By Clif Kuplen


As has been the case with many performing musicians, I have been frequently asked questions regarding scales or chords by aspiring jazz musicians who are at or near the beginning of their musical journey. Usually, these questions are on the order of what scale to use to improvise over a particular progression of chords, or what scale best fits a certain type of chord, such as a dominant 7th or a minor 9th.

I have both read and heard comments from well-known musicians who get the same questions. Unfortunately for the less experienced musician, the answers to these questions usually leave a lot to be desired, and impart very little information to the asker. The reason for this, of course is the lack of focus in the questions themselves. However, there is an obvious hearable connection between chords, scales and progressions, and these types of questions really do deserve answers. It will be my purpose to make things a bit more clear with this text.

First, what type of scales to use against chords found in western harmony, be it compositional music, commercial music or jazz does have an answer, or more properly, a series of answers. For the scales, start with the white keys on the piano, or the Diatonic scale. As you probably know, this scale consists of three whole steps, then a half step. Go up one step and repeat the pattern, and there you have it: C,D,E,F,G,A,B, and, of course repetition of C at the octave.

Melodic and Harmonic minors

There are two other scales that are fundamentally the same as the major scale, but with the alteration of just one note. The first is called the melodic or jazz minor scale. It may be created on the white keys by lowering the note E to Eb and playing the others intact. Next is the harmonic minor scale, which may be heard by starting on the note A but raising the note G to G#.

Although there are others, the backbone of Western harmony since temperament of the musical scale has relied most heavily on sound that may be generated from these three scales. This is equally true of polyphonic music, although its method of composition creates harmony secondarily from melody and countermelodies.

The Pentatonic Scale

As to other needed scales, it is a good idea to be conversant with the pentatonic scale, which consists of the notes C,D,E,G, and A only. There are minor pentatonic scales as well, but inverting the C pentatonic will also make this scale useful against minor chords as it stands.

Symmetric Scales

Finally, there are the symmetric scales, so called because of their repetition of certain intervals. The three that are most particularly useful are the whole-tone, played as C,D,E,F#,G#,A#; the diminished which is created by alternating half step and whole step intervals, as for example, C,D,Eb,F,Gb,Ab,A, and B.

The last symmetric scale is called the augmented scale, and it consists of half step and minor third (step and a half) intervals, or C,Eb,E,G,Ab,and B. This scale has particular value in creating tension and then resolution by weaving in and out of harmony in some situations, and reflection of complex chords in others.

To summarize, the scales needed to outline or describe most harmonic situations encountered in European and American music are the major, melodic minor, harmonic minor, pentatonic, diminished, whole tone, and augmented scales.

How do you use them? Well, this question is better answered after we've taken a closer look at chords and progressions. As you have probably already discovered, just playing a scale with some facility over a chord or progression is of limited musical use, as the listener will soon be able to predict the sequence of notes and lose some interest in the music, and your performance of it.


Good question! From a historical point of view, what is presented in this text would be misleading and inaccurate. Music certainly did not start with a tempered scale and the white keys on the piano! However, for the purposes of understanding, writing and playing music what is presented here should help. Just remember that this is all hindsight.

First, how do we get chords? We can start with the major scale, or the white keys on the piano. As you will recall, there are seven different notes. If we were to play three or more of these notes simultaneously, we would have a number of different tones associated with each other at the same time. Would these be chords? Would they be useful musically? The answer to both is yes, but a little organization would be helpful.

If you play already, you probably know that a three-note chord is called a triad and that it has a root, third and fifth tone. Four-note chords are called sixths and sevenths and have the root, third, fifth, and sixth or seventh tone. They may be major or minor, depending on whether the third tone is a step and half or two steps higher than the root. What does this mean? Read on.

Diatonic Chords

For purposes of finding useful musical stuff, let's consider the major scale again. However this time, let's try playing four notes simultaneously. Also, for our purposes here, let's extend the scale up one more octave.

Now, let's give the notes numbers, starting with C as one. D would become 2 in the first octave, and 9 in the second (count and see, if you find this confusing), and E becomes 3 and 10, F becomes 4 and 11, and so on. Are you getting why four note chords are called 7th or 6th chords yet?

Now let's play the first third fifth and seventh tones all at once. What you get are the notes C,E,G, and B. The sound is usually described as restful, and consonant. It is called a C major seventh chord. It's major because there's a two step (Major) interval between the root, C and the third, E. It's a seventh chord because it adds the seventh tone of the scale, B.

Don't stop there. You noticed that C,E,G, and B are also every other note of the scale, since you skipped over D,F,and A. Using the same "every other note" formula, start on D, playing D,F,A, and C.

 What you're hearing is a minor seventh chord. It's minor because there is only a step and a half(a minor interval)between the new root, D and the third tone, F. As before, it's a seventh because C is seven scale tones away from D. Its sonority, or sound, is usually described as being more restless than the major seventh chord, and in need of eventual resolution to some other chord. (That would be a chord progression, which we will also examine later.)

Repeating at E gives you another restless minor seventh chord. From F, you get another major 7th chord, and from G you get something new.

