On a Scale of 1 to 1000: How Many Do You Need To Know?

Disappointed Don sat on my piano bench, looking perplexed as to why he couldn’t manage to take a decent solo on C Jam Blues. “Should I be learning the modes of the ascending melodic minor scales in all 12 keys – is that what I need to do?” he asked. Truth be told, after several lessons my sweet and studious adult student still struggled with swinging the 2 note melody to the tune. Don poured over every jazz piano and music theory book he could get his hands on, took weekly lessons from myself plus another piano teacher in town, attended jazz workshops/adult music camps whenever he could. I think he had too many masters to try to follow, too much theory to sort out, too many scales buzzing around inside his head, which in turn caused his fingers to freeze at the keys! (It didn’t help that he spent more time reading a stack of books about jazz instead of actually practicing the piano.) By the end of his lessons Don would almost get the hang of articulating the melody to the blues.  He’d start to take a swinging solo if I limited his note choices to 2 or 3 notes, thereby causing him think more creatively about rhythms. But unfortunately, by next lesson he’d be back at square one, having excuses as to why he couldn’t get to the piano, with even more questions about the newest book he read on scales to use for improvisation.

I began to rethink this entire scale approach to jazz improvisation, and wonder just how necessary it is to practice scales in order to take a convincingly well improvised solo? Is there a minimum aspiring jazz musicians need to know?

Keep in mind, the whole “play this scale when improvising over that chord” concept was developed in hindsight after music theory scholars/historians looked back and analyzed the note choices great improvisers tended to use during their solos. (I seriously doubt sax player Charlie Parker was thinking when he encountered a concert C7 chord “I’m a Bebop musician, so now I’ll improvise with the C Lydian Dominant Scale and sure hope Bud at the keys will turn that chord into a C13(#11) to back me up…” Bird would have just intuited what sounded right for him to play faster than you can say “Cthirteensharpeleventh“.

However, since music theory teachers like to authorize, analyze, and categorize, we now have books and internet tutorials that advise us which scale to use over what chord. Personally as an educator, I love discussing music theory, chord/scale choices, and have written about using certain scales in my own improvisation books. But sometimes being too cerebral about scales can trip a soloist up, and take away the spontaneity of improvising.  Teachers of jazz may give advice that runs the the whole spectrum from “practice all types of scales and patterns transposed to every key, transcribe solos from the great artists, learn how to use approach tones and goal notes”, contrasted by others who may insist, “Nobody needs all that! Just listen and use your ear because any note in jazz works”. Who’s right?

This conflicting information must be confusing to the overwhelmed jazz student, who may wonder if they need to follow every music educator, author, or admired performer’s advice. Should they  learn “all” their scales and patterns applied methodically to all 12 keys first, well before they can even dream about sounding credible while improvising? The easily intimidated student (who may be a talented classical pianist), might freeze when they hear the words “just use your ear” because they don’t know how to “just listen” to the music, absorb it instantly, or where to begin applying what they’ve heard towards their own improvised solos! These students may retreat to their comfort zone of sticking to the written notes, assuming they “don’t have what it takes” to play jazz, and tell themselves they can’t possibly learn to improvise, thereby giving up on it prematurely.

Back to the question, “Who’s right?” Perhaps a reasonable combination of both approaches would be helpful, emphasizing one school of thought a bit more than the other, depending on the individual student’s most productive way to learn. Now let’s get back to the subject of scales:

The Classical Approach To Practicing Scales

When I majored in Piano Performance at UCSB all music students were required to learn 4 standard categories of scales: The Major Scale plus 3 types of minor scales –  mainly for performers to gain facility on our instruments so our fingers could fly over scales/runs when we encountered them in classical music passages. Every six weeks we had “piano juries” where we nervously sat in a crowded room with the music department head plus all the piano teachers, who would ask us to play a scale in a certain key a very specific way. We were expected to know the following in all 12 keys:

THE MAJOR SCALE (In octaves, 3rds, 6ths, 10ths, & contrary motion, both as eighth notes, triplets, 16th notes: 2, 3, & 4 octaves up and down the keyboard)

Additionally know these 3 minor scales all keys, same treatments as above:




(God forbid your piano teacher would ask for C# Melodic Minor Scale in 6ths, 4 octaves up and down the piano, which most of us skipped practicing…)

