A chord and a scale are two different ways of looking at the same thing: a group of pitches that sound good together. If you organize the pitches sequentially and play them one at a time, you get a scale. If you stack them up and play them simultaneously, you get chords. Here’s a guide to the most commonly-used scales in Western music and their moods.
To make a chord, you start on the first note of a scale and then move up it in thirds, meaning that you skip every alternating note. To get more notes for your chord, just keep adding thirds on top.
- If you start on the first scale degree, add the third scale degree, and then add the fifth scale degree, you get a simple three-note chord called a triad.
- If you add the seventh scale degree on top, you get a seventh chord.
- Next you come to the ninth note of the scale, which is really just the second note an octave up. Adding it gives you a ninth chord.
- Then you come to the eleventh note of the scale, which is the fourth note an octave up. Adding it gives you an eleventh chord.
- Finally, you arrive at the thirteenth note of the scale, which is the sixth note an octave up. Adding it gives you a thirteenth chord.
- The next third after the thirteenth is just the root of the scale. You’ve now used every possible note in your chord.
There’s a broad diversity of harmonic practices being used out there in the world of blues-based popular music, rock in particular. While a given song may not use a lot of scales and chords, the relationships between those scales and chords is rarely simple or obvious. You really just need to learn all of them. It takes a lot of practice. Fortunately, there is a single scale that works in every situation, which I’ll get to at the end of this post.
My fellow NYU adjunct Rebecca Feynberg recently hipped me to Vasily Kalinnikov.
If you listen to this piece at 6:16, there’s a particularly lovely and tragic chord progression. It’s in the key of E-flat, but I transposed it into C for ease of understanding:
||: Am | D7 | Fm | C :||
I mentally refer to this progression as the Willie Nelson turnaround, because I first heard it in his classic tune “I’d Have To Be Crazy” (written not by Willie, but by Steven Fromholz.) I had the pleasure of performing this many times back in my country music days, and it makes a great lullaby for Milo.
The version of the progression in “I’d Have To Be Crazy” uses a different harmonic rhythm, and starts on the I chord instead of vi, but the emotional effect is the same. Willie’s tune is in E, but again, I transposed into C for easier comparison.
|| C | % | % | % | D7 | Fm | C | % ||
At the top of the tune and in various other spots, he also uses this variant:
|| C | % | G7 | % | D7 | Fm | C | % ||
When I was a kid, I’d listen to music and wonder, why is this chord progression so much more satisfying than that one? Now I know the answer: secondary dominants, chords that temporarily change the key in a logical-sounding way. If you want to take your songwriting in a more sophisticated direction, you definitely want to get hip to secondary dominants.
I studied music theory for a good long time before it dawned on me that you can read the major scale right off the circle of fifths. Here’s the C major scale on the circle. The white notes are the ones in the scale and the black ones are the ones outside the scale. The white notes correspond to the white keys on the piano, and the black notes to the black keys.
The circle of fifths trick works for all the major scales, not just C. Pick any note on the circle and think of it as the root. The note immediately counterclockwise from the root will be the fourth of the key. The five notes going clockwise from the root are the fifth, second, sixth, third and seventh of the key respectively. The other five notes will be the ones you omit — the “black keys.”
The blues is a good entry path for beginner guitarists. If you learn the standard fifteen chords and the blues scale, you’ll be well on your way. However, there’s one crucial piece of additional music vocabulary you need to fully inhabit blues tonality, and that’s diminished chords.
To make a diminished chord, you start on any note, go up a minor third, then another, then another. Here are the notes in C diminished — the scale tones are in red.
Here are some good guitar fingerings for diminished chords.
Diminished chords are highly symmetrical, which gives them a peculiar property. The circle above shows C diminished, but the same notes also make Eb, F# and A diminished. The only difference between these four chords is their respective bass notes. This symmetry means that there are only four diminished chords total. The diagrams below show what I mean. On the left is the circle of fifths; on the right is the circle of half-steps. Each square is a diminished chord.
Minor keys are way more complicated than major keys. But the effort is worth it; all that complexity gives a richer array of expressive possibility.
The best place to start with minor keys, paradoxically, is with the major scale modes. The pitches in E flat major are the same as the ones in C natural minor. If you think of C as home base rather than E flat, you get a bunch of useful chords and scales.
The C major scale is the foundation that the rest of western music theory sits on. If you master it, you get a bunch of cool chords and scales for free, along with a window into a huge swath of our musical culture.
How to form the scale
Imagine an ice cube tray with twelve slots, one for each note in the western tuning system, labeled like so:
To make the C major scale, you just remove all the ice cubes with # in their names, like so:
[C][ ][D][ ][E][F][ ][G][ ][A][ ][B]
Expanding on a post about blues basics.
When you’re first learning to improvise, it’s daunting to be confronted with all the scales. Fortunately, there’s one scale that sounds good in any situation: the blues scale. It’s a universal harmonic solvent. I haven’t encountered a chord progression yet that didn’t fit with the blues scale. It works in blues, of course, but it also sounds terrific in rock, country, jazz, reggae, funk and much else.
How to play the blues scale
The blues scale is the minor pentatonic with a note added, the sharp fourth/flat fifth. The C blues scale is C, Eb, F, F#, G, Bb. Here it is in standard music notation:
And here it is on the chromatic circle (left) and the circle of fifths (right):
The blues scale is easy to play on guitar. Your index finger plays the root on the E string, so to play C blues, put your index on the eighth fret.
The Eb blues scale is exceptionally easy to play on piano — just play the black keys and add the note A.
Since I’m teaching the twelve-bar blues to some guitar students, I figured I’d put the lessons in the form of a blog post. Blues is a big topic and this isn’t going to be anything like a definitive guide. Think of it more as a tasting menu.
Blues is a confusing term. You probably have some idea of what blues is, but it’s surprisingly hard to define it specifically. There are many songs with the word “blues” in the title that aren’t technically blues at all, like “Lovesick Blues” by Hank Williams. John Lee Hooker was the living embodiment of blues, but a lot of his best-known songs aren’t technically blues either.
Meanwhile, there are quite a few songs using the blues form that you might not think to identify as blues. Two examples: “Shuckin’ The Corn” by Flatt and Scruggs, and the theme from the sixties Batman TV show.
So what exactly is blues?