The chord at G has a major third at B, using the two-steps-equals-a-major-third rule, but the seventh tone is a whole step below the octave, as it was in the D minor 7th and E minor 7th chords, not just a half step as it was in the C major 7th chord. (If you didn't catch that difference, go back and see for yourself.)

This new chord, with a major third and a flatted seventh is called a dominant seventh chord. Its name refers to its role in chord progressions. It is usually characterized as being less restless than minor chords, although its ability to release tension by moving upward a fourth to another chord is quite strong.

Playing every other note as before but beginning at A gives you another minor seventh chord.

 Playing every other note from B gives us a root, a minor third (D is a step and a half from B) and a fifth tone that is one half step flat compared to all the others that we have played in this exercise. To prove this, count the half steps between the root and the fifth tones. You will find one less in this example than the others.

This chord is called a minor seventh with a flatted fifth, or a 'minor seven flat five'chord for short. It is also frequently called a half-diminished chord. It can be heard to be a restless chord as well, leaning toward eventual resolution.

 To summarize, we've found a major seventh chord at positions 1 and 4, minor sevenths at positions 2, 4, and 6, a dominant seventh at position 5 and a minor seven flat five chord at position 7 in the scale. Now what?

The Diatonic Cycle of Fourths

When I was first learning music theory, I often heard older musicians talking about a cycle of fourths or fifths. In looking at music books, I noticed many that drew diagrams to illustrate this, going chromatically through all the keys in fourths or fifths. Although this information was valuable, I found very little usefulness in analyzing chord progressions. I knew of no songs that actually progressed chordally in this manner. There was almost always something more going on, and a cycle of chromatic fourths or fifths did little to predict what a chord progression might be like in a composition.

Since I was able to hear that jazz musicians had a much deeper understanding of chord progressions evidenced in their choices of notes in improvisation, I knew that the cycle of fourths was only part of the picture. It took me a while personally to figure this out, but here's the rest.

It is very true that musical progression tends to resolve in fourths, but in most songs this is a closed system of chords in that the cycle of fourths is limited to movement in fourths in diatonic chords. (This of course creates one interval that is an altered, or sharp fourth, between 4 and 7. More on that later, too.)

To put this in context, movement of 1,4,7,3,6,2,5 relative to one scale is extremely frequent in western music. Looking through any songbook with tunes from the last hundred or so years will provide the reader with countless examples of this type of chordal movement beneath melodies from Steven Foster's time, for example, until today.

Certainly there are other elements such as modulation (progressing to another key) and implementation of symmetric chords such as augmented and diminished sevenths. Also, the type of chord may frequently be interchanged (much more on that later) as for example placing a dominant seventh where a major seventh or minor seventh chord might be predicted to appear, or a minor seventh in the place of one of the majors, or even the dominant seventh.

Despite this, the diatonic cycle of fourths is obviously a useful tool to analyze chord progressions in music not only for the purpose of playing good sounding lines over chord progressions, but for composing music and reharmonizing existing music as well.

Using the Diatonic Scale as a Reference

The diatonic scale generates seven chords, but as we all know, some tunes have only one, two or most frequently three chords, and other seem to have zillions. How does this relate? To answer that, let's consider a few things. 

A good place to begin might be the three-chord song. Most of know many of them from "Happy Birthday to You" to almost every fast Rock and Roll tune ever written. We all know the Blues can have just three chords, but sometimes more. There are even tunes that seem to have just one or two chords, but is there a common thread? I think so.

Three chord tunes almost invariably have a Tonic, or Root chord, which then moves to the 4, then the 5 and back to the 1 or Root. In "La Bamba" or "Twist and Shout" this becomes a pattern of 1,4,5,4 played over and over. In country tunes, there are usually two or four measures of each change. In the Blues, all the chords are usually dominant. This is obviously not a diatonic progression, is it? Well, yes and no.

What you will find is that the chords are still 1,4 and 5 chords, but the major scale sounds awful against them if they're all seventh chords. Obviously the scale predicts where the chords will fall to some extent, but the scale is not a good device to create the appropriate harmony. More is needed.

This can be formulated into some true-isms about music in general, and with some study, the diatonic scale can serve as a launching point to get to virtually any type of music, and to aid in selection of the proper choice of notes for improvisation, harmonization and composition. In other words, to find out what scale might go with what chord, as beginning musicians are always struggling to determine.

Same Scale, Different Chords

First, in addition to their original identities, the diatonic chords may appear in a tune as some other type of chord. A dominant seventh chord, for example, could appear at any of the positions of the diatonic scale notes, i.e. in the 1, 4, 7, 3, 6, 2, or 5 positions. These seventh chords may have extensions, or additional non-scale tones added. The third and fifth tones may also be altered (moved up or down a half step) as well. This is particularly true of both jazz and popular music from the post WWII era until today.

Let's look at some examples. In Errol Garner's Misty, usually played in Eb, the song begins on a 5 chord, such as a Bb7(13) which resolves to the 1, or Eb maj 7. Then the song returns to Bb, but this time as a minor seventh. This chord then progresses to the root as a Dominant seventh, and then to the 4, or Ab maj 7. The major 7 then changes to Ami7, then drops half a step to the 3, or Gmi7.

