Though you may think of scales and chords as two separate entities, they are very closely intertwined! In fact, chords are very easy to construct if you already have a scale in mind. In this episode of The Musicality Podcast, we discuss how to go from scales to chords with one simple trick, and the practical applications of this skill in playing by ear, songwriting, and improvisation.
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Have you ever stopped to ask yourself where chords come from?
In our recent interview with Scott Sharp of Fretboard-Toolbox.com he explained that understanding how chords are constructed and in particular their relationship to the scale of the key was what let him finally break into improvising and playing by ear – and has been the basis of his popular “Fretboard Toolbox” books for guitar, piano and other instruments.
So today I wanted to talk about the connection between chords and scales. How you can start from a scale and “find” the various chords hidden in there. And, most importantly, why you might want to do this – aside from just intellectual curiosity about music theory!
How to find chords in scales
A big part of what makes Scott’s Fretboard Toolbox books useful is that they have one page for each key showing the scale and all the chords that are commonly used in that key. As you probably know, a key is just the set of notes that are used in a song or piece of music, with one of them being chosen as the “tonic”, the most important note.
If you arrange all the notes of the key in pitch order you get the scale. For example, here’s the scale for the key of C Major:
[ AUDIO EXAMPLE: C Major Scale ]
And, as Scott pointed out, there are also certain chords that belong to the key. When we talked with Sara Campbell about her “Four Chord Songs” camp, that’s referring to using the four most common chords in a key.
But how do you know what chords those are for a given key?
The answer is that they can be found in the scale.
Supposing we didn’t know how chords are built and we wanted to build some chords from the scale. We might begin by deciding to build one chord starting from each of the seven notes of the scale.
We know that “chord” means multiple notes played together and two-note chords sound a bit boring so we’ll aim for three-note chords. Our first try might be to just pick adjacent notes. For example if we’re starting from the first note, C, in the C Major scale we might try making a chord from C, D and E.
Now anyone who’s seen a young child go up to a piano and shove the palm of their hand down to play a bunch of notes together knows that the resulting sound is not so great! Here’s that C, D, and E for example:
[ AUDIO EXAMPLE: C D E chord ]
So using adjacent notes from the scale, what are called intervals of a second sounds too close and awkward.
The next most obvious thing is to just skip a note – so we could play every other note from the scale. That’s called an interval of a third. In our example that would be C, E, and G:
[ AUDIO EXAMPLE: C Major Triad Arp then Harm ]
Ah, much better!
This is still a really simple idea, and in fact in my interview with Jermaine Griggs he mentioned this was something he picked up as a child just by noticing that was what his Grandmother’s fingers were doing when she played chords: skipping every other note.
So that’s how we build chords from the scale: we choose a root note from the scale and then add every other note above it, and our basic chords use three notes in total. Do this for each of the seven notes of the scale and you get what are called your diatonic triads, which just means the three-note chords which belong to the scale. Three of them are major chords, three are minor, and one is a diminished chord. Let’s listen to those for C major:
[ AUDIO EXAMPLE : Triads in C Major ]
If you want to build the next most complicated type of chord, a seventh chord, we actually just do the same thing again, adding another third on top of each triad.
So how does that work in practice on an instrument?
I mentioned piano a couple of times there and it’s an easy visual because of the way the keyboard is laid out. Whether or not you play piano you can probably imagine yourself picking every other note from the keyboard. But this works exactly the same on any instrument.
If you know your scale you can find the chords. If you play a monophonic instrument, meaning it plays one note at a time, like the saxophone or trumpet, then you are probably used to playing scales and you can try this out. Start from any note of the scale and play up the scale skipping every other note. You’ll be playing the arpeggio (meaning one note at a time) version of the chord!
If you play a polyphonic instrument (meaning one that can play more than one note at once) then you’re probably used to thinking about chords as shapes, for example fingering patterns on the guitar or ukulele. But you probably also know how to play a scale and you can construct chords this way too, by skipping notes in the scale. That can give you a whole new perspective on how to play chords in interesting and versatile ways on your instrument.
Why should you find chords in scales?
I just mentioned that musicians who play instruments that can produce chords tend to think in terms of the fingering shape for that chord, rather than in terms of the scale.
So what’s the point of talking about finding chords in scales?
Well, with my music theory hat on I’m obliged to say how valuable and important it is to understand the theory of where chords come from. And that’s true! But there are also some pretty cool practical benefits of thinking about chords in this way.
The first is related to that intellectual understanding: you’re empowered to figure out the main chords for a key from scratch yourself. Just by listening to this episode you’ve learned everything you need to know: Start from a note in the scale, add two more notes above it by skipping every other note – and you’ve formed the chord.
