Music TheoryHarmonyScales

The 5 Types Of Bebop Scales And How To Play Them

Written by Samuel Chase

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If you have ever played or listened to jazz music, you’ve most likely heard the bebop scale. It is the most popular scale to use in Jazz when improvising and is named the bebop scale because it originated in the era of bebop jazz music.

So let’s take a look at the bebop scale! But first, we have to recall just what exactly a scale is.

What Is A Scale?

A scale

A scale is a specific set of notes arranged either going up (ascending) or going down (descending) by their pitch, one step at a time.

This means in an ascending scale, the next note always has to be one step higher than the previous note, and vice versa for a descending scale.

Most scales (like major and minor) are heptatonic, meaning they have seven notes (the eighth note is a repeat of the first note, only an octave different).

What Is The Bebop Scale?

C dominant bebop scale

The bebop scale is derived from the major and minor scales, and because of this, there is not necessarily only one specific scale that we can dub the bebop scale.

What this scale does is basically add an extra note in an already created scale.

This extra note is a chromatic passing tone that takes a whole step from one of the scales above and inserts a note in the middle of it, creating two half steps.

This makes the bebop scale an octatonic scale, which means it has eight notes.

Five Types Of Bebop Scale

There are five types of bebop scales, and each one is derived from a previous scale and simply adds a chromatic passing tone between two notes separated by a whole step.

The five types of bebop scales are as follows:

  • The major bebop scale
  • The Dorian bebop scale
  • The melodic minor bebop scale
  • The harmonic minor bebop scale
  • The dominant bebop scale

Now we’ll take a look at each of these types of bebop scales and what the differences are.

The Major Bebop Scale

First, let’s take a look at the C major scale as an example.

C major scale

To turn a major scale into a major bebop scale, we have to add a chromatic passing tone.

In the major bebop scale, we add the chromatic passing tone in between the G and the A (the fifth and sixth scale degrees), a G# as shown by the asterisk below.

C bebop major scale

The Dorian Bebop Scale

The Dorian bebop scale comes from a scale called the Dorian mode. In the Dorian scale, we flatten the third and seventh notes of the scale.

C Dorian scale

But to make a Dorian bebop scale, we add an E-natural passing tone between the third and fourth scale degrees as shown by the asterisk.

C bebop Dorian scale

The Melodic Minor Bebop Scale

Next, we have the melodic minor bebop scale, which comes from the melodic minor scale.

In the melodic minor scale, we flatten just the third note of the scale by a semitone.

C melodic minor scale

But again, to make this scale a bebop scale, we add a G# passing tone, which is placed between the fifth and sixth scale degrees as shown by the asterisk.

C bebop melodic minor scale

The Harmonic Minor Bebop Scale

Now we’ll look at the harmonic minor bebop scale, which is based on — you guessed it — the harmonic minor scale.

In a harmonic minor scale, we flatten the third and sixth degrees of scale by a semitone (half step).

C harmonic minor scale

But to make this a C harmonic minor bebop scale, we add a Bb chromatic passing note, which is between the sixth and seventh scale degrees as shown by the asterisk.

C bebop harmonic minor scale

The Dominant Bebop Scale

As we’ve covered above, there is not one bebop scale.

But if there was going to be only one or you were asked to play “the bebop scale,” then you would probably play a dominant bebop scale.

It is the most popular bebop scale and the most well-known.

The dominant bebop scale is based on the dominant scale, which is another name for the Mixolydian mode, which has a flattened 7th note.

C dominant scale

To make it a C-dominant bebop scale though, we add a B-natural chromatic passing note in between the seventh and eighth scale degrees as shown by the asterisk.

C bebop dominant scale

These are the five main scales you would use when playing bebop.

Which Bebop Scale Should You Use?

Because there are five different types of bebop scales, a common question is which one should you use?

The answer depends on the chords you are playing over at the time.

For example, if you see a ii – V7 – I chord progression, those chords are minor – dominant – major.

Therefore, you would play the bebop minor scale (the Dorian one most likely) over the minor chord, then the dominant scale over the dominant chord, and finally the bebop major scale over the major chord.

What Does “Bebop” Mean?

The term bebop, sometimes called bop, refers to a specific style of jazz music that was created in the USA in the 1940s.

The name most likely comes from nonsense syllables that jazz singers would sing in what is called scat singing when singers would improvise rhythms and melodies and make up words.

Here is an example of Ella Fitzgerald, one of the masters of scat singing.

Ella Fitzgerald — “One Note Samba”

Bebop is a style of jazz that is very easy to recognize.

Bebop songs are incredibly fast, with lots of fast-moving chord changes and complex progressions.

The musicians who play bebop are considered some of the most technically skilled musicians in the world because of the sheer speed and amount of notes they play.

Pieces and improvisational solos are usually created around bebop scales, and the harmonic structure is strict and rigidly followed.

This is a stark contrast to the modal jazz of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, which is slow and very loosely organized.

The most influential bebop musician was probably Charlie Parker. He was an alto sax player and was one of the pioneers of the style.

As an alto sax player myself, he was always my favorite musician, and my favorite piece of his is “Anthropology.” Just listen to how incredibly fast they all play!

Charlie Parker — “Anthropology”

Here it is slowed down and with sheet music, so you can understand how fast the notes and chord changes are: 

Charlie Parker — “Anthropology” (slowed down)

Also check out “Confirmation,” “Donna Lee,” “Scrapple from the Apple,” and “Ornithology” by Charlie Parker as well. You can essentially learn bebop by listening to only him.

Other famous bebop musicians are trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie (who co-wrote “Anthropology”), piano player Bud Powell, saxophonists Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, and many others.

Gillespie wrote the bebop piece “A Night in Tunisia,” one of the most famous pieces of all of jazz.

Dizzy Gillespie — “A Night in Tunisia”

Powell is best known for his song “Bouncing with Bud.”

Bud Powell — “Bouncing with Bud”

Gordon is most famous for playing with Parker’s and Gillespie’s bands, but he also wrote music as well, like his piece “Lady Bird.”

Dexter Gordon — “Lady Bird”

And Rollins wrote the piece “Oleo,” which is also one of my favorites and a jazz standard all across the world.

Sonny Rollins — “Oleo”

Summing Up The Bebop Scale

The bebop scale is one of the more unique scales in music. Because it has that extra chromatic passing tone, it is one of the few octatonic (eight-ones) scales.

There are multiple different kinds of bebop scales, depending on the chords you’re playing with.

Bebop is a style of jazz that developed in the 1940s, and it has a unique and easily recognized style.

It is one of the hardest styles to play, and if you are a sax player, it’s usually what you’re asked to play to prove your ability.

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Samuel Chase has been playing music since he was 5 years old, and teaching music since he was 13. He has a PhD in Music from the University of Surrey, and he has composed music that has been played in three different countries. He is currently working as a film composer and writing a book on film music.