This progresses (in fourths) to C7, usually with a flatted 9 (Db) then to the 2 (F) as a minor seventh then to the 5 (Bb7) and finally to the tonic, or Eb. This movement completes the first eight bars, and is then repeated.

The prevailing movement of chords is in fourths. First from the 5 to the 1, then from the 5 as a minor to the 1 as a dominant (Eb7).  

After the 1 is established as a dominant chord, the resolution is upward a fourth to the Ab. Although it is a 4 chord, since the movement was up a fourth from a dominant, it also feels like a reestablished tonic, or root chord. After this, it turns to a minor, then drops a half step to the 3. It continues in fourths, 3,6,2,5 and ends the phrase on the tonic, in resolution at the end of the "A" section of this 32-bar "A-A-B-A" standard tune.

In just eight bars, the movement from one chord to that of another a fourth away occurs more than eight times! Therefore, if we were to have some musical tools that will help to create good lines over this type of movement, they would indeed prove quite valuable as a means of improvising, arranging, or composing. That's where the scales mentioned at the beginning come in.


As the name does not imply, it's not just for 2-5 progressions, but for any time a chord moves to another chord having a root a fourth away from the first, i,e, 1-4-7-3-6-2-5-1. As you will discover, this movement predominates in our music.

Without going into a great deal of detail, the 2-5 movement will resolve again by a fourth to the 1, which may be either major or minor, as we have seen from previous examples. This is the same thing as moving from a 4 to a 7 to a 3 or 3-6-2, since we already know that the diatonic positions may be occupied by minor or dominant chords where diatonic theory would predict something else.

In modern music, there is an additional complicating factor known as the tritone substitute. We will have a better and more analytical look at the tritone substitute chord later, but for now, it may be thought of as a dominant 7th chord whose root is six half steps (a flat five, or tritone interval) away from the 5 chord or its equivalent. Since we are dealing with a twelve tone musical system, the tritone is also the midpoint of the scale.  Going  six half steps either ascending or descending will place you at the same tone in different octaves.

In a chord progression going from Dmi7 to G7 to Cmaj7 for example, the tritone substitute would be C#7 as a substitute for G7. Similarly, if the same song had a movement from Emi7 to A7 before reaching the Dmi7, the tritone sub for A7, D#7 or its alteration (D#7 b5/ #5/b9/ #9) could be used instead of, or in conjunction with A7 during the progression.

To look at this more simply, a 2-5-1 (or 3-6-2, or whatever) can be substituted 2-b2-1 (or 3-b3-2, or whatever). Also, more complex progressions such as 2-5-b2-1 are allowable and sound good.

The Major 2-5

This tritone substitution or extension of a 2-5-1 type progression may be characterized as a major 2-5 progression.

To harmonize an extended major 2-5(b2)-1 progression, we will obviously need a scale with some different notes than the diatonic scale in it to sound good, as the b2 chord will have some different tones. The scale of choice is the melodic or jazz minor scale referenced at the beginning of this piece, but which one?

To answer this question, let's look at the similarities between the 5 chord and the b2. In every case, you will find that any 5 and b2 chords chosen in any key will have two tones in common: the 7th tone of the b2 chord is the 3 of the 5 chord, and the 7th tone of the 5 chord is the 3 of the b2 chord! These tones are called "guide tones" and their commonality is the fundamental reason that these chords are substitutable for each other. As the 5 chord becomes more altered, or dissonant, by adding # or b9's and 5's or 13ths, the chords become even more similar.

If we choose a melodic minor scale that outlines the guide tones, and additionally reflects the alterations of the 5 chord, i.e. its sharp and flat 9's or 5's it will sound good with the tritone sub or the altered 5 chord, or both. To do this properly, we must choose a melodic minor scale whose root is one half step above the 5 chord.

Using Misty again as an example, playing of Fmi7 to Bb7b5#9 or E7b5 (the tritone sub) may be improvised over by going from melodic ideas in Eb major during the Fmi7 chord, then shifting to note choices from the B melodic minor scale during the Bb or E7 chords, then resolving back to Eb major when the root chord is reached will produce good results in an improvised melody, or a compositional line.

Remember that the "Root" is relative. This type of substitution works in any position that the chords are going through similar motion. As Misty goes from Gmi7 to C7b9b5 to Fmi7, playing in Eb, then C# melodic minor, then back to Eb will sound good for the same reasons.

As you can see, in this last example, the C# melodic minor contains both the inside structure of the 6 chord, C, that is the 3rd and 7th tones as well as the root, and the upper structure of the chord, that is the altered, or flatted and sharped 5th and 9th tones of the C7, and for that reason sounds very good with a C7 having one or more of these alterations.

However the important issue to remember is the applicability of this idea to any chordal movement in fourths, regardless of where it may fall in a tune. In Misty, for example, every place in the tune that shows a movement in fourths would be a candidate for this type of musical interpretation.

