5 Types of Bebop Scales & How to Play Each

what-are-bebop-scalesBebop scales are a cornerstone of jazz improvisation, developed during the bebop era to create a smooth, flowing line that maintains the harmony within jazz solos.

These scales add chromatic passing tones to traditional scales, allowing for a seamless fit over jazz chord progressions and enabling musicians to land on chord tones on strong beats.

This article explores five essential types of bebop scales and offers insights on how to incorporate them into your playing.

What is a Bebop Scale?

A bebop scale is a musical scale that adds a chromatic passing tone to the traditional seven-note scales (major, dominant, minor, etc.), creating an eight-note scale. This addition ensures that the chord tones (root, third, fifth, and seventh degrees of a chord) fall on the strong beats when the scale is played in eighth notes, enhancing the harmonic alignment between the melody and underlying chord changes.

The concept of bebop scales is closely associated with the bebop genre of jazz, where improvisation plays a central role, and the ability to fluidly navigate complex chord progressions is essential.

The most common types of bebop scales include the bebop dominant scale, which adds a passing tone between the seventh and root degrees of the Mixolydian mode, and the bebop major scale, which inserts a chromatic note between the fifth and sixth degrees of the major scale.

These scales allow jazz musicians to emphasize chord tones on the downbeats, creating a more harmonically coherent and rhythmically stable line that swings. Bebop scales are fundamental in jazz improvisation, offering a bridge between melodic creativity and the structural demands of jazz harmony.

5 Types of Bebop Scales

Bebop Dominant Scale

The Bebop Dominant scale is built on the Mixolydian mode with an added chromatic passing tone between the 7th and the root. This addition creates an eight-note scale that aligns chord tones with the strong beats in a 4/4 measure.

Structure: If we take the C Dominant (Mixolydian) scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb), adding a passing tone between the Bb and C gives us the C Bebop Dominant scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb, B (natural), C.

How to Play: Practice this scale over dominant 7th chords. Start slowly, ensuring that each note is even, and focus on landing on the chord tones (C, E, G, Bb for a C7 chord) on the downbeats.

Bebop Major Scale

The Bebop Major scale adds a chromatic passing tone between the 5th and 6th degrees of the major scale. This adjustment ensures that the chord tones of major chords fall on the downbeats.

Structure: Taking the C Major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B) and inserting a passing tone between the G and A gives us the C Bebop Major scale: C, D, E, F, G, G#, A, B, C.

How to Play: Utilize this scale over major 6th or major 7th chords. Highlight the chromatic passing tone when moving from the 5th to the 6th degree to create tension and release.

Bebop Dorian Scale

The Bebop Dorian scale is derived from the Dorian mode with an added natural 3rd, serving as a chromatic passing tone. This variation provides a smooth flow in improvisation over minor chords.

Structure: For a C Dorian scale (C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb), adding the natural E between Eb and F results in: C, D, Eb, E, F, G, A, Bb, C.

How to Play: This scale is perfect for minor 7th chords. Integrate the chromatic passage between the minor and major 3rd to enrich your solo lines.

Bebop Melodic Minor Scale

Adapted from the melodic minor scale, this version includes a passing tone between the 5th and 6th degrees, similar to the Bebop Major scale but applied to the melodic minor form.

Structure: For a C Melodic Minor scale (C, D, Eb, F, G, A, B), the added note between the G and A (G#) yields: C, D, Eb, F, G, G#, A, B, C.

How to Play: Effective over minor 6th or minor-major 7th chords, this scale’s chromaticism adds a rich, complex color to improvisations. Practice ascending and descending, paying attention to the smooth transition through the chromatic note.

Bebop Harmonic Minor Scale

The Bebop Harmonic Minor scale introduces a chromatic passing tone between the b7 and the root, differing from the traditional harmonic minor by smoothing the leap to the octave.

Structure: In a C Harmonic Minor scale (C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, B), adding a Bb before the final C gives us: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, B, Bb, C.

How to Play: This scale is particularly effective over V7b9 chords leading to minor chords. The added passing tone allows for fluid lines that naturally resolve to the tonic of the minor chord being implied.

Which Bebop Scales Should You Use?

The choice of which bebop scale to use depends on the harmonic context of the music you are playing or improvising over. Here’s a guide to help you decide:

Bebop Dominant Scale

Use When: Playing over dominant 7th chords (V7 chords in a chord progression).