During Music Theory Class we also briefly touched on The Greek Modes (AKA Ancient – Early – Old – or simply called the Church Modes). The concept is easy to grasp on keyboard starting on the key note “C” going up the white keys, and a bit more challenging thinking in keys like “Gb”. For a more in depth explanation check out my article: Explaining The Greek Modes: https://debbiedenkemusic.com/2020/02/26/explaining-the-greek-modes/

The Jazz Approach To Practicing Scales

While classical pianists practice scales mainly to keep their fingers nimble, jazz musicians additionally learn scales so they’ll know a good sounding series of notes to select while improvising over certain chords. By this point I thought I was pretty scale savvy –  after all I knew The Major Scale in 12 keys, 3 Minor Scales for classical music, and a bit about the Greek Modes, of which jazz musicians concentrate mainly on 3 of them. There’s a lot of talk in jazz theory about the common “ii – V – I progression“, meaning chords which are based on the second, fifth, and first degrees of a major scale. Take the key of C for example: The ii chord is Dmi7, the V7 is G7, and the I chord is Cma7. There is a suggested Greek name for each mode (scale) to use for playing over the following chords:

Dmi7…….D Dorian (D E F G A B C D)

G7……….. G Mixolydian (G A B C D E F G)

Cma7……C Ionian AKA C Major (C D E F G A B C)

Now wait just a second!!  Isn’t D Dorian really another type of minor scale? Yes, but it’s a different one from the 3 classical ones traditional university and conservatory music majors study! The Dorian minor is more common in jazz for two reasons: More compositions are set in major keys than minor keys. Often when you see a minor 7th chord in jazz standards or Great American Songbook tunes it functions as a iim7 chord. Additionally there was a period in jazz during the late 1950s early 1960s called Modal Jazz, made famous by musicians like Miles Davis & John Coltrane, who explored improvising over long stretches of the Dorian mode.

Astute observers may notice that the above modes use all the same notes as the parent scale C major, just with different names and starting positions.

OK, so we now have about 6-10 scales to know in all 12 keys (up to 120 total) – are there any more? Yes, there’s a very important one! It’s called The Blues Scale, which originated from Africa meeting America, getting that “inbetween the cracks” sound you can make with the human voice or by bending notes on guitar strings. The Blues Scale is important to know whether playing the blues, jazz, rock/pop, Gershwin and much contemporary music.

The 6 note Blues Scale is created (compared to a major scale) by starting with the root, adding a lowered 3rd, 4th, lowered 5th, natural 5th, and lowered 7th.

The C Blues Scale: C Eb F Gb G Bb C 

Are there any more scales? Yes, you bet! There are 3 recognized types of 5 note Pentatonic Scales: Major, Minor, and Chinese, various ethnic/cultural ones (including 3 Jewish Prayer Modes, Hawaiian, Arabic, Japanese, Spanish, Byzantine, Hungarian, Gypsy scales)*, 2 Whole Tone Scales, The Altered Scale, a few types of Diminished Scales, Lydian Dominant, Harmonic Major and Double Harmonic Major and a 7 note Blues Scale, just to name some that come to mind. In his 1988 book How To Play Bebop, jazz educator David Baker named a fistful of 8 note scales he and pianist Barry Harris built their teaching concepts around, called The Bebop Scales**.  And what the heck – let’s not forget the 12 note Chromatic Scale to end all scales! (Really not the final scale, since you can get extra note choices if your piano is out of tune, you study a culture with a different tuning system, play experimental music, or are able to think in quarter tones like singer/musician Jacob Collier). It’s mind boggling!!

Fortunately, you don’t have to learn all of the above scales in order to improvise convincingly! For those who’d like a little more guidance than “just use your ear” the following suggestions will help your solo sound clearly “in the pocket”:

1. Learn to improvise by playing around with the tune’s melody.

2. Learn to arpeggiate all chord tones in a tune.

3. Next, if you still want to explore using scales, learn when it might be effective to apply a scale based melodic idea, toss off a flashy run or pattern. This works especially well when a family of chords stretch out for a while remaining close to one related key center. There are often 2-3 good scale options to choose from, depending on the era/style of the tune, where the chord fits in the piece of music, and the player’s personal preference.

Improvisation is like flying through the air without a safety net – It takes desire, courage, practice, experimentation, perseverence, plus the ability to listen to do it well. Don’t be discouraged. When first getting started musicians go through a stage of playing “off” sounding note choices, similar to how we must pull the weeds out of our garden as it grows. The weeds become less frequent as we get better at cultivating our improvisation styles over time. I hope you enjoy the process, as your solos start to take off and fly!

