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I'm a noob music student and I recently asked a question here about the widespread use of a bVII chord in a scale where the seventh scale degree is vii°, and the general consensus in the many helpful answers was that scales are overemphasized in beginning music classes and books and cause more confusion than enlightenment, and that the differences between the minor scales (natural, melodic, harmonic) is largely artificial and doesn't represent music in the real world and I should escape the tyranny of scales and of being diatonic.

So what is a good way to do that?

As a beginning student I have the luxury of being able to self-direct my studies. I often doodle on my keyboard or DAW and make chords that sound good with a melody or in a progression. But I want a theoretical framework to know WHY or HOW these chords "work" and others don't, so I can build on that experience. I don't want to invent my own personal music theory - I want to draw on the theory and terminology that exists. So if I toss out or de-emphasise scales and diatonicity/chromaticity as organising principles, what's an alternative foundation I should try to focus on?

Should I de-emphasise different kinds of scales (major, minor, etc) but keep the concept of a scale so I have scale degrees, and use those in functional terms (e.g., Dominant, Predominant, Tonic, etc)? How should a beginning music student who wants to have a strong theoretical foundation start off?

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  • Scales themselves are simply different sets of notes set out in ascending and descending order. They can and do simply put together several notes which have certain uses together. There are many different 'scales', put together for all sorts of different purposes. It's what humans do - compartmentalise and pigeon-hole as much as they can. (Often in the hope that it will be helpful in some way to those who come behind). Does it work??? – Tim Feb 1 at 18:35
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    "...and that the differences between the minor scales (natural, melodic, harmonic) is largely artificial and doesn't represent music in the real world and I should escape the tyranny of scales and of being diatonic" This is very confusing to me. Are you saying that this is true, or that you perceive that others have promoted this idea to you in answers to your questions? I would disagree entirely. There is nothing artificial about the minor scales. – user50691 Feb 1 at 19:04
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    @ggcg - I think OP means that minor scales don't reflect reality in music. Therefore they're artificial, as in man-made - as actually, all scales are. – Tim Feb 1 at 19:08
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    It sounds to me like you are (1) creating your own theory based on what you think sounds good or not and (2) asking us to provide classic justification for it so you don't have to reinvent a wheel that you have already reinvented. It's not a fair question in this light. Scales, chords and harmony are interrelated. Throwing one out doesn't make the others more clear. And it seems what you are delving into is "Western Music Theory" so the diatonic scales will take a front seat. – user50691 Feb 1 at 19:08
  • @Tim, but what is the criterion for "reality"? That the notes came from harmonics like parts of the Just diatonic? Or that we really like to use these scales? One could argue that some of our diatonic patterns are less artificial than others. – user50691 Feb 1 at 19:10
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Only after we understand theory fully are we able to toss it aside in favor of a more fluid, holistic, flexible approach. The problem is that the primary way of achieving that later stage is by studying and learning theory, which means diving into all the rules and minutia. When experienced musicians encourage you to focus less on scales or theory, they may be taking for granted the extensive background knowledge and rich experience they already possess.

Here's my take: the mere existence of exceptions doesn't mean we should stop studying theory. Begin cataloging the exceptions, and you'll start to notice that the same ones recur. (For example, in the key of CMaj, Fmin-Bb7-CMaj is a turnaround.) Study the theory, but take note of the way it is and isn't applied faithfully according to the "rules." Think about the music in terms of scales, chords, etc. when you analyze. But when you encounter an exception that goes against theory, think about why it might work, whether you like how it sounds, and the ways in which it deviates from standard theory. That's a more productive way forward than trying to "fit" every exception into theory.

Over time, this type of analysis will enhance your understand of the theory itself (and its rules, etc.) as well as how it can be applied, bent, and abandoned. There are patterns in those exceptions, and perhaps those patterns could qualify as a 'deeper theory' of some sort. But at some point, too many descriptions can get in the way, and it's more helpful to just use the existing theory concepts and reflect on how they appear in practice.

In short, study scales, study songs, and study how they work together.

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I want a theoretical framework to know WHY or HOW these chords "work"

This question is often asked, and the answers vary. They might be something like, "because they have 2 notes in common" or "it borrows from such and such key or scale" or "it creates dissonance or consonance" or "it is expected/unexpected" or "there's a leading tone" or "it's a tritone substitution" or "it comes from the diminished scale" or "because blah blah on the circle of fifths" or "look at the steps in the voice leading", "the fifth is omitted", Etc. Check out Barry Harris, he talks about scales and/or chords having a love child, producing offspring... it gets a bit over my head. There are many possible perspectives and observations you can make, but usually none of them is the ultimate "why" answer for all intents and purposes. Several perspectives can be equally valid at the same time, depending on how you're used to looking at things.

