Progress from Scales to Chord Changes

For many jazz students, making the leap to progress form scales to chord changes can be a real challenge. It is very common to start learning improvisation by using a key centre approach. And that’s usually the best way to start too, so it is absolutely a good idea. But this seems to be as far as a lot of students go, they get stuck with scales. Of course, for some people that might be enough, but what if a student wants to go further? How can students make the jump from soloing using scales to playing though chord changes?

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There are different ways

If you spend any time searching online, on YouTube, or talking to other jazz payers, you will hear all sorts of different ways of teaching and learning to play jazz. Some will carry on about ‘you can’t teach jazz’ and other nonsense: let’s ignore them, as that is just silly. You will also find all sorts of well-meaning and accurate information about licks and patterns and ‘jazz language’, but by itself and without other material to support it, such information is not very helpful. What do you do with it? How does just learning decontextualized licks help? It doesn’t really. so we need more. Jazz language is very important, but students need more than that and they need to learn it as part of a structured approach.

Then there are the arpeggios and guide tones people. Endless ‘jazz theory’, guide tones, extensions, modes, and so on. Most toxic are those who insist that students learn all of theory, the whole lot, before they can improvise. That is false, destructive, and absurd. So we can forget that too. All most people can expect from those approaches is tedious, unmusical exercises leading to frustration, stagnation, and quitting. 

What students need are approaches that are

  • based on principles of pedagogy
  • designed to build knowledge cumulatively, in a logical order
  • effective and helpful
  • mindful of students’ needs

In this post I discuss a video in which I show such an approach using the minor bebop scale as an example of a sequence of six exercises to help move students from scales to chord changes.

Key Centres

Beginner jazz improvisers should use a key centre approach to learning important basics and getting started in a way that lets them play musically and in-style right from the start. If you don’t know what that is yet, first read this post about a key centre approach to jazz improvisation. A key centre approach means using a single scale and its variations over whole chord progressions or sections of tunes. Using a major blues scale to improvise in any major or blues key is an example.

The Major Blues Scale
The Major Blues Scale

Chord Changes

Improvising ‘though chord changes‘ means using patterns that emphasise the notes from each individual chord in a chord progression. Changes is the jazz term for chord progression. Examples might include using arpeggios or guide tones (the 3rds and 7ths of each chord) to play lines in which a listener could hear the changes outlined.

Example of chord changes
Example of arpeggios and guide tones outlining chord changes

Two modes of the minor bebop scale

The procedure for helping students to step up from scales to chord changes in this example uses two modes of the minor bebop scale. The minor bebop scale is a minor scale spelled 1, 2, ?3, 4, 5, ?6, ?7, ?7, 8. In this case, ‘mode’ refers to playing all the notes of one octave of the scale starting on different degrees of the scale. For instance, the 1st mode of the scale is the normal way of playing it, from note 1 up to the same note an octave higher. The 2nd mode of the scale begins on note 2 (or the 2nd degree) and goes through all the notes in order up to the same note an octave higher. The illustrations below show a mode of the minor bebop scale starting on the 1st and another starting on the ?7.

Two modes of the minor bebop scale
Two modes of the minor bebop scale: 'even-notes' (top) & 'odd-notes' (bottom).

For moving from scales towards chord changes we can really just think of the minor bebop scale as having two modes: one starting on any ‘odd-numbered’ note in the scale (1, ?3, 5, ?7) and another mode that starts on any ‘even-numbered’ note in the scale (2, 4, ?6, ?7). It doesn’t matter if a student doesn’t fully understand any of this yet, just so long as they can follow the steps I describe below. Understanding will be useful later on in someone’s jazz journey and will probably come anyway but isn’t essential early on. Just knowing that a technique works is enough to begin with.

These two modes outline different chords

The odd-notes mode of the minor bebop scale outlines chord I by emphasising the notes from that chord. For example, in the key of G minor, the odd notes are G, B?, D, and F (a G minor 7 chord). The even notes of the G minor bebop scale outline chord V by emphasising the notes from that chord instead. The even notes are A, C, E?, and F? (a version of a D7 chord but also the same as an A diminished 7 chord). The even notes can also outline chord II, chord IV, and chord VI.

Odd notes in minor bebop scale form chord 1 (mi7)
Odd-number notes of the minor bebop scale form chord I, (minor 7)
Even notes in minor bebop scale form chord V (7 flat 9 or dim7)
Even-number notes of the minor bebop scale form chordVI, (dominant 7 flat 9)

To outline chord I, just emphasise the odd notes. To outine any or all of chords II, IV, V, or VI, just emphasise the even notes.

Exercises to progress from scales to chord changes

Exercises to progress from scales to chord changes
The video goes through the following steps in detail, including examples in notation and played on guitar. But to summarize, these are the steps:

Exercise 1: single notes

over a II-V-I chord progression in a minor key play an even note against II & V and an odd note against I. I suggest the leading note (?7) as the even and the tonic (1) as the odd. Play patterns and then improvise.

Single notes outlining II V I
Exercise 1: single notes

Exercise 2: groups of three notes

over the same minor II-V-I play three consecutive notes starting on an even notes and moving stepwise up or down over chords II & V. Do the same for chord I but starting from an odd note. I suggest ?7, 1, 2 for the even and 1, 2, ?3 for the odd. Practice patterns and then improvise.

Groups of three notes to emphasise chord changes

Exercise 3: groups of five notes

follow the same procedure, but use five-note groups. Practice patterns and then improvise.

Exercise 4: groups of nine notes

repeat the same procedure but now using all nine notes of the scale, still emphasising even notes for chords II & V and odd notes for chord I.

Exercise 5: change chords more quickly

repeat one or more of the previous steps but increase the rate of harmonic change. If you were using 1 bar each of II & V and 2 bars of I (a ‘long two-five’), halve the time spent on each chord (a ‘short two-five).

Exercise 6: practice changing keys

 repeat one or more of the previous steps but using chord progressions that change key. For example, II-V-I in A minor leading straight into II-V-I in G minor.


This is a useful technique and can help students progress for scales to chord changes following a logical sequence that cumulatively builds up their knowledge and skill while still improvising musically. The same or similar approaches can be used with other chords and scales too. I will highlight some of these in upcoming posts and videos.

Exercise 6 using three note groups in two keys to outline multi key chord changes.
Exercise 6: changing keys

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