One can spend an enormous amount of time playing melodies "in" the tonic. For example if you are in A major, you might favor A major or A lydian. However, there is a term called "playing outside" in jazz which means you play notes "outside" of the tonic. These would allow one to play anything BUT A major - to a certain extent.

Some musicians are famous for playing out (Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Scofield for our guitarists). Even if it is only for a couple bars during a solo section, the effect is quite awesome. For a moment, the musician seems to make everyone forget the tonic until he/she goes back to playing inside.

Playing inside.

Playing outside.

Playing inside.

The audience: Woah, what just happened?

How can I become better at "playing out"? What are some approaches musicians take to feel comfortable playing notes outside of the tonic, but at the same time make the listener feel comfortable with the musical idea?


4 Answers 4


The pentatonic scale is a great vehicle for moving outside. It has a very clear structure and sound which the listener is familiar with. Due to its simplicity and familiarity, you can get away with playing it, even if it does not fit the harmony in a traditional sense.

The first thing I experimented with when I got into playing outside was "side-stepping", i.e. shifting the pentatonic scale up or down by a half-step. Here I think it's important to avoid the most tempting thing, which is simply repeat a phrase a half step lower or higher. Instead, what I practiced was moving down when I actually played the pentatonic scale half a tone higher, and moving up when I used the scale half a tone lower. To give a very simple example, if you play in C major pentatonic, instead of playing

C D E (inside) C# D# E# (outside)

I would try something like

C D E (inside) D# C# A# (outside)

The most important thing is the way you get outside and - probably even more important - the way you get back inside. I've come to the conclusion that as long as you get these two steps right, anything goes.

Other pentatonic scales that I've found to work well are the scales a minor third up, and a tritone up (or down, which is the same). But just experiment and trust your ears.

I've transcribed (guitar tabs) and played an example of Chick Corea playing outside here. In this example, he also uses the pentatonic scale to go outside.

Another good tool for playing outside is the whole-tone scale. It also has an obvious inherent logic to it, which helps make your lines sound smooth and musical, even though the individual notes may be totally off. One example I always teach my (more advanced) students is the use of the whole tone scale when playing in dorian. Let's say we're in C dorian, then you'd have the following whole tone sequence inside the scale:

Eb F G A

The trick is now to continue this sequence using the whole tone scale, which means going outside of C dorian:

Eb F G A B C# D#/Eb

and with the last note (D#/Eb) we're magically back inside C dorian.

There are many more interesting concepts for playing outside, but I think the only way to really learn it is to analyze and learn solos of good players who use this concept, and to develop your ears, so you can hear and find on your instrument what you want to play.


For me, the most important tool when it comes to the outside concept is the Jazz Minor scale. The jazz minor scale is essentially the ascending melodic minor scale. (In the classical world, this scale is different depending on whether you are ascending or descending the scale, but in a jazz context it remains the same.

Study the jazz minor scale in all positions. The real importance lies in utilizing the jazz minor scale as a tool to open your ears up to new sounds and "out" harmonies. Simply playing the jazz minor scale in the key of A for example, over an A chord, will generate an out sound by itself, since it has a major 7th, major 6th, and minor 3rd in relation to the root.

Once you have a relatively firm grasp of this, start using the Jazz minor scale as a tool to create other sounds. For example: the superlocrian scale is probably the most out sounding scale that there is, containing all of the altered notes. You can generate the superlocrian scale by playing the jazz minor scale STARTING A HALF STEP UP from the root of your chord that you want to play outside over. This is just one example of using the jazz minor scale from a different perspective to create another scale (technically a mode of jazz minor)

A few more examples: Playing the jazz minor scale starting on the 5th degree of your underlying dominant seventh chord will create a (overtone dominant/Lydian b7) scale that has all of the tones of a basic mixolydian scale, but with a # 4. From the b3 degree of your underlying chord, it creates a m7b5 color.