Why: The bebop dominant scale adds a chromatic passing note between the flatted seventh and the root, ensuring chord tones fall on strong beats. It enriches dominant chords with a characteristic bebop flavor.

Bebop Major Scale

Use When: Playing over major chords, especially major 6th or major 7th chords.

Why: By inserting a chromatic passing tone between the fifth and sixth degrees of the major scale, the bebop major scale allows for smooth scalar runs that emphasize the harmony of major chords.

Bebop Dorian Scale

Use When: Improvising over minor 7th chords (ii7 chords) in a jazz progression.

Why: The bebop Dorian scale, with an added major third as a passing tone, complements the Dorian mode used over ii7 chords, offering a blend of minor tonality with bebop phrasing.

Bebop Melodic Minor Scale

Use When: Soloing over minor-major 7th chords, or when you want to highlight the minor tonality with an extra chromatic step.

Why: This scale adds a passing tone to the melodic minor scale, perfect for emphasizing the unique qualities of the minor-major 7th chord and creating tension and release.

Bebop Harmonic Minor Scale

Use When: You’re playing in a minor key and want to introduce a bebop sensibility into your improvisation, especially over V7b9 chords leading back to i minor chords.

Why: The bebop harmonic minor scale adds a chromatic passing tone to smooth out the augmented second interval, making it easier to align chord tones with strong beats while maintaining the harmonic minor’s distinctive sound.

General Guideline

The key to effectively using bebop scales is to understand the chord or chord progression you are playing over and choose the scale that best enhances the harmonic qualities of those chords.

Bebop scales are not just for adding notes for the sake of it; they are tools for enriching the melodic line while firmly rooting it in the underlying harmony. Practice these scales in various keys, and learn to recognize the chord changes that signal when each type of bebop scale is most appropriate.

With time and experience, integrating bebop scales into your improvisation will become a natural and instinctive part of your playing.

What Does Bebop Mean?

“Bebop” refers to a style of jazz that emerged in the early 1940s, characterized by fast tempos, complex chord progressions, intricate melodies, and virtuosic improvisation. This genre marked a departure from the big band swing style, focusing instead on small groups and highlighting the musical prowess of individual players.

Bebop pioneers such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk pushed the boundaries of jazz, introducing advanced harmonies and rhythmic structures that demanded a high level of technical skill and creative expression from musicians.

The term “bebop” (sometimes shortened to “bop”) itself is believed to be onomatopoeic, mimicking the sound or rhythm found within this style’s music, though its exact origins are debated.

Bebop had a profound influence on the development of jazz, laying the groundwork for many modern jazz styles and altering the landscape of American music.


Bebop scales are essential for any jazz musician looking to deepen their improvisational vocabulary.

By incorporating these scales into your practice routine, you can develop the ability to navigate chord changes more smoothly and create solos that are rhythmically and harmonically engaging.

Start slowly, focus on the sound of each scale, and gradually integrate them into your improvisations over jazz standards to fully grasp their transformative effect on your playing.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do bebop scales enhance jazz improvisation?

Bebop scales introduce chromatic passing tones to traditional scales, allowing improvisers to maintain harmonic coherence by aligning chord tones with strong beats in their solos. This technique enriches the melodic line, ensuring fluid transitions between chords and enhancing the rhythmic swing of the improvisation.

Can bebop scales be applied to genres outside of jazz?

Yes, while bebop scales are rooted in jazz, their application can extend to other genres like blues, funk, and fusion, where their chromaticism and rhythmic precision can add complexity and interest to melodies and solos. Their use outside jazz offers a unique way to navigate chord changes and inject a sophisticated harmonic flavor.

What is the primary reason for adding a chromatic note in bebop scales?

The primary reason for adding a chromatic note in bebop scales is to create an eight-note scale that aligns chord tones with the strong beats of the music, ensuring a smoother melodic flow and stronger harmonic alignment during improvisation. This adjustment facilitates the emphasis on chord tones at rhythmically significant points, crucial for the bebop style’s intricate melodic lines.

How do beginners start practicing bebop scales effectively?

Beginners should start practicing bebop scales by learning them slowly in all keys, focusing on the added chromatic passing tone and its role in connecting chord tones smoothly. Integrating these scales into daily practice routines, first in isolation and then over chord progressions, helps develop a natural feel for their use in improvisation and melody construction.

PD Music

View posts by PD Music
We are a small group of young musicians and educators with a mission is to make music education and instrument knowledge accessible to everyone.