This movement from a diatonic scale to a melodic minor a half-step above the "dominant" chord (the "dominant" being the "in-between" seventh chord in a 1-4-7, #4-7-3, 3-6-2, 2-5-1 progression or anything having a similar relation of intervals) then back to the diatonic scale may be generally referred to as a Major 2-5-1 progression.

Yes, I know, we were using the scale shifting from diatonic to melodic minor back to diatonic in positions that did not have a 2mi7 chord going to a 5dom7 chord to a 1maj7 chord, but might have had a 3mi7 to a 6dom7(altered) to a 2mi7 chord. What's up with that?

The fact is, even though the major 2-5-1, or its tritone extension 2-5-b2-1 is a major "turnaround", it also sounds good played between minors! This is a very valuable improvising tool, since there is also a minor turnaroud, and it in turn sounds good against majors!

This means that there are at least two ways to address the same chord progression. As you probably already figured out, this will involve the harmonic minor scale. Let's look at a couple of preliminary ideas, then put this to use also.

The Minor 2-5

A minor turnaround utilizes that strange little chord generated from the 7th position of the diatonic scale: the mi7b5, or half-diminished chord. Once again, without going into historical detail, a Minor 2-5-1 progression may be described as a 2mi7b5 chord moving to a 5dom7 or altered 7th chord (flatted and/or sharped 5th and 9th tones), then to a tonic minor chord, or a minor chord that serves as the root chord of a minor composition.

This may be outlined in scales by beginning in the appropriate diatonic scale, then moving to the appropriate harmonic minor scale, then back to the original diatonic environment. For example, in the key of A minor, (or C major) the minor 2-5 would begin with Bmi7b5, then go to E7 (altered) then to A minor. The C scale would be implemented for the Bmi7b5 and Ami chords, and a harmonic minor beginning on A could be used during the E7 or E7 altered episode.

This is a harmonic minor turnaround, but, as you already know, the major 2-5 could also be used, depending on the composer or player's subjective need for dissonance or note choice from the scale of choice.

Remember that substitution of major or minor 2-5's can occur whenever taste dictates, and if the proper scales are implemented, then the line will sound good if composed and/or played well. To be thorough, it is a very good idea to know both the melodic minor and harmonic minor needed to play into any chord at any position in each different diatonic scale. If, like me, you are primarily a guitar player, this will require that you learn both chords and scales in more than one position- in fact in at least four positions for each scale and key. The good news is that this only amounts to a total of four to six different fingerings for each of the two new scales, and for the diatonic scale if you don't yet have it down everywhere.

Once these scalar positions are familiar, then the diatonic scale gradually begins to look like a backbone to which other chords and scales are attached at specific positions.

For example, where a tune uses a dominant 7 chord at the 6 position in a diatonic scale based on the root, as do countless standards and jazz tunes, a melodic minor scale based on the b7 (the note one half-step above the 7th chord or a harmonic minor scale whose root is the same as the 2 chord, the target of a 3-6-2 progression will either and both contain notes that are good melodic choices for improvisation. Moreover, since literally thousands of tunes from "Donna Lee" to "Dolphin Dance" have this progression in common, once these relative positions are known, the scales may be utilized in any appropriate tune, and in any key.

Obviously, learning both melodic and harmonic minor scales which reflect a 2-5 type turnaround to any chord in a diatonic scale is an extremely valuable undertaking. It provides you with the tools needed to play over any type of chord with the alterations of 9th and 5th (or 11th ) tones you will usually encounter.

There are some other possibilities, especially when the 13th tone is added, and we will deal with some other methods of harmonizing as well, but if you are conversant with harmonic and melodic minor note choices leading into a chord, you will have enough to play good lines over any type of chord, even 13b9 or maj7aug type chords. We'll put that to use in analyzing some harmonic choices, but first, let's expand the diatonic "family" of chords to include the new types of chords we can expect to see at the old positions. Also, let's look at where these chords might move in progressions, and which melodic and harmonic minor scale would be appropriate to harmonize this movement.

 Chords Scales and Progression by Diatonic Position

 1. The tonic- This is a maj7 chord in diatonic theory. It can be a minor, or frequently a 7th chord, as in the blues. It can move anywhere, but there is always a strong tendency to move up a fourth. Since this is the area where we also have another type of fourth interval to create the 1-4-7-3-6-2-5-1 "closed" or diatonic cycle of fourths, this could be, to a 4 maj7 or dominant 7th or minor, and also to a sharp 4 chord, typically a mi7b5 chord which then continues to the 7, which may be a minor or a seventh or another mi7b5.

Harmonizing the closure of 2-5-1 in any key will require a #5 melodic minor scale and a Tonic (1) harmonic minor scale relative to that key.

Movement up a fourth to a major requires no adjustment to the diatonic scale, and the appropriate adjustment to reflect a 7th or a minor if the chord is of that type. (A 7th is the 5 of a diatonic scale a whole step below the original root, for example. In C, if the first chord were a maj7 and the second an F7, then Bb major would harmonize the F7.)

