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How to Practice Scales:

Practice your scales until your hands can do those shapes while you’re drunk, asleep, deathly ill, in an out of body experience.


The failure of traditional shred is that it stopped there – assimilation of the diatonic shapes and technique. What no one tells you is that while practicing, you should be thinking about what each note would mean in a melodic or harmonic context. This isn’t just time at the gym. Think, for the sake of art, what these notes could possibly mean. Don’t think of the scales in a vacuum. 

Play a chord. Hear the chord in your head while you practice the scale. Think about what each degree adds to the chord. Think about what it means to add it. It’s a metaphor for an event or feeling. What is the feeling? 

Play a different chord against the same scale. Play the same chord against a different scale until you find something to latch onto, something you understand, the corelative of an experience or emotion. 

Try all the scales you know against all the chords you know, even if they shouldn’t make sense together. Harmony is deeper than any single player knows. The combination may work for a reason you don’t yet understand. There’s a jazz truism: “scales are chords and chords are scales.” When you’ve run out of modes and chords, you’ll have internalized it. 

If you complete this exercise, you will write several songs in the process. A song is simply a melody against a chord or series of chords. If you can’t reduce a song to a combination of melody and harmony, it’s not really a song. 

If you have anything of real music in you and honestly listen to the exercise described above, many notes will jump out to you and recommend a verse or chorus. Stop practicing scales to write the song. The scale will be there when you get back, and you’ll have new insight when you return. 

Secondly, when you’re done, you will know what every part of music you know sounds like against any other. Don’t be a robot. If it sounds bad to you, stop playing it. If it sounds good to you, keep playing it. Find new ways to play old scales. There are many ways to do this – no single one is better than any other. You can try playing fast, but that shouldn’t be all you do. This should be much more like trying on clothes or going to the library than exercising. 

The point of this is to practice creative thinking without having to necessarily produce anything. If your practice consists of “OK, now I’m going to write a song,” you’re under tremendous pressure. If you don’t come up with anything after a few hours, not only have you failed, but you haven’t really even learned anything that will help with a future song. 

Scale practice should lead to writing songs. Every note is part of a melody, part of many melodies. If the bug doesn’t hit you one particular day, no big loss. You can still learn that you like the sound of a whole tone scale over a dominant chord a half step away. That’s real knowledge which will come in handy over and over again for as long as you keep playing your instrument. 

 Even if you didn’t like the way it sounded, you still know what it sounds like, and you can probably pinpoint the note where it sounded wrong to you. You’ve informed your harmonic repertoire and can avoid other scales with the same note in that situation. Little bits of knowledge like that can save you hours of agony every time you try to write. What note do you prefer to use instead? You’ve just made up your own scale. You don’t have to know a name for it. Practice that instead. “Failures” of this type open up more doors than they close. 

All those moods, all that music, you can go back to any of them now and know what they’ll sound like before you play.

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