If you can locate and reproduce a chord in relation to the then-prevailing tonic, then you know a lot already. If you can reproduce the same chord in other keys, you know even more. Is that not enough? Maybe not.

Why a chord "works" is not the right thing to ask. You should ask, what does it do and what other chords could you use to accomplish essentially the same things in that context. The answer to the "what does a chord do" question comes in the form of multiple perspective-dependent parameters or dimensions.

  • What does it do to my perception of other plausible intervals around the tonic at the moment?
  • Does it perhaps seem to even move the tonic?
  • To which role in terms of V (left) - I (center) - IV (right) would you reduce the chord's effect, if you had to substitute it with the most basic triads? Would that even be possible, or would something essential be lost in such a reduction?
  • If there's a V - I sort of motion going on, where would the target "I" be?
  • Where is the bass now?
  • What is the highest note?
  • What's the essence of the chord, does it feel like some inversion of a basic triad, and if so, is it a major, minor or diminished triad, and which inversion is it?
  • How's the voicing, the spacing of notes - is it open or closed, and what could you turn it to by moving one voice by one step in some direction?
  • Do I know this same pattern from somewhere else?
  • Could I turn this into a well-known progression with a few chord exchange operations, for example Am - Em - Dm - E --> Am - G - F - E (Hit the Road Jack).

Demanding all of that from a beginner feels very hard or impossible. Don't demand too much from yourself immediately, you have to be able to get on, get more experience. Learn more tunes, play them in different keys, even though you don't know all possible aspects and perspectives of analysis. Nobody knows all aspects. Somehow this reminds me of the question of an adult violin student complaining about the teacher not demanding all possible aspects of playing to be perfect before moving to the next piece. You just have to move on and accumulate more music. You'll remember something of each new chord and note. Maybe that there was a major chord on the major tonic's leading tone and it felt nice going to the tonic from there. Hey, this sounds like some Elvis Presley tune! Easy to recognize, easy to remember, easy to reproduce on the guitar and on the piano. I don't feel any need for anything more analytical to say about that chord.

The thing with harmony is, it's like the game of Go, which is often compared to Chess. In chess, each piece has its own particular abilities and ways of moving, and you use these differences for classifying each situation. But in Go - so I've heard - the role of a stone i.e. piece on the table can be fairly ambiguous. Is it an offensive or a defensive stone? Can it "do" anything at all? It depends on its position, and where other stones are relative to it. Maybe you recognize the pattern in advance, and then you can classify what's going on. In harmony it is the same. Sounding notes are like stones in Go: the plot of the game is built from the combination of notes and their relations with each other. There can be many simultaneously valid "explanations". For example, a B half-diminished chord can be seen as Bm7-5 or Dm6/B, and it is both at the same time. A G7 chord can be seen as almost a Bdim, and C9 can be seen as having a Gm triad, and an E half-diminished. You don't have to see all possible re-interpretations, or any of them. You know what notes there are in each chord, what notes you expected in your "current scale" and if the chord was against the expectations, maybe making a chromatic alteration, modal mixture or even a modulation. You don't have to get it "right". It's enough to be able to reason about the notes even on some very simple level. Your understanding of the game gets stronger by playing.

Instead of a theoretical framework, I offer you a practical one. Learn to play tunes as melody and backing chords, in different keys, and make improvised changes to both, to get a hands-on feel for what's happening. You need to play the game, not get stuck on some fancy theory about strategies.

For example, let's take this chord progression.

Am - Dm - G - Am - F - Dm - E - Am.

Play an improvised melody over that - even simply running scales or arpeggios up and down. Grope around, trying to feel where the walls are. Which scale notes seem to fit over each chord? On the first Am, can you play the so-called natural, harmonic and/or melodic minors? All of them or just one? How about on the Dm? On the G? Etc. How about on the E chord, does the E chord demand either an F or F# note in the melody, or could you freely choose either?

Let's take another one:

Am - Dm - G - Am - F - Dm - B7 - E7.

Can you feel what notes would fit over the B7 chord? How about if we make some changes:

Am - Bb - E7 - Am - F - Dm - B7 - E7 - Am6.

What happens to the scale possibilities over the Bb chord? How about the Am6, how does it change the scale?

Can you play the same chord sequences in other keys, relative to other tonics?

In this question's title you're asking for something less scale-centric, partly because of my complaining about harmonic minor. My complaint wasn't about thinking about scales as such, the problem with the harmonic minor thing was, you tried to fit it as a rigid unchangeable structure over entire chord progressions or songs, as if it was a mode. Thinking about a scale is OK, and it can be even essential, but the question should be, what could the scale be now. A single E major chord doesn't say anything about the F question: is it F or F#... or F##.