Movement from a #4mi7b5 to a 7dominant 7th altered chord would require a melodic minor based on the root, or C, from the above example during the time the #4mi7b5 and 7alt chords prevailed, then resolution to the appropriate scale for the chord type of the next diatonic chord.

This is seen in the beginning of Stella By Starlight, for example. The first two chords (in the key of Bb) are usually the #4mi7b5 to the 7dom7alt, or Emi11b5 to A7b5b9 in the first two bars, then to the diatonic 2 chord, or Cmi7, where the Bb diatonic scale once again becomes appropriate. During the flight of the #4 and 7 altered chords, the scale of choice is either Bb melodic, or D harmonic minor, or both. This is of course true of all #4 to 7 altered progressions in Bb, not just in Stella. In different places in the tune, this progression occurs in All the Things You Are, Body and Soul, Out of Nowhere, Donna Lee, and Insensatez to name but a few.

Also, minor 2-5 turnarounds are frequent and excellent substitutions for diminished chords used in older compositions. They nearly always reflect the original melody and create non-symmetric melodic opportunities, which to my ear usually sound more interesting. 

2. The supertonic, or 2: Don't worry too much about the names. This chord, like all minor chords tends to want to resolve up a fourth, but it does well as a tonic. It is featured frequently in "vamps", or repeated patterns-especially in Latin and Rhythm and Blues as well as jazz. For examples listen to Oye Como Va, or Evil Ways, covered and recorded by Santana.

In a progression, however, the 2 typically moves to the 5, then the one. When in the altered 5, or the tritone b2, the melodic and harmonic minor scales of choice are based on the #5, and the tonic respectively.

As an aside, it can be noted from many Pop tunes, that 2mi to 3mi to 4ma or similar movement such as 1ma 3mi 6mi also occurs frequently. These situations may be harmonized by the appropriate diatonic scale without alterations, but tasteful use of chromatics or alterations can sound very good.

The 2 chord may also be a dominant 7th chord. It may be harmonized if altered in two ways: First, it can be considered a 7th or dominant chord, and harmonized using the #2 melodic or with less effectiveness with the b7 harmonic minor. Also, because of its intervallic relationship to the tonic scale, it may be treated as a tritone substitute, and harmonized with the melodic minor scale based on the 6 of the scale, or the #2 harmonic a bit less effectively.

3. The mediant, or 3: This position in the scale is frequently the site of a dominant 7th chord instead of the minor. Although it is possible to modulate to another key from this chord, or to move to any diatonic chord, two choices seem to be more prevalent:

First, as should be obvious by now, up a fourth to either a minor or very commonly a 7th or altered and extended 7th chord, and also up one half step to the 4, or sub-dominant chord, which may be either a maj 7, a dominant 7th or a minor. This latter movement is a reflection of the Leading Tone (7th) Dominant type progression.

The Leading Tone dominant will be treated in greater detail later, but a less common yet good sounding progression has a tonic major dropping one half step to a seventh chord, then returning to the tonic, as in Whispering, or Heartaches. In a secondary sense, a chord going from a 3 seventh to a four major 7 or dominant 7 goes through the same type of motion, and can be harmonized the same way. (A secondary Leading Tone Dominant).

This gives rise to two harmonic situations that may be found abundantly in Western music having a chord at the 3 position. First of course is the regular diatonic cycle of fourths to the 6. This might be thought of as a 7mi7b5 to a 3dom7alt to the 6. During the altered 3dom7 episode, a melodic minor based on the 4 and a harmonic minor based on the 6 may be used for effective harmonization. Note that the melodic minor also spells out a 4 minor chord, and this is in fact a commonly found chord at the 4, evidenced in our earlier example of Misty.  

What this means is that the 3dom7 and 4mi6 or 7th are excellent substitutes for each other, and make use of the same harmonic and melodic minor scales to outline their structure and upper structure. Naturally, this relationship occurs elsewhere in the scale in that a minor chord half a step above any dominant chord has a great deal to do with that 7 chord's altered upper structure.

4. The subdominant, or 4: As from before, the 4 may be a dominant, tritone dominant, or minor chord as well as a maj7 chord. Also, since the b5 tone of the 4maj 7th is also a diatonic scale tone (the 3rd note) the Maj7b5 chord or the Maj7aug11 (this is a chord with both the 5th and the b5, or aug 11 tones in the same chord) is frequently heard in this position. It has a more restless character due to the b5 and is a good departure point for modulation to another key among other things.

A 7b5 chord in the 4 position is also the tritone substitute for the 7 chord in a #4-7-3 progression, such as in Stella. For that reason, the melodic minor based on the root is a very strong harmonizing scale for the chord in that form. As a minor, direct substitution of the melodic minor scale works very well in harmonization, as well as the choice of the 6-based harmonic minor. This chord is also frequently the destination of a secondary 2-5 or 2-5-b2 progression beginning with the 5 minor, as was also noted in Misty. (As a reminder, a secondary 2-5 is the same interval somewhere else in a diatonic scale, such as at 3-6, or 1-4, etc.)