Suppose you’re sat with your instrument trying to figure out the chords of a song by ear. If you want to play along with the recording you’ll need to know the key it’s in – you can figure that out by ear too, we have a module about that in Musical U – but if you’re playing solo you don’t even need to know that. You can pick a key yourself that you know the scale for. And now you know how to construct the chords for that key from scratch, which are most likely the chords being used probably 95% of the time in most genres. Build your chords from the first, fourth, fifth and sixth notes of the scale and you’re ready to tackle any of the thousands of four-chord songs out there.
Of course this is also super useful for song writing. Want to come up with a sequence of chords that sound good together? Find the chords in the scale like we’ve talked about and you’ve shortcutted your way to a nice-sounding progression.
And it’s not just about figuring it out from scratch yourself. As we learned in the episode with Scott, you can get a quick-reference sheet that reveals to you at a glance what chords go in each key. But there is still great value in understanding how the chords fit into the scale.
For example, that can give you insight into how the melody and chords relate to each other. We talked about this in our recent episode on chord tones. To play melodies by ear or improvise well it really helps to know which notes are in each chord. That may sound basic but it’s easy for musicians who play polyphonic instruments like guitar or piano to think just about chords as a whole object and lose sight of which notes belong to each chord. Getting your head around how those chords are derived from the scale helps give you that shared mental framework for how harmony and melody are connected. That goes for your brain and your ears. I was a guest on Tim Topham’s “Creative Piano Teaching” podcast recently talking about solfa and one thing we talked about was how helpful solfa can be for understanding harmony – because it really hammers home that connection between the notes of chords and the notes of the scale.
This connection works both ways. You can get insight into how the melody or an improvised solo works by knowing how the notes of the chords fit into the scale – but you can also understand the chords better. For example, harmonising a melody: if you just have an unaccompanied melody then a pretty good way to start putting chords to it is to just look at which notes the melody is landing on in each bar and choose the chord those notes mostly belong to.
I mentioned improvising a couple of times there. That’s another big area where understanding how chords come from the scale can really help you. An important factor in whether your improvised solo sounds good or not has to do with how well it matches the chord progression you’re playing over.
At Musical U we teach an approach to improvisation which makes use of “playgrounds” and “patterns” – things which can help you go directly to sounding good while still giving you space to explore your own musical ideas. One example of that is to start improvising by sticking to the notes of the scale for the key you’re in. That makes sure you won’t play any “wrong notes” (if there is such a thing as “wrong notes”!) But to sound one notch better you want to actually think about which notes from the scale will go best with each chord you’re soloing over. And, as we talked about in the chord tones episode, that means thinking about which notes are actually in each chord.
So learning to find the chords in the scale can help you match up your improvisation with the underlying chord progression. And actually you can get a bit more sophisticated and make use of those chords hidden in the scale whether or not they match up with the chord progression. That’s something we’re going to be talking more about in an upcoming interview with Steve Nixon of FreeJazzLessons.com, he has a great tip for doing exactly that.
Alright, let’s do a quick recap.
Although you might think of chords as each being a whole musical item, like a single blob of notes all together, they are actually constructed note-by-note from the scale.
The method is simple: For each note of the scale we can construct a triad (meaning three-note) chord just by adding every other note above it. For example in C Major, you can start on D, skip E, add F, skip G, add A, and you get D-F-A, the D Minor chord.
[ AUDIO EXAMPLE: D (E) F (G) A ]
Doing this for each note in a major key you get three major chords, three minor chords and one diminished chord. These chords (or possibly small variations on them) are going to be used for 95% of the harmony in most genres of Western music.
Learning to think about how chords fit into the scale can benefit you in a lot of different ways. On chordal instruments like piano or guitar you get a very different perspective on how you can play chords aside from the simple shapes you might have learned. On non-chordal instruments like saxophone or clarinet you get an insight into how the notes you play belong to chords and how you can imply harmony with the notes you choose even if you’re not playing all the notes of a chord at once.
You’re equipped to figure out all the most likely chords in a key from scratch yourself – great for playing by ear or writing your own music.
You learn to connect the melody notes with the harmony, so that you can harmonise melodies yourself, or improvise melodies in a way that connects musically with the chord progression underneath. And you can even take it a step further, making use of those relationships without necessarily matching up the melody and harmony notes exactly.
I hope this episode has been enlightening for you, either about how chords can be found in scales or about the why of this actually being a useful and practical thing to wrap your head around. Or maybe both!
Next time you sit down with your instrument, try finding some chords yourself. Just pick a key, play through the scale and then try finding each chord that belongs in that key. You might be surprised how this can change your perspective and deepen your understanding of how music is put together!