Are Scales Important in Music?

Interesting, emotionally-charged question.. People get really defensive when we discuss this. Let me give you an interesting case study: Victor Wooten, a professional bassist did an instructional video in which he invited some players from The Bass Collective (Google it for more info). He was talking about how he views music as a language and how we learn music backwards.

When starting to learn a language, we usually start with learning sound, then words, then phrases, then sentences. We then learn how to use the language to communicate and express our emotions. Only after we can use the language relatively well do we actually learn how to put it in writing, and to learn to read what others have recorded.

When we look at it that way, it becomes clear that in music, we do it backwards. We first learn to write, to read, and to learn the alphabet (scales). Imagine doing that to a baby. Get them to learn the alphabet first before speaking a word. Chances are, the poor baby will never learn to speak. Other musicians learn to memorize songs written by other musicians. This is akin to learning English by memorizing articles. I have actually been guilty of this.

I learned Arabic during my teenage years (or at least I should have) and like any other student I put off studying to the last minute. Then the exam time came, and what we did was we memorized a few articles from the textbook, and hoped to God that one of the short stories would make it in the final paper. I was lucky that year, 2 of my short stories were included in the final papers. Do I still know how to speak Arabic? Pfftt…

Anyway, there was this Victor guy, and what he was saying is that the notes are the least important part of the music. Much as the alphabet is the least important part of the language. And it makes sense, if you think about it. I could speak English really well long before I even knew the alphabet existed. Great theory! Bravo! Any proof? Short answer: Yes. Victor proceeded thusly: he told the audience (they were quite seasoned musicians) that he was going to play two solos for them. He was gonna play them in the key of G Minor.

But here’s the catch: the first solo, he would play all the notes that are NOT in the G Minor scale, in other words, the “wrong” notes. He would really try to make it groove, playing his best. The second solo, he would do the exact opposite, which is the “right” notes, which are all the notes in the G Minor scale, but he would just do a so-so job at it. Just a side note: Victor Wooten and so-so should not appear in the same sentence.

You should see him do it yourself. Seriously! The notes were, in fact, all wrong. You could definitely hear it. The backing track was obviously playing in G Minor, and he was obviously not. But it grooved. It sounded good. It felt right. And the “right notes” solo was, to put it bluntly – bland. And the Bass Collective agreed!

My musical eyes (and ears) were wide open at that point. Thanks, Victor, for waking me up. Music is a language. It’s not dependant on the alphabet to make it work. There are many people who can speak very well but can’t name any letters in the alphabet. They know how to make the sounds that make sense to other speakers of the language. The same is true for music.

This brings us back to singing. Scales in singing? Why not? Also, why not develop the voice first before training it with scales? What use is a scale when you can’t even reach most of the notes in the scale? Let’s take the scales out first. When we’re happy that we have the control we want over our voice, then let’s get the scales back in.

Do them in doubles, triplets. Repeat segments of them, break them down, and put them back together again to create phrases, licks, melodies, like guitarist and pianists do. You’ll find that it’s easier to mold an already pliable voice, instead of trying to mold it and make it pliable at the same time.

The last sentence brings me to another analogy: the sculptor. Put yourself in a sculptor’s shoes for a second. Does the sculptor try to add water to the clay and mold it at the same time? We would have to wait a long time to enjoy his art. Instead, what he does is he adds water to the clay, bit-by-bit, until he achieves the desired consistency that he’s looking for.

Sometimes he wants it wet, sometimes dry. He might use courser clay for some projects, and smoother clay for others. Only when he’s sure that the clay is the right consistency does he begin to shape it. Your voice is your clay. Get it ready first. Make it soft, coarse, wet, dry, or whatever suits your music. Then you can shape it to suit the notes of your song.

Happy Singing!

superior singing