5. The dominant, or 5: This position is usually the last chord before closing of a chorus or a tune, or the return to the tonic. As stated before, if it is a 7th chord, it may be harmonized using its diatonic tones, and if it has altered upper structure, it may be reflected harmonically in the #5 melodic minor scale and the tonic harmonic minor.

Additionally, as in Misty, the chord may become a minor to be used as part of a secondary 2-5 to the 4 chord. As such, it is treated as a 2, using a major scale based on the 4, or continuing to use Misty in Eb as an example, playing an Ab major scale during the Bb(5)mi7, then shifting to a #2 melodic minor (E) or a 4 harmonic minor (Ab) during Eb7altered episode, which may also include the tritone sub, A7b5, then shifting to Eb major as Ab is reached in the progression.

6. The Relative Minor, or 6: This chord is frequently used as a tonic in minor key compositions, but remember that there are two other diatonic minors with different upper structure due to their different places in the scale. The 6 minor has a flat 6th, or 13th tone and a natural 9th tone- not flatted or sharped. It is very often the site of a dominant 7th chord with altered upper structure in standard and jazz tunes. As such, it is harmonically reflected with the most accuracy using a melodic minor based on the b7 of the scale and/or a harmonic minor based on the 2, which is the chord's usual destination in a progression if it is a 7th chord. Next to the 5 chord, the 6 may be the most common in chord progressions of more than three chords.

 7. The Leading Tone, or 7: Because of its similarity to the 5 chord, it is an excellent substitute as a mi7b5. It may frequently be the position of a seventh chord, or leading tone dominant at which time its upper structure is found in the tonic melodic minor, or the harmonic minor based on the 3. It may also be a mi7th chord without alteration in the 5th as in Lennon & McCartney's Yesterday.

So, what have we found? The 7 note positions of the diatonic scale are points where different types of chords may be found in literally thousands of tunes. In any diatonic position, a minor 7th, minor 6th, minor7b5 or dominant 7th may be found instead of the chord predicted by diatonic expansion. If we know the melodic and harmonic minors scales needed to outline these differences at every position, we have sufficient tools to harmonize altered 7th, minor 7th and altered minor 7th chords as we find them in a tune. Furthermore these chords appear to constitute a "family" of harmony that is drawn upon time after time in composition and improvisation. If we add modulation, or changing key to what we know about what typically happens internally relative to one "key" or scale, we have a tool for analysis, including harmonization and improvisation of more than ninety percent of Western music being produced!

If we add knowledge of chord substitution that is intuitive from the preceding, and learn to voice chords in manners that make them accessible and playable on the guitar, we should have enough information to answer the questions regarding what scale to use with what type of chord, and also to have the scales and chords readily at hand, regardless of our hand position on the fingerboard. This should enable us not only to accurately analyze a tune so that its harmonization is not a mystery, but to be able to improvise with facility as well.

To begin, let's look at a tune to see how all this is applicable. This will give us an opportunity to look at modulation at the same time, since many tunes that appear to follow these guidelines may be written to include modulations to other keys.

Stella by Starlight

The tune begins with a #4mi7b5 to 3dom7alt to 2minor. Play 1melodic or 3 harm. to 2mi, or diatonic.

Next is a secondary 2-5, i.e. 5mi to 1dom7alt to 4, to 4 mi. Play 1dom (this is a diatonic scale based on the 4) to #1mel or 4 harm to 4 (1diaton) to 4mi (4mel 6harm)

Next the progression states 1maj to 6mi to #4mi7b5 to 7dom7alt to 3mi7 to 1mi7 to 4dom7 alt. Any ideas? 

If you're not quite up to speed on this, remember the melodic minor has a root a half step above the dominant or secondary dominant chord, whichever is the case, and the harmonic minor has a root based on the secondary "tonic" chord. In this example, if Stella is in Bb, that would be Bb mel or D harm on the #4 to 7 then Bb diat on the 3 mi then 1 mel again when the 1 chord turns to a minor. The major 7 tone, A is a good sounding choice with the Bb mi chord since it is in the scale. (This would be a minor-maj7 chord, since it has a flat 3rd and a major 7th tone.)

After this, the song goes to F major 7, D minor 7, then back to a #4-7 turnaround followed by a 2mi7 to a 3dom7. A modulation occurred to the key of F during the F to D minor episode.

This seemed very natural since the preceding chords were Bbmi7 to Eb7 altered. Although the song was still in Bb, these chords also relate to the key of F as a 4mi to a b7alt chord which moves naturally to a 3 minor, which is only one note away from an F major.

(This type of movement, descending from a 3 to a 1, or a 4 to a 2 creates a sort of sub-tension since the notes of both chords are in the same scale and nearly similar. It is frequently used where less dramatic tension and release are musically desirable, as interim texture between more tension-generating changes.)

The tune returns indisputably to the Bb diatonic family in the next chord, G7alt, which is the 6th tone of Bb. It may be harmonically described with the Ab melodic or C harmonic minors. Can you derive this yourself yet?

