For about a year and a half in my later semesters at Berklee I worked as a music tutor in subjects such as theory, ear training, common practice composition/counterpoint, etc. I was also a “music tutoring supervisor” for while, leading training sessions on various topics within the Berklee curriculum. I was well versed in the entire Method, having talked at length with the Harmony department head Joe Mulholland and others about various minor details within the curriculum, and how they might be best taught to students struggling with the vast body of theoretical information being thrown at them. Usually, this boiled down to a discussion of what Berklee is known for within the Jazz education community – that infamous musical concept that everybody loves to hate, nobody seems to fully understand, and is misunderstood by most of the people teaching it.
I’m talking, of course, about chord scales.
The whole concept of chord scales came about in the 1950’s when George Russell was first trying to come up with a theoretical model for all of the advances within Jazz at the time. The idea that a 7-note vertical structure (a 13th chord) could be “flattened out” into a linear scale was revolutionary to the bebop mentality, and provided the basis for the Lydian Chromatic Concept. Russell’s specific approach has fallen out of favor pretty much everywhere except the New England Conservatory, but the idea of a separate scale being associated with every chord is now more a less a norm in music education, especially when discussing the diatonic modes. More often than not, figuring out the individual nuances of a tonal system of scales is thrown out the window for a more crude approach, simply suggesting “D-7 = D dorian, G7 = G mixolydian,” with little about how the notes of the specific scale relate to the chord, to the key and to each other.
Berklee has been ground zero for this approach since the 1970’s, and is often called “the scale factory” for this reason. Originally, Berklee’s chord scale method was an arranging device that gave a very sturdy platform for new arrangers and composers to use “mechanical voicings” such as drop 2, drop 2+4, etc. The corpus of information qualifying all of the scale choices soon was adopted in the Harmony department (theory department), and instead of just being taught to arrangers as a specific technique, it was soon being taught to everybody for the purpose of…I’m not quite sure. Why the complicated system of associating specific scales with diatonic chords, secondary dominants, extended dominants, substitute dominants, modal interchange chord, diminished chords and other miscellaneous tonal harmonic structures, and then identifying tensions, avoid notes and chord tones on each scale was never explained to me as a student, and as a student tutor, and I never could quite explain it to my students. Yes, by doing so, we could amass a list of ALL POSSIBLE NOTES on EVERY CHORD, but that’s kind of like expecting to come up with a list of all possible words you’re going to use in a book before you write it. As a consequence, a lot of improvisers come away from Berklee thinking that mastery of chord/scales is the holy grail in improvisation, which is somewhat akin to a writer thinking that memorizing the dictionary is how you get better at writing.
The thing that’s aggravating to me is that the whole Berklee chord scale system is sound from a theoretical perspective (when taught correctly). It does what it seeks to do – provide a categorization of all the notes that might define a given functional harmony on a chordal instrument. Avoid notes are notes that, for whatever reason, can obscure the harmony when used in a voicing. A voicing for II-7 can contain some or all the notes of the Dorian scale, with the exception of the 6th tone*. V7/III can contain some or all of the notes of the Mixolydian b9, #9, b13 scale, with the exception of the 4th tone. Etc. The problem is that it’s never contextualized in this manner, and instead is just offered as “theory” that needs to be learned. There’s this massive amount of information that just isn’t put in any relevant context outside of the arranging classroom. Joe Mulholland actually feels the same way about the curriculum, and there’s a big push to de-emphasize chord scales and instead emphasize composition and practice in the Harmony deparment. Still, without a “bigger picture” being attached to chord scales both at Berklee and elsewhere, there runs a huge risk in academia and elsewhere that aspiring musicians will come away with a very stilted improvisational and compositional approach that relies entirely on a memorized system of scales.
A good example of the danger of chord scale lies in how one person completely misinterpreted my video lesson on improvising in a diatonic context. Here’s an excerpt from a message they sent me…
You mentioned in a previous video that by mapping out the 3rds and 7ths of the diatonic/relative chords to the key, you’re providing a solid foundation to represent that key. As an example, if we’re in Cmaj7 and the tune starts on Dmin7 (D dorian) to G7 (G mixolydian) resolving to Cmaj7 (C Ionian)…are you saying that we should first consider what D dorian’s 3rd and 7th are and then determine how that relates to Cmaj7…yielding, in this case, C’s 4th and 1? In other words, would we play F lydian and C ionian OVER D dorian?
If that’s the case, do we run that mind-processing for every diatonic chord? Like…when the G7 comes, do we play the B Locrian and F lydian? Would we play B locrian and E Phrygian over that Cmaj7 resolve [if you don't want to just simply play a Cmaj7]?
Wow! This takes the whole thinking to a new level of obscurity. Not only thinking of one scale per chord, but MULTIPLE scales per chord, all of which contain the same notes. This of course, is not what I meant at all, and is a direct reflection of a lot of the misinformation and misunderstanding that is propagated when teaching chord scale theory, especially in the age of the internet. Berklee’s chord scale ideas are translated out into increasingly more and more irrelevant and confusing educational concepts, so much so that even in a book as well respected as the Jazz Theory book by Mark Levine, Levine suggests that over a simple minor II-V-I, the easiest possible improvisational method is thinking in terms of three melodic minor scales, two of which are unrelated to the tonic (F melodic minor, Ab melodic minor and C melodic minor in the key of C). This is supposed to be the best way to tackle a minor II-V!
I think the main problem with chord scale theory is that it takes away all focus from the key and the tonic of the harmony. Melodic development makes a extraordinary amount of sense when you’re focused on a single key center. Not so much when you’re thinking about a different tonic on every chord. Yes, it’s possible of course, but as an educational tool it’s just about worthless in creating a coherant melodic statement. It gives too much too quickly to the student, and the whole line of thinking is distilled into a worthless heap of information without context.
As a theoretical tool, I’ve completely embraced the Berklee chord/scale thinking. It makes sense. But so does lexicography. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be particularly informative in devising narrative structure.