression that most serious jazz education wasn’t teaching people about functional harmony and targeting chord tones. The Lydian-chromatic concept is still useful, in context of non-functional harmony coming in, or when there are specific chords that may require mapping a mode to it just for that chord. But no one in their right mind tries to apply it to Autumn Leaves. That’s just out of context.

    The problem is when you have some youtube fusion efficianato telling beginning jazz players that chord-scales is how things work, before they understand what functional harmony is, so they think themselves into knots over what scale to play on each chord when it’s completely unnecessary to.

    • Hi Alex,
      I totally agree. I painted with a broad brush with the term “status quo” and posted a follow up yesterday.

      Serious jazz education is teaching functional harmony in colleges. But I’ve met hundreds of students, amateur players, and educators who do approach a tune like “Autumn Leaves” with chord/scale mapping through published materials and internet lessons.

      • Alex Strekal

        I blame it partly on the lazy culture of internet or youtube education. There is good info out there, but sometimes people who aren’t prepared for the information recieve it from an online tutorial by a teacher that is jumping the gun or presenting the information in a way that can unintentionally be misleading.

        I would consider myself a jazz intermediate, in that I look up to the masters and know I’m not there yet, but I have always had a pretty good grasp on the theory side of things.

        The difference between modal and tonal music is obvious to me, however I think guitar players in particular are often very confused about modes. They get mislead by the relative relationships into thinking it means doing chord-scales on tonal chord progressions. This is why I advocate introducing modes in parallel terms first, I.E. as altered versions of major or minor, without reference to relative chord movements but simplifying it to the concept of a drone.

  • Jason Long

    Great article Steve! Thanks. Here is my response to it on facebook –

    The problem with jazz education (in my view) is two fold –

    1) It attempts to standardize a creative human process where many different types of brains and logic techniques are involved. Each person conceptualizes the abstract different. Some are visual learners, some are logical learners, physical learners, aural learners, etc etc. (but it ALL works (and SWINGS) if nurtured properly) The human mind is an extraordinarily complex place – especially the musicians human mind. How do you standardize a method for playing jazz given these huge brain differences from student to student? (yes, this argument can be made for many other areas of study)

    2) IMO, (for example) far too many jazz students graduate jazz music school still thinking that there is only ONE type of minor 7th chord – and that minor 7th chord uses a dorian scale exclusively. There are three types of minor 7th chords that occur in a major key center, and the three of them couldn’t be any more distant from one another in how they are heard and responded to. I hear musicians constantly playing the dorian mode over the iii chord. They may very well be a product of modern jazz education. If you are doing that on purpose to create an effect, thats one thing, but if you are doing it because of incomplete education, thats a problem. This exemplifies the issue that Treseler is pointing out in the article. The chord/scale relationship method of teaching improvisation is faulty.

  • itamar

    Sensacional muito top

  • Boneman

    I know I’m late to this, but I just found this article and wanted to comment. This is pretty much exactly what I went through in learning to improvise–doing things like playing F Dorian over the first bar of “All the Things…” I always thought it sounded weird, that D natural, but hey, you play Dorian over a minor 7, so that’s what I did. Only much later did I realize that no, for this type of song, approach it in Ab Major and find the places where the tonal center of the song as a whole changes.

    My son is now in middle school jazz band, and I’m teaching him how to improvise. When we play a tune and he asks what to play, I tell him, “Well, this song is in C, so play in C. And on this chord, try to work in an F#; and on this one, a C# would be good; and over here, try to hit an Ab too.” That’s pretty much it: play in the key and look for the notes along the way that move the changes forward. Much less confusing for beginners that way, and gets them focused on playing music rather than scales.

    • Thanks Boneman! I agree–targeting non-diatonic chord tones is an accessible approach for playing changes (I touch on this in Chapter 4 in my book)

      When I work with beginners, I start with rhythm, call and response, and theme and variations (I posted some material to my blog) and save the harmony for much later.


  • pwlsax

    Theoretical jazz teaching arose because it reflected the bop revolution; because it made a teachable, tangible curriculum; and let’s not forget, because it required a systematic, mathematical mindset. Let’s not forget that a similar turn happened in concert music around WW2, and there, they were pretty open about the implications. Atonality and serialism caught on explicitly because they demanded the analytical take precedence over the subjective.