The tune then proceeds to a 2mi7, a 4mi7, and then a "cadence break" where turnaround chords are employed. The turnaround progression should end in a chord that will logically progress to the next chord in the piece. In the case of Stella, this is the #4mi7b5, which progresses to the 7alt to the 3 to 6 to 2 to 4mi6, (a substitute for the 5) then the tonic, and a final cadence break to start the song over. Based on the rules we have gone over so far, you should be able to analyze the final harmony to determine the other scales needed.


To summarize, a "family" of chords related to the Bb scale by the tendency of composed music to reflect similarities in substitution of chord types inserted at the same points in a diatonic scale has shown itself useful in analyzing the harmony for this tune. Look at this also:

2mi7(or mi7b5 or dom7alt) - 5dom7alt - 1maj or dom7 or mi

3mi7(or mi7b5 or dom7 alt) - 6mi7(or dom7 alt) - 2mi, or dom7

4maj7(or mi7 or dom7alt or maj7b5) - 7(mi7b5 or dom7alt) - 3(mi7 or dom7alt)

5dom7(or mi7) - 1maj7, mi or dom7- 4(maj or mi or dom7)

6mi7(or mi7b5 or dom7alt) - 2mi7(or mi7b5 or dom7alt) - 5dom7alt(or mi7 or mi7b5)

7mi7b5(or mi7 or dom7alt) - 3mi7(or dom7alt or mi7b5) - 6mi7(or dom7alt or mi7b5)

#1mi7b5(or mi7 or dom7alt) - #4dom7alt(or mi7b5 or mi7) - 7dom7alt(or mi7b5 or mi7)

 All but the first of these progressions are secondary 2-5-1 progressions leading to the different scale positions in the diatonic scale, i.e. the 1,2,3,4,5,6 and 7 tones in any of the 12 keys. They are found to recur endlessly in jazz and standard tunes.

  All may be harmonized using melodic minor and harmonic minor scales based on the tones a half step above the middle chord and the root of the third chord respectively.

Our task of learning extra scales is therefore simplified to the extent that once the scales are learned in each of the relative diatonic positions that reflect typical choices in compositional harmony, they may be applied to any tune that fits this analysis. That is a very long list of songs, which includes the vast majority of published work of the last hundred or more years.

As a personal assignment, find charts to several standard tunes, such as "All the Things You Are" or "There is no Greater Love" and diagram the changes with respect to substituted diatonic chords, and modulation.

You should find that "All the Things" traverses from the parent key of Ab to C, then to Eb, then G, then E before returning to Ab. "Greater Love, on the other hand, appears to stay in Bb, although the diatonic scale points have non-Bb diatonic chords.

Even very complex tunes, such as Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" or Dave Brubeck's "The Duke" give way to this sort of analysis. It is even helpful in looking at tunes that appear to be a bit weirder in structure, such as "Nefertiti" or "Gloria's Step". 

Also you should keep in mind that this is only one way to look at harmonic analysis, and its intention is to show you some of the things you can play, never to dictate what you can't, or shouldn't play! What you avoid should be a matter of personal technique and taste. There are as many ways to improvise as there are improvisers.

We now have an extended family of chords as well. Here's what we have in fourth movements:

1-4; #1-#4; 2-5; 3-6; 4-b7; #4-7; 5-1; 6-2; 7-3. In tritones, we have 1-7; #1-1; 2-b2; 3-b3; 4-3; #4-4; 5-b5; 6-#5; 7-b7. Let's take the key of C for example and put names to these.

Cmaj7-F7 // C#mi7b5-F#7 // Dmi7-G7 // Emi7-A7 // Fmaj7-Bb7 // F#mi7b5-Bmi7b5 // G7-C7 // Ami7-D7 // Bmi7b5-E7. The tritones add B7, C7, C#7, D7, D#7, E7, F7, F#7, G#7, A#7, or 7th chords now at every chromatic scale position, since we already had one at G.

The tritone sub chords are already included in the major and minor 2-5's discussed, and need no further harmonic adjustment. However the G#7 arises from an Ami-D7-G7 progression and is outlined by the Eb melodic and G harmonic minor scales.

The diatonic "extended family" now includes new secondary roots, the sharp 4 and 5, and the flat 2 and 7.

Whew! This seems like an awful lot of information to keep organized in any simple matter, but it's relatively easy if we look at it a little differently.

Combining Strengths

In a Diatonic family of chords, we are primarily interested in reflecting the differences in notes that arise when we are in a chord that is part of a progression that is related to the scale, but can't be harmonized well using the diatonic scale notes. We'll continue in the key of C for illustration.

If we have a means at hand of playing these differences, they will aid us as well in ear training, since they reoccur in nearly all tunes. We just have to break them up into the examples that do reoccur and memorize where, relative to the parent scale (we're staying in C for these examples) that they do occur. Since we already know that major and minor 2-5's have a very high degree of interchangeability, and this creates good note choices, it would be helpful to look at each diatonic scale position as a target for a combined major/minor 2-5 turnaround.

Since each turnaround will use a mel and harm minor whose relative distances from each other are equal, this simplifies the task to finding the appropriate combined turnaround to lead to each of the scale positions.