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First, let's have a look at what kind of knowledge make up music theory:

  • Science - basic results that relate to music that can be measured or observed in physics, maths or psychology.
  • Terminology and notation - ways of naming and notating things.
  • Stylistic norms and preferences - observations about patterns in music that have been observed over the ages in various cultures.

Then we have to consider that all these areas of musical knowledge are patchy. There's a limited amount of objective scientific knowledge that can help us understand 'how music works'. Our notation and terminology is something of an accident of history, and perhaps represents some musical ideas better than others. Stylistic norms and preferences have been observed and catalogued for some musical styles more extensively than they have for others.

Then consider that beginners' music theory is a simplification of this set of knowledge that is already patchy and incomplete. You will see that trying to use a basic or intermediate theory book as a foundation for your musical activities isn't going to work well - too much soft ground, too many sinkholes.

However, that doesn't mean that the ideas are invalid. For example, the fact that any given musical piece (or section thereof) probably has a home note, and a certain feel that comes from the recurring use of certain notes in relation to that note, usually is valid. So you can build your own observations around that idea. Just don't get too hung up on the idea that every piece you encounter is going to fit in one of the mental 'boxes' that you've already got.

Unfortunately, sometimes you do have to make your own theory up a little bit until such time as you happen across something in your theory studies that ties in with your own observations.

How do people put up with all this uncertainty and nebulousness? I think the answer is that most people approach music as a practical rather than theoretical pursuit. This works for most people in many other activities in life - if you want to play soccer, you're not unlikely to read three books about it first. Likewise for dance, or refreshing your summer wardrobe, or any number of other things. All of these do have an amount of formalized knowledge surrounding them, but... it's patchy. And so it is with music. More than anything, people tend to gravitate to what they like, and learn its nature through dint of repeatedly enjoying it!

I would say that if you really want a foundation: be a music historian and a musicologist, as well as just a musician. Look at how our ideas about music have changed over the past few hundred years, and how they vary across cultures. And why not be a scientist while you're at it - one of my favourite 'theory' books is The Science of Musical Sound (which I should probably re-read...)

But that sounds time consuming. if you want a more limited foundation, you could simply focus on an area of music that is more strongly 'theorized-about'. That could be 18th century classical music, or Jazz, for example. Just be prepared to find out that the not all the knowledge you learn in relation to a certain style of music will be generally applicable.

Or - you could just learn to play what you enjoy, take some time to read as much theory as you can, and take comfort in the fact that the human brain is optimized for 'messy' learning! You don't really need a foundation, or a unified approach.

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I have learnt first the modes (in secondary school) and the 3 minor scales, before knowing anything about functions.

I think this is a good plan. You can harmonize without problems different songs based on the different scales. So where is the problem?

Another question arises: how far the harmonic minor scale is diatonic. But I think questions like these are purely academic.

Interesting for discussion is the historical evolution of such phenomena like the leading tone that has been explained by Aaron in the other question.

So my answer here is: learning first songs based on the different scales and then harmonizing songs (piano or guitar) are going hand in hand. The synthesis of both approaches will be the most preferable.

How the functions are spelled and why has to be secondary.

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Let 'theory' grow from playing a wide range of music. So your first job is to become fluent with notation. Play music. Play gigs (if only! :=()

Play scales to develop fluency on your instrument. That's all.

Not everyone's a composer. That's OK. And improvisation is a very over-rated pastime.

Don't look for a Theory Of Everything.

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I'll try a different answer, but I don't want to change my first one to something completely different, because people already voted for it.

There's nothing wrong with thinking about scales. For a musician, scales are one of the most important tools. In the previous question you mention, you seemed to see the harmonic minor scale as some sort of a modal scale where you stay "diatonically" without having to make chromatic alterations - which is not how songs in minor keys are usually composed and played. Chromatic alterations are a very basic elementary tool, don't be afraid of them.

You have to realize that there are scales or "scales" in two different places:

(1) The composer or player is (usually) thinking about one or more scales, which he/she uses as toolsets or palettes to draw notes and chords from. Each scale offers a certain set of interval combinations.

(2) The listener hears the notes that the player is creating, and the listener's mind forms a perceived harmonic context, which consists of things like the tonic note, tonic chord, and other probable intervals around the tonic. It's more like a probability field, and it might have an "opinion" about all scale degrees, or only a part of a scale. And it's time-variant, it changes flexibly all the time according to what is heard.