In conclusion, the improviser doesn’t necessarily need to know any scales, but practicing them can give a musician dexterity plus additional ideas to play with. There’s a plethora of scales out there! I’d like to simplify and suggest the two best scale types to learn for improvisation: The Major Scale (because we compare all other scales to this one, including the Greek Modes), and the Blues Scale (because of its unique structure, so important to jazz and modern music). My book/audio methods The Aspiring Jazz Pianist and Amazing Phrasing – Keyboard have exercises exploring the blues scales, found on my Amazon Author Page:  https://www.amazon.com/author/debbiedenkemusic

*If after reading all this, you still are obsessed with scales, check out this article and click the category “Exotic Scales” https://www.pianoscales.org/

** For more on Bebop Scales read: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bebop_scale 

Block Chords (Locked Hands Style) vs Spread Chords: How Pianists Create Them

There are certain types of rich chord techniques the jazz pianist ought to have under their fingers in a piano/bass/drums or larger group setting. Both Block and Spread Chords may be used for a full sounding effect during the melody of certain tunes. Additionally, these styles may be used to build intensity during a piano solo, or culminating in impressive spread chords at the solo’s highpoint. Continue reading “Block Chords (Locked Hands Style) vs Spread Chords: How Pianists Create Them”

In A Sentimental Mood: Ways To Harmonize

Fun Fact: The gorgeous Duke Ellington composition In A Sentimental Mood begins with an ascending melody formed from a pentatonic scale. These same pickup notes (F,  G,  A,  C,  D,  F,  G) could also lead into the Gershwin classic Someone To Watch Over Me, but would land on another starting chord and go into a whole different tune altogether. (See Idea #29 “Chromatic Pickups”, notated on page 44 of my book Amazing Phrasing-Keyboard, found here): https://www.amazon.com/author/debbiedenkemusic

The following solo piano arrangement of Duke Ellington’s ballad is in the standard key, with an improvised salute to Leon Russell’s A Song For You nestled inside. Both pieces use similar chords in the key of D minor/F major.  I used contrary motion to harmonize the opening phrase in various ways, plus you can see additional ideas from the “birds eye view” of my hands on the piano keys. Find an explanation of certain techniques included below the video. Click link to watch on YouTube: https://youtu.be/cHzp5ZPFnYI  

0:05-0:10 LH plays contrary motion with single notes

0:10-0:18 See LH Easy Tip #1 where the bottom note of a minor triad moves down in the following video:

0:39-0:43 LH Contrary motion starts on Ab7 moving down to Dm

1:16 Bridge begins in key of Db

1:46-1:50 LH Contrary motion starts on Bm7(b5) down to F

1:57-2:03 Easy Tip #2 moving 5th used on Gm chord

A7 (b9) transition into new tune

2:34 A Song For You easy tip #1

3:46 Back into Bridge of In A Sentimental Mood

The ending moves the opening phrase of 6 notes in keys:

Ab,  F,  D, and ends in B (roots move down by minor 3rds)

12 Key Improvisation Ideas For Piano: Just 1 Scale 7 Notes!

K-Pop, Early Classical Music, Contemporary Christian Praise Hymns, Folk Tunes, New Age Piano, Country & Western Music: When it comes to improvisation, what do these genres have in common?  Hint: Musicians will often sound “right in the pocket” by creating solos made up of just 7 notes (using only 1 scale) over the entire tune!

For the above genres of music (including certain even eighth note Jazz & Gospel styles), the 7 notes of the major key center scale work well for improvising over the whole piece. It’s an easy concept to keep in mind that may enhance your solos (without having to think of too many confusing options), so you can focus on building nice melodic lines with rhythmic variety. When we build solos upon one scale it’s called playing diatonically – which can sound good, provided the tune’s harmony doesn’t stray far from the home key.

Pianists, keyboardists, and guitarists also have the advantage of being able to build chords diatonically by combining notes built across a scale. In the following video tutorial I’ll show you how to do just that by using the D major scale – the key center of the K-Pop hit Euphoria – sung by 정국  Jungkook of the popular South Korean boy band BTS. Watch how the entire music video (harmonic devices are expained above the bird’s eye view of my hands on the keyboard, followed by all scale and chord building exercise examples), is created with just these 7 notes: D E F# G A B C#:

The 12+ ideas to explore vary from easy to challenging, and are time-stamped  – see the video’s description box (visable underneath on YouTube).

