Playing Changes Part 1: Thinking in Numbers

The Playing Changes series presents effective strategies for internalizing harmony and playing creative solos over jazz standards. If you are overwhelmed by jumbles of scales, chord symbols, licks, and patterns, these articles will help you cut through the noise.

This series presents and expands on concepts from my book, The Living Jazz Tradition: A Creative Guide to Improvisation and Harmony published by CMA Press.

The Living Jazz Tradition

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Index of Playing Changes articles

Thinking in Scale Degrees

Hearing and visualizing music in scale degrees is an essential process for creative musicians. The practice helps you:

  • Learn music by ear
  • Approach theory and harmony
  • Transcribe solos
  • Compose and arrange
  • Instantly transpose

When I lead workshops for large ensembles, teaching scale degrees helps me communicate with musicians who play instruments in different transpositions.

Here are three essential strategies:

1. Internalize Intervals

Each degree of a scale has its own color and tendencies. Internalizing the sound and character of each interval will help you learn music by ear and play emotionally powerful improvisations.

Begin by singing and playing intervals from the major scale with a drone (a sustained tone that accompanies a piece of music). You can download drone tracks from my book for free, and I highly recommend Marcia Sloane’s Cello Drones for Tuning and Improvisation. See my article, “Expand Your Ears and Creativity with Drones.”

You can sing with solfege or North Indian sargam syllables. Each syllable corresponds with a scale degree, which will help you internalize the character of each interval. The syllables end with vowels so they are easy to sing.

As you sing and play, listen to how some intervals resonate with the drone, and others are more dissonant. Feel how the dissonant tones pull toward the consonant tones.

Applying this concept to other modes is covered in chapters six and seven of The Living Jazz Tradition and will be the subject of future articles.

2. Scale Degree Maps

Teach yourself a familiar melody by ear. (See my article, “Getting off the Page: Play Music by Ear in 5 Steps.”)

Next, you need to identify the tonic (scale degree 1). Most folk melodies and standards end on the tonic. The pitches of the melody may reveal a key signature (remember, the song may be in a minor key). After spending time singing with drones, you will be able to intuitively sing “Do” along with a recording.

Then write out the scale degrees of the melody. Here are examples of scale degree maps:

“Row, Row, Row Your Boat”

1 1 1 2 3
3 2 3 4 5
8 8 8 5 5 5 3 3 3 1 1 1
5 4 3 2 1

“The Blues Walk” by Clifford Brown

8 8 6 5 1
8 8 6 5 4 b3 3 5 6 5
8 8 6 5 1
8 8 6 5 4 b3 3 5 6 5
5 b7 5 b7 5 b7 5 7 8

A scale degree map is only useful if you can hear the song in your head, because the notation doesn’t express rhythm or range.

3. Visualizing and Executing in 12 Keys

Having facility in 12 keys is a prerequisite for playing chord changes. If you struggle with unfamiliar keys signatures, this material can help you master them.

Begin by taking simple scale fragments and transpose into 12 keys with out writing anything down.

A few examples:

1 2 1
1 2 3
3 2 1
1 2 3 4 5 3 1

Transpose the fragments into 12 keys. You can transpose them up or down in half steps or around the circle of fifths (up in perfect fourths, C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, etc.).

Next, transpose simple melodies into 12 keys. Write down the scale degrees and transpose the melodies in your head. Don’t use standard notationthe objective is to strengthen your ears and visualization skills. If this is easy for you, transpose more challenging melodies or phrases you transcribed.

Internalizing and mastering this material makes decoding and interpreting chord symbols much easier.

Next in the series is “Playing Changes Part 2: Intro to Tonal Harmony.”

– ST

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