For example, let's assume the following sequence of events

  • Player plays a strong C note. --> The listener's mind probably sets C as a tonic pitch, but the interval probabilities around the tonic are unclear, missing, ambiguous, in an "unknown" state. Or floating like in electronics. The listener's mind might do anything, for example imagine melodies, scales, chords, around and over the C note. Who knows.
  • Player plays an E note. --> The listener's mind considers that relative to the previous context, i.e. C being the tonic. Now the listener has a vague perception of perhaps something C majorish. The rest of the picture is left floating.
  • Player plays a C major chord. --> Now the listener's C major idea gets stronger.
  • Player plays a D major chord. --> The listener's mind feels that the fourth scale degree is an F sharp now. Some sense of expectation and tension starts to build.
  • Player plays a G7 chord. --> The listener's mind releases the fourth scale degree back to F natural, and now has a rather clear picture of a C major context, and feels that if the next chord is a C major, then all expectations would be fulfilled and we would be at rest.
  • Player plays a C minor chord. --> Surprise! The listener gets mixed feelings. The harmony arrived back to a center-of-balance point, tonic, but very unexpectedly, now the third scale degree forms a minor third with the tonic. Ok. The third scale degree is an E flat now. It could end here. What happened to the sixth and seventh scale degrees? Who knows. The listener doesn't hear those played now, so they're basically left floating. Maybe the listener's previous musical experiences put Ab and Bb there as slightly more probable choices than A and B.

Do you see what I'm trying to say here? You can select the harmonic minor scale as your note/interval palette and decide to create whatever harmony that scale has to offer. That's your arbitrary artistic choice. But if, as a listener, you hear a C minor chord, it is not "in harmonic minor".

When talking about jazz improvisation, an often heard question is, what scales could I use over this chord or this chord sequence. In other words they're asking for toolsets or palettes for tweaking the harmonic context. If you use a scale in such a way that it creates a harmonic context where the tonic stays bolted down in one place and the set of intervals around it stays in one static shape, with all scale degrees defined all the time and without any chromatic alterations happening at any point, then your playing is in a mode. A mode is a static harmonic shape.

When learning how music works and studying harmonic patterns, you should know how to test your own feelings and probe the harmonic context in your mind by playing notes and chords. Ask yourself, "how do I feel about the scale here". Thinking about scales is essential. But if a theory lesson talks about a scale like harmonic minor, it doesn't mean that that is the complete contents of your perceived harmonic context. It is a toolset that a composer or improviser can use in certain situations, when applicable. But even if the composer chooses to select notes from it, it doesn't mean that the scale gets transferred into the listener's mind as a complete monolithic entity.

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It's great that you are not limiting yourself to "being diatonic". But you are selling both music theory and scales short here.

Yes, scales are part of music theory, but they are not the only part. There's chromatic alteration, too --- of notes in a tune, of notes in a chord (major in stead of minor, or vice versa, and witness how many different sorts of seventh-chords there are), and even of root notes (a piece in a major key may borrow ♭III and ♭VI from the tonic minor, for example). These are all ways to escape the tyranny of being diatonic.

"Should I de-emphasise different kinds of scales (major, minor, etc) but keep the concept of a scale so I have scale degrees [...]?" Yes, that seems a good idea. The other ancient modes offer some variety: Lydian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Phrygian, for example. You ask why ♭VII is widespread in major keys. The Mixolydian mode offers one explanation; what is ♭VII in the conventional major is the ordinary VII in Mixolydian. (Harmony offers an additional explanation: ♭VII in major is IV of IV.)

"The differences between the minor scales (natural, melodic, harmonic) is largely artificial and doesn't represent music in the real world" I disagree. The harmonic minor scale, and the upward and downward melodic minor scales, were codified in order to describe music in the real world. Musicians felt that when a tune goes up "la ti do", the major 6th and 7th sound better than the minor 6th and 7th, even if the 3rd is minor, but the same does not apply when a tune goes down "ti la so". Hence the two melodic minor scales.

For even more variety, choose whether to make the 2nd degree major or minor, and similarly the 3rd, 6th and 7th, and whether to make the 4th degree perfect or (as in Lydian) augmented. Some combos of these choices give you the ancient modes again, but other combos give you a scale with augmented seconds and more minor seconds --- and that's OK!

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    You need to separate "music" as an observable phenomenon from commonly applied practice of making music among some group of people in some culture during some period of time. For some people somewhere, in some point in history, the different note sets for upward/downward movement were appropriate for the harmonic effects they wanted to achieve. But different styles and genres have emerged, where e.g. the melodic minor scale is used like a modal scale, in order to achieve different harmonic effects. Both styles are cultural conventions, not physical or biological laws of nature. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Feb 4 at 10:38
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Scales and chords are overrated.

I taught myself how to write music by listening to a lot of "tracker module" and MIDI music from the 1990s, then imitating the style in a modern digital audio workbench - without going through the standard "music theory" training.

I hardly use scales in my compositions. Chords are largely reserved for basslines and chiptune-style arpeggiation.

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