The Truth about Bebop Scales

Hey Improvisers,

If you’ve ever tried to learn to play jazz, you may have heard about bebop scales. They’re actually just regular scales with an added chromatic passing note in them. The Major Bebop Scale, for example, has an added #5 (or b6):

C Major Bebop Scale
C D E F G G# A B

So what’s the big deal about them? (You may ask.) They’re talked about a lot, and they’re often recommended as “essential” scales to learn.

I remember once teaching a jazz piano student who wanted to learn bebop. He had been practicing jazz piano for a few years, and I suggested that we go right to the source of bebop by analyzing a few Charlie Parker solos. After playing a transcription of Parker’s saxophone solo on “Blues For Alice,” we began studying Parker’s melodic language very closely. We saw that he used approach notes, enclosures, and a wonderfully varied sense of rhythmic phrasing, among other things.

After a while, however, my student became astonished. He asked, “Where are the bebop scales?” I explained that Parker didn’t really use bebop scales at all. Sure, he added chromatic passing tones to major and minor scales, but he liked to put these passing tones in various places in the scales, and varied which ones he used. He didn’t follow the “formula” that is used in these bebop scales. In fact, Parker and the other creators of the bebop style didn’t focus on scale. Rather, their music is chord-tone based with an awareness of the underlying tonal centers.

Wow – my student couldn’t believe it at first. He had heard so much about the importance of bebop scales during his first three years of attempting jazz piano that it had never occurred to him to ask if the beboppers actually used these scales or not. He had simply (and understandably) assumed that bebop scales were a huge part of bebop, and was shocked to discover that Parker didn’t use these scales.

Wow! What’s going on here?

Well, it seems to me that some later jazz musicians liked to put certain chromatic passing tones into their scalar passages and that a few teachers began helping their beginning jazz students get a sense of the jazz melodic language by learning these new scales, which they labelled “bebop.”

Since the internet has a way of magnifying these things way out of proportion, beginning and indeed some intermediate jazz musicians get a false sense of the importance of these scales. After a while, statements such as “you have to learn bebop scales to play bebop” begin to hold musicians back, because they take the place of a real study of the music itself.

Simply put: If you want to learn bebop, go directly to bebop. And along the way, learn everything that interests you, which may or may not include the so-called bebop scales. But don’t assume that they are an essential part of the bebop style. I studied for 4 years with the first-generation bebopper Billy Taylor and I took a lesson with Charlie Parker’s pianist, Walter Bishop Jr., in which we discussed the bebop style in detail. Neither of these beboppers ever mentioned the bebop scale.

Here’s a fuller explanation about this topic, with some musical demonstrations at the piano:

Piano Myth-Busting #4: “You have to learn bebop scales to play bebop”

Good luck with your music!


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