Making chords from scales

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.

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Music theory for the perplexed guitarist

I hear it all the time from my friends in the rock world, and see it all the time in internet discussions: guitarists are struggling with their music theory, or they’ve given up on it completely. This is not their fault! Music theory is taught pretty badly for the most part, and it rarely addresses the music that rock musicians are playing.

I’ve been working on rectifying that situation. If you play guitar, or any other rock-adjacent instrument, I hope that these posts are useful to you:
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Blues tonality


The blues is a foundational element of America’s vernacular and art music. It is commonly described as a combination of African rhythms and European harmonies. This characterization is inaccurate. Blues follows harmonic conventions that are quite different from those of European common-practice tonality. Blues does not fit into major or minor tonality, and it makes heavy use of harmonic intervals considered by tonal theory to be dissonant. But blues listeners do not experienced the music as dissonant; rather, they hear an alternative system of consonance. In order to make sense of this system, we need to understand blues as belonging to its own tonality, distinct from major, minor and modal scales. The author argues that blues tonality should be taught as part of the basic music theory curriculum.
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Toward a better music curriculum

I love music grad school and am finding it extremely valuable, except for one part: the music theory requirement. In order to get my degree, I have to attain mastery of Western tonal harmony of the common practice era. I am not happy about it. This requirement requires a lot mastery of a lot of skills that are irrelevant to my life as a working musician, and leaves out many skills that I consider essential. Something needs to change.

Don’t get me wrong: I love studying music theory. I spent years studying it for my own gratification before ever even considering grad school. I’ve written a ton of blog posts about it, taught it for money, and talked about it to anyone who would listen. But the way that music theory is taught at NYU, and in most schools, is counterproductive.

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Image schemas in music software

I’m doing a ton of writing for grad school, and will be posting the highlights here. First off, an abstract and discussion of this article:

Katie Wilkie, Simon Holland, and Paul Mulholland. Winter, 2010. What Can The Language Of Musicians Tell Us About Music Interaction Design? Computer Music Journal, Vol. 34, No. 4, Pages 34-48

The authors discuss the ways that user interface design for music production and teaching software is informed by embodied cognition, as articulated by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their book Metaphors We Live By. Lakoff and Johnson argue that all metaphors trace their roots to states of the human body, which are the only basis for abstract thought that we possess. The closer a metaphor is to a state of the body, the easier it is for us to understand.

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Secondary dominants

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.

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Tuning system geekery

If you’re a guitarist, you may have noticed that it’s hard to get your instrument perfectly in tune. This is not your imagination. If you tune each string perfectly to the one next to it, the low E string will end up out of tune with the high E string. If you use an electronic tuner to make sure the individual strings are tuned to the correct pitch, they won’t sound fully in tune with each other. It has nothing to do with the quality of your instrument or your skill at tuning: it’s a fundamental fact of western music theory. This post attempts to explain why. It’s very geeky stuff, but if you like math (and who doesn’t?) then read on.

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Meet the major scale

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]

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The blues scale

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):

C blues scale

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.

Blues scale guitar fingering

The Eb blues scale is exceptionally easy to play on piano — just play the black keys and add the note A.

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