If you want to hear Jungkook singing in the official BTS music videos which inspired my Euphoria Piano Cover Jam plus this Tutorial, check out this 3 chord version (G  A  B-) https://youtu.be/MA6UBcKmeEk

You may also want to check out this Euphoria Piano Version (Jungkook vocals with piano accompaniment) that uses more chord variety (All still related to the key of D major): https://youtu.be/jZtZkdhmceg

Subscribe to my official YouTube Channel for more easy piano arranging improvisation tips!  https://www.youtube.com/c/DebbieDenke

And if you’d like to have something tangible to put on your piano while you practice/listen along, find all 3 of my piano improvisation book/audio methods (The Aspiring Jazz Pianist, Amazing Phrasing – Keyboard, The Complete Church Pianist) see “Books” on my website or go here to order: https://www.amazon.com/author/debbiedenkemusic

Hope you have fun exploring the key of D like I did! – DD

Music Game #3: Playtime For Traditional Piano Teacher/Student

Piano Teachers: Want to play a fun new game that builds your student’s performance skills and practical knowledge of important music concepts? Try Music Game #3: Playtime For Traditional Piano Teacher/Studentdesigned for classical piano teachers with younger intermediate-level private students in mind. This game includes several practical ideas which pianists in the real world are expected to know, but often get overlooked during traditional music lessons. (The preceding 2 articles – Music Game #2 : “Happy Memories Retirement Home” and Music Game #1: “TipJar” – are games geared for high school-aged through older adult music students who have acquired more of a jazz/pop repertoire.)

In order to play any of these games, the student will need about a dozen pieces they can play reasonably well, either with or without the music.  This particular version could be beneficial if the student knows some basic music theory – key signatures for example – and terms used in classical music (tempo and expression markings). If not, this game would be a good vehicle to teach those concepts with teacher assisting as the student plays along. Remember to keep things playful, light and fun! Having handy access to notebooks, sheet music or a music book is fine too. Teachers will want to keep in mind the pieces each private student has studied in order to ask for appropriate “requests”. This helps ensure the most enjoyment from the game! 

During Game #3 the student pretends they are a paid actor playing the part of a pianist on a movie set, or filming a short TikTok video. Let’s pretend the student/actor gets a salary just for being on time acting the part, but may earn extra incentives/rewards for playing the piano convincingly well. The music teacher acts as the movie/video director and tells the student/actor to play certain  requests. The actor earns virtual “candy” or “stickers” if they play the director’s request. (Teachers can hand out real candy or stickers at their discretion of course, but just don’t offer to pay the child’s dental bills in case they score really high!)

10 Pieces of “Candy” are earned if actor/pianist plays the director’s request all the way through without restarting, making excuses or apologizing. Plus  actior/pianist must display an attitude of confidence – even when they make a few mistakes.

5 “Stickers” earned for attempting to play the request, but the result showed obvious struggles needing much more rehearsal and practice.

0 rewards earned for refusing to even attempt the directed request unless they promise to have it ready by next week’s lesson, in which case the teacher can give them 1 “sticker” for a sincere promise! When lesson time is up, the teacher/director totals the number of rewards, compares them with a potential 100% score of earnings. (For example, if there were 5 directions given during the half hour lesson, the highest possible score would be 50 “pieces of candy”. If the student earned 30 pieces of candy and 11 stickers they could keep trying to raise their score during future lessons.)

Below is a list of possible requests the teacher could ask of their student, depending on what they’ve learned during their lessons. I’ve included some very practical suggestions traditional piano teachers don’t normally teach, but are poplular requests in the real world: Playing for dancing, weddings, accompanying singers, keeping time to a steady beat for group practice, improvising to fill time, picking out a beloved hymn by ear, and the most popular song request that earns nice tips: Happy Birthday to You!

