Hi @Polyrism, @Darren and @hender99, thanks for sharing all of these great insights and perspectives. Let me just try to clarify where IFR sits in this debate. Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to in my own music practice, and what we teach in IFR. We believe that if you want to play directly from your musical imagination, then you must learn to see notes on the fretboard in the same way that these sounds are organized in your musical imagination. Your musical imagination doesn’t know the letter names of the notes. It doesn’t know the CAGED system. It doesn’t know about “drop 2 voicings” and “chord scale theory”.
That much I think is uncontroversial, so I feel pretty confident just putting it out there as fact. But the next part is much more open to debate. What is the best way to visually (or otherwise) represent what our ear experiences when we hear music? We know that our ear feels each melody note relative to the overall key of the music, and our ear also feels the pull of tension between each note and the chord in the background. But which of these feelings comes first? And as improvisers, which frame of reference should be primary?
Here, I think I can convince you that the IFR Tonal Map concept is the most useful system in the long run. But I also want to discuss the challenge that @Polyrism is experiencing with the use of this concept. I’ll start with my argument for the IFR Tonal Map model in general:
Let’s first agree that BOTH the position of the note in the overall key of the music AND its relationship to the chord of the moment are equally important. This way we’re not discriminating against anyone else’s values or beliefs. If you happen to think that a note’s relationship to the chord of the moment is even more important than its tonal number, then let’s agree to respect that. Let’s agree that whatever mental model of harmony we adopt should be equally respectful of both things.
But let’s also agree that mentally switching reference frames in the middle of a song breaks our melodic flow. It may be necessary sometimes (for example, when there is a genuine key change in the music), but let’s agree that we would like to minimize this switching of reference frames because it’s an annoying distraction.
I think we’re done. I think that if you accept both of the premises above, you’ll conclude that you need a mental model that (1) allows you to visualize both melody notes and chord notes on a single map of the octave, and (2) this map shouldn’t move when the chord changes.
This is exactly the vision of harmony that we teach in IFR. And I think we could all agree that in theory, it would be incredibly empowering if we could learn to see all musical sounds on this one single map, so that we could instantly and effortlessly express any sound we can imagine. But the issue that @Polyrism is raising is a very valid point. When you first hear a couple of notes in a song, and a chord in the background, that’s the only reference you have. So in that moment, maybe you don’t have enough information to decide where to picture all of these sounds on a tonal map of the overall key of the music. You just hear the relationship between a couple of notes and the chord in the background. So naturally, that becomes your entire reference frame. And it’s perfectly correct to picture your tonal map in this limited space of the chord. For example, all you hear is a minor chord so you naturally overlay your tonal map over this minor chord, and you start thinking of the scale degrees as 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, etc. Now, maybe later on you’ll hear other chords and suddenly you’ll notice where you are in the overall key of the music. And maybe at that point you’ll realize that it would have been better to place your tonal map a couple of centimeters to the left, because it’s more useful to picture those notes as 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 instead of the more generic 1, 2, b3, 4, 5 that you first thought. But neither analysis is right or wrong. It’s just a question of where you choose to fix your reference frame to give you the best vantage point for thinking about all of sounds.
One of the central concepts of Improvise for Real, though, is that in almost every real musical situation your subconscious musical mind makes this decision for you. So it’s not a conscious decision of where to place your tonal map, weighing the pros and cons of each choice. It happens automatically in your subconscious mind. Once your ear has heard enough sounds to recreate the entire tonality, your ear will be perfectly oriented in the key of the music from that point forward. And so as you hear each subsequent note of the song, you’ll know exactly where each note lies on your tonal map because it will simply SOUND like that note.
Let me give you a quick example. “Take the A Train” is made up almost entirely of the notes of the major scale which we study in IFR Jam Tracks Levels 1 & 2, Sing the Numbers 1 and our video course Ear Training for Musical Creativity. This includes note 5, obviously. I mention that because anyone who has taken those courses seriously will recognize instantly that note 5 is the first note of Take the A Train. This is what I mean when I say that you’ll recognize the tonal numbers simply by the way each note sounds to your ear. And from there, it’s not difficult to clarify the rest of the notes you’re hearing: 5…3, 5, 1, 3, #5. (Those notes are bouncing around between two octaves but if you’ve heard the melody it’s not hard to confirm that these are the notes.)
What this clarity then leads to is a greater appreciation for the chords in the background. Not only do we recognize that the first note of the song is note 5, but we even recognize that it’s the more precise sensation of note 5 in the 1 chord. Then we hear notes 1 and 3 in the octave above, which are more old friends in the 1 chord. And then comes a very surprising sound! It’s that note #5 over the 2D chord, which is the #11 of the chord! If that all sounds very complicated, don’t despair. This note is the only surprising sound in the entire composition, and it’s the whole point of the song. So if it takes you by surprise, give Billy Strayhorn a break! This is exactly what he wanted to show you, so just be humble and let him show you this beautiful sound he discovered.
The next measure starts with note 6. And again, if you’ve been practicing with the IFR Jam Tracks and now with Sing the Numbers 2 and 3, you should have no trouble recognizing this as the precise sound of note 6 in the 2- chord. And as you gain more musical experience, you won’t be surprised when you see the 2- chord leading to the 5D chord and taking us back to the 1 chord. My point isn’t to do a complete lesson on this song right now. The point is to show that every single note and chord in this song is not only perfectly visible on your tonal map, but in fact directly related to sounds that we study in IFR.
Even that #5 in the 2D chord is right there on your tonal map! The tonal map might not have suggested that you play #5 in the moment, but it gives you a container in which to visualize this beautiful sound. From this moment onward in your life, you can now create this sound whenever YOU want to, and you can do it in any key on your instrument. Whenever the chord goes to the 2D chord, you can always access that beautiful and mysterious sound of Billy Strayhorn’s composition, just by playing that little note #5 that’s sitting right there on your tonal map.
What we’re trying to create with IFR is a linear path that takes you from the simplest nursery rhymes all the way up to Take the A Train and beyond, with the entire journey being comprised of sincerely getting to know each sound along the way. Ultimately it’s up to you to decide which mental models serve you most in that pursuit. My only advice would be for you to wrestle with this issue for as long as you need to (years, even) and never lose sight of our real goal. We’re not just trying to cobble together a bunch of chord scales that sound reasonably correct over Take the A Train. What we’re trying to do is learn to see the beautiful world of sounds that our musical imagination already sees. What is that world? How is it organized? Where does each sound “live” and how do the sounds fit together? How can I learn to recognize these sounds in the music all around me? How can I learn to express these sounds in any key on my instrument? All of this is what we’re studying in IFR. If this personal journey sounds worthwhile and exciting, then I encourage you to always keep your eyes on this prize when you’re thinking about how to practice. And beware of mental models that might give you a shortcut to playing a specific song but they don’t advance you on the more important path of understanding your own musical experience. I think that as long as you always keep your most important goals and values in mind, you’ll be able to decide for yourself which mental model is most useful in each given moment.