    It got to the point where modernist composers actually chose up sides based on whether they were straight or gay males. Atonality was privileged and progressive. Straight dudes were to embrace it. Tonality was foofy neo-romantic crap. It was ok for Aaron Copland (a gay guy) to explore, but not for the academy.

  • Andrew Bishko

    The shortcoming you speak of results from a common misunderstanding of LCC as a purely vertical form of analysis, and does not take into account the horizontal aspects delineated by George Russell. The LCC, as a unified field theory of music, can be used to describe any aspect of tonal gravity in all music that employs the 12 tone western chromatic system.

    That said, I think you are spot on by encouraging educators (especially those with limited knowledge of the LCC–of which, admittedly, much was left unrevealed by George Russell, who once he saw others like Jamie Aeborsold watering down his ideas and making a mint in the process, jealously guarded the depths of his thought–to teach the (horizontal) tonal harmony culture that is the operating understanding which produced and produces such a vast output of music.

    If we see the LCC as a unified field theory of music, then tonal harmony can be viewed as a cultural subset of that theory, much in the way that Newtonian physics can be seen as a subset of quantum physics.

    • Hi Andrew, Thanks for your response! I agree that the problem with jazz theory comes from Aebersold + co watering down the LCC.

      I actually studied LCC with George Russell at NEC, and I am familiar with the horizontal elements of the theory (but I’m no expert!). Our class generated all kinds of awesome music using LCC and I think George Russell’s contributions to jazz need to be more widely known (My friend Peter Kenagy wrote his dissertation on GR which you can download here: )

      I’m not sold on LCC as a unified theory of music. Even with instruction from George himself, I never saw the practical or theoretical benefit of learning a whole new vocabulary for analyzing tonal music.

      I think the LCC’s most important legacy is how Miles, Bill Evans, and Coltrane transformed the trajectory of modern jazz through the concept.

      Thanks again,
      – ST

  • Dave Henning

    Interesting article, Steve.

    I agree. I always felt that the root based approach was clumsy for lack of a better word and generated a more robotic pattern-oriented solo, which is something as a math-oriented guy, I had to fight.

    One exercise that I have all students do regardless of instrument is to do basic 3-7 and 7-3 voicings on the piano doing simple voice leading. (I’m sure others use the same. It’s not rocket science here.)

    It’s very simple:
    1. Turn on the metronome to as slow as is needed
    2. In the left hand, play roots for the duration of the chord. So, if it is four beats, play a whole note.
    3. In the right hand, play the 3rd and the 7th being careful to voice lead to the nearest spot on the piano.
    4. If the roots moves by a third, it is probably a good idea to move up the piano.
    5. Everything must be done in time. Slow is good. It gives the ears time to digest.

    This focuses the players ears on the critical guide tones and presents chords as a more horizontal than vertical event. It is also a decent way to develop some basic piano facility for horn players.

    (I didn’t come up through traditional university jazz education, so maybe this is old news.)

  • R.F.

    Testing …

  • Ray

    In functional harmony, a simple melody will outline the key center(s).
    It starts to gets confusing when you use a harmonically specific approach that address each chord, it gives us the impression that each chord is it’s own scale, or that melody is vertical.

    “Modes superimposed on to diatonic chords do exist in the realm of tonal harmony. Advanced players do it all the time, but that approach is an extra layer of complexity that overwhelms and confuses many less experienced players.”
    As I see it, If we insist on applying CST functionally, then one must understand voice leading, and the pitch hierarchy changes chord to chord. There is also a clear difference between the melodic and harmonic implications.

    In a melodic sense, the chord-scale would be thought of as chord tones (C E G B) and usually diatonic passing tones (D F A) that fall melodically between them in a hierarchy fashion. But that still doesn’t explain the remaining chromatic notes, or why one of the twelve tones is to be ‘avoided’. If a chord is being expressed horizontally, then the concept of vertical harmonic avoid notes is irrelevant, as It’s true role is an approach note.

    OTOH, in a vertical sense, the scale tones D,A are available tensions in a block chord, while the F is the avoid note. So I can see the CST+avoid note concept working harmonically, especially since we are not dealing with chromatic tones.
    But chords are rarely frozen in functional harmony, the whole point is to move forward.

    This is a very confusing area of study, and I intend to make some kind of peace with it in my lifetime.
    Your book looks very interesting to me.

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