Obviously there are unlimited ways to approach playing out, but studying the Jazz minor scale and then applying it starting from different degrees of my underlying chord was the most fruitful for me personally.

NOTE: You might ask, for example, why not just study the superlocrian scale itself instead of using the jazz minor scale to generate it? Well for me when I was new to the out concept, I just couldn't wrap my head around practicing superlocrian, because my ears were not assimilated to the sound whatsoever. Starting with jazz minor and applying it in different places worked better for me because I could mentally grasp the minor/major color, and it helped open my ears to all of these other sounds. Obviously this is just a tool to start out with and eventually you don't want to think "ok I'm going to play my jazz minor scale from this note because its the b2 degree of my altered dominant chord", you will just see it as a color.

Hope this helps. Outside playing is a very interesting and sometimes confusing topic.

  • 2
    Welcome to Music.SE, Leo! Great to see such a detailed first answer... Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 20:35

One simple technique for playing outside is to play around on the pentatonic scale based on the extension of V chord you are playing. Since most outside/extensions/alterations happen on the V to create a stronger resolution to the I, it "sounds" right to go outside on the V rather than the ii or I.

So, if I were playing a ii-V-I in C, I would add an extension to the V chord. Lets say, for example Dm-G7b9-C.

In D, I would play a Dm pentatonic, on G7b9 I would play Ab7 pentatonic, and on C I would play C pentatonic.

This provides a lot of options for playing outside spontaneously - going back to ii-V in C, I'll commonly play G7b5, G7b9, G7#9 and G7#5, which gives the options of playing outside in Db7, Ab7, A#7, and D#7, respectively.

Of course, there is the common technique of playing tri-tone patterns on the V, but that gets old, fast.

Finally, you can play outside by taking the chords themselves outside on a standard progression. Roger Friedman does this frequently on youtube, with annotations to deconstruct where and why he does it.

Hope this helps.


I will share 3 of the methods I know for playing outside:

  1. Chromatic Approach Notes: Right before you hit a very consonant note, especially if it's a downbeat, you can place a chromatic approach note in the upbeat, which is one semitone apart from the target (usually the root or a tone of the chord being played). Arpeggios are a great way to educate yourself to recognize chord tones. Practice this by playing the arpeggios - not necessarily in the usual 1 3 5 7 order - for each chord in a progression. Gradually replace the last note of each arpeggio for a chromatic approaching the first note of the next chord. Remember that you can approach from both sides;
  2. Sequences: You can always repeat a melodic idea without entirely respecting the harmony. If you are improvising over a Lydian chord, for an example, you may come up with a lick that contains the #11 of that chord, which would be diatonic. Then, if the Imaj7 - Ionian - chord is played, you repeat the exact same lick transposed down a perfect fourth. That #11 will be "outside" now, but your ears will identify it as a repetition of that first lick while still noticing there was a different flavor to it. You can also make sequences out of just the rhythmic information in the phrase. If you do that, use one of the other methods to pick the notes;
  3. Forcing Melodies: Sometimes you can just play the "not so right" or even the "wrong" scales. In a minor 2-5-1, it's a good choice to play the I Harmonic Minor over IIm7b5 and V7. What would happen if you played it over a major 2-5-1? Altered Scales can be seen as a way to play outside, too. You can also be more radical. How does A Melodic Minor sound over A7 instead of the regular Mixolydian? How does a Dorian Lick sound over a min7b9 chord? I guess that 9 will sound pretty dissonant.

You can force a melody as a tool to achieve dissonance, which is great if you want to shock the audience like you said. The chromatic approach notes don't sound that dissonant, since you hear them more often (some scales, like the blues scale and the bebop scale have built-in chromatic approaches) and they resolve quickly. You may get out of a really "outside" forced melody run with a chromatic approach to a comfortable diatonic phrase starting with a chord tone. Then repeat it over the next chord for more outside playing or maybe some different tensions. That would be another good use of sequences.

I hope it helps!

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