  1. Play music by a specific composer (Debussy? Chopin? Beethoven?)
  2. Play something in a minor key
  3. Play in a specified key of director’s choosing: This may include a scale, chord exercise, or piece of music in a key other than C major
  4. Play the newest or most recent tune you’ve learned
  5. Play the oldest tune you can think of (This may be the first piano piece ever learned, or something that was composed long ago)
  6. Play a music piece in 4/4 time (Moderato or medium tempo)
  7. Play a tune in 3/4 , 6/8 or changing tempo & meter (Chopin Waltz? Gigue?)
  8. Play a very slow tune (Largo, Andante, ballad tempo)
  9. Play the quickest tempo you can handle (Allegretto, Presto, Vivace,)
  10. Play music written for dance (March, Tango, or Tchaikovsky ballet selection?)
  11. Play a sad song, or a tune that evokes emotional release
  12. Play Happy Birthday To You (Key of “F“- roll a C7 arpeggio to give 1st pitch)
  13. Play a tune from a specific era (Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Impressionistic)
  14. Play the piano accompaniment to a Song (Shubert Lieder, Italian Art Song, Great American Songbook classic tune)
  15. Play a tune that has a key change (This could be a piece in Sonata Form or a 32 bar standard AABA piece that goes to a new key at the bridge)
  16. Play a tune with no more than 3 chords (Afro Cuban Montuno, early Mozart, Country tune, Children’s Song or a 12 Bar Blues)
  17. Pick out the melody to Amazing Grace by ear on just the black keys
  18. Improvise using just the black keys (you can’t go wrong with those 5 notes)
  19. Play a tune suitable for a wedding
  20. Play a piece in time to a metronome or with a play-along track

Do you have any to add to this list? Please reply in the comments below!

Find music video tutorials here:  https://www.youtube.com/c/DebbieDenke


Music Game #2: Happy Memories Retirement Home (Playtime for Piano Teacher & Student)

Are you ready to play The “Home” Game? Truth be told, many music students, hobbyists, and professionals bring on the smiles playing for audiences in retirement homes. The power of music can be both healing and comforting. Famous singer Tony Bennett has been in the news of late as we witness him suffering Alzheimers disease, yet to see his face light up as he sings with amazing recall is incredibly inspiring. Aspiring musicians of all ages can test drive their upcoming concert material in front of receptive senior audiences. Teen piano students get not only performance experience, but may earn high school community service credit by playing in retirement homes. Continue reading “Music Game #2: Happy Memories Retirement Home (Playtime for Piano Teacher & Student)”

Music Game #1: “Tip Jar” (Playtime For Teacher & Piano Student)

Feeling slightly “under the weather” but still wanting to teach, I asked 2 adult jazz piano students to meet online for lessons. Educators know that teaching over the internet requires extra energy to communicate, and I was a bit short of breath. What valuable lessons could I give my inquisitive students that would keep their fingers busy while I listened, hydrated,  and encouraged them, with minimal talking on my part? I took a couple hits off my inhaler and came up with a “game plan” (modeled after real life situations I’ve had as a performer), and tested it out on my students. Together we had a good deal of fun playing these online socially safe music games. Continue reading “Music Game #1: “Tip Jar” (Playtime For Teacher & Piano Student)”

Notes To Choose For a 12 Bar Blues (Easy RH Improvisation Tips)

By popular request I filmed this tutorial exploring my easy go-to ideas a pianist may play over a medium-up tempo jazz blues in the key of F:

The original tutorial shown below was meant to be simply a lesson on a LH device called The Bud Powell Shell. Many of you then asked if I could share what RH “licks” I was using on my video, Improvising 28 Bars of Blues.  Continue reading “Notes To Choose For a 12 Bar Blues (Easy RH Improvisation Tips)”

Big Ideas For Small Hands: How To Write a Full Sounding Piano Arrangement

Let’s take the lovely ballad Skylark (by Johnny Mercer/Hoagy Carmichael), and learn how to enhance a ballad’s melody with beautiful chords and a foundational bass line. In this video observe how I took a chart from an old fakebook and updated some chords more to my liking, a process called reharmonization:

Continue reading “Big Ideas For Small Hands: How To Write a Full Sounding Piano Arrangement”

Growing Up Around A Piano: Memories of My Brother

Frank Denton Denke (6/17/1934 – 1/29/2021)

I didn’t get the opportunity to ‘grow up’ with my big brother Denton and oldest sister Diane, since these first born 2 siblings had already left the nest. Our mother Virginia (singing in the photo) behind our father Frank R. Denke (playing the piano) really spread the 4 of us out in age: My brother was born about a year after our parents married, followed by my sister Diane (not pictured) a few years later. 10 years after Diane my sister Connie was born (the teen girl singing), and 12 years later I came along. I’m the little girl in this newspaper article, looking up at her big brother, who planned to leave for the following 3 years doing Catholic Charity work as a teacher in Chile. Continue reading “Growing Up Around A Piano: Memories of My Brother”