For G7 to C, use G# mel or C harm mi

For A7 to D, use A# mel or D harm mi

For B7 to E, use C mel or E harm mi

For C7 to F, use C# mel or F harm mi

For D7 to G, use D# mel or G harm mi, or treat D7 as a tritone and use A# mel mi

For E7 to A, use F mel or A harm mi

For F#7 to B, use G mel or B harm mi

Also remember the target chord, the second in the equations, may have a 7b5 chord a half step above it (the tritone sub) either replacing the first chord or added to the progression. The tritone subs are included in the harmonic analysis and require no harmonic adjustment.

Therefore, if we know the notes of the seven melodic and harmonic minors, and which diatonic chord position they precede, and if we are aware of modulation, we should have some means of playing through any type of chord change, and also a means of identifying chord changes by analysis, repetition, and eventual memorization.

If this is practiced and absorbed, this type of analysis works for virtually any tune. Retroactively, it is a means for creating reharmonization, chord substitution and can be a launching vehicle to more experimental styles of playing. 


Before we go further in this direction, it might be a good idea to have a look at "modal" playing, since it is prevalent in non-western music, and exists in some form or the other in jazz and commercial writing and playing. You probably heard and maybe already know the names of the modes. The church modes are simply the major scale played from each of the seven positions as a tonic. This creates seven different scales, just as you will recall it created seven different chords. Similarly, there are two major, three minor, a dominant and a somewhat enigmatic sounding 7th tone mode, all arising from the same scale. Their names and characterizations follow. The names are from Cl.assic Greek but have no historic significance.

  1. Ionian- the plain old major scale.
  2. Dorian- the sound of a minor 7th with a 6th, 11th and 9th. A mysterious minor, often coupled with the 5 chord as a vamp.
  3. Phrygian- the 3-minor with a flat 6, flat 9, natural 11th and a distinctly Spanish or Moorish flavor. The 3 chord can turn into a seventh without much transitional tension, since the b6 and b9 already bring a lot to the sound. It is complimented by the harmonic minor scale beginning a fourth higher in a very pleasant manner.
  4. Lydian- the sound of a major 7 with a flat 5. This mode is widely used in jazz but rarely if ever in rock. It has an enigmatic rest/restless, dissonant/consonant feel to most people. The mode can easily escalate into freer playing in the hands of a good jazz musician.
  5. Mixolydian-the sound of the seventh chord without alteration, i.e. natural 5th 9th , 11th and 13th. Indispensable to the playing of Latin music. Usually it is a bit plain for exclusive use in R&B, blues or jazz contexts.
  6. Aeolian- the usual "tonic" minor. It is less used in the modal context, but its tonic is a mainstay of many chord progressions.
  7. Locrian-As a mode, it imparts a sort of dreamlike state much as the whole tone scale played in a lazy legato. Not the best for lengthy improvisation unless as a launching point into a freer type playing.

The idea in modal playing is to dispense with chordal progression in the more traditional sense, and instead emphasize the rhythmic and melodic aspects of playing. This isn't a hard and fast rule, and tonal clusters may play a significant part of some players' modal work, but all that is required is a drone or tone at the tonic, usually in the bass register. The mode may be strictly adhered to with no "outside" tones allowed or with varying degrees of freedom-at the extreme end of the spectrum, the mode becomes a base for departure and arrival of free soloing.

Removal of the changing harmonic environment of chord progressions can of course lead to a more intense relationship to rhythm and melody, but at the expense of harmonic variety.

Still, its a good idea to practice playing in the modes to recognize the unique tonal characteristics of the Dorian, Phrygian and Aeolian minors, and the Mixolydian and Lydian environments.

Your favorite modal ideas will of course relate when you are encountering the same harmonic circumstances in a chord progression, and conversely, cycling through related chords in a mode can sound very pleasant as well. For example in a D Dorian, try playing from the Dorian to the D harm/Fmelodic mi as you would in a Dmi to E7#9 to Dmi type progression, as in "Out of Nowhere" or "Airegin". Better yet, try 4mi, 7alt7, 3alt7, b37b5, 2mi, or some such. 


Any "Unified Field Theory of Music" has to include all influences reflected in the music itself, and after temperament of the scale, the blues has to come just about directly afterward as a major influence. I think its universality comes from its being a means of recapturing some of what we lost when we agreed on tempered scales.

The gift of modulation in music is a wonderful one, but there are definitely tones that we all hear that don't occur on the piano. I guess if this bothers us enough, we become guitar players! At any rate the untempered nature of "blue" notes, that is the ambiguity of the third, fourth and seventh tones of the scale that singers sing and players play has a gut-level connection to most of us that bypasses words, and goes straight to feeling.

Even though it almost certainly predates the piano, and is more based on natural overtones, where the chords in blues fall are still easily determined from the diatonic scale. In the simpler forms, there may be only one or two chords, but usually there are at least three, and depending on numerous historical factors that are beyond the scope of this text, a few more to quite a few more to as many as you want and as strange as you want.

Because the "blues" scale contains some notes that are not accurately interpreted in temperament, musicians have compensated by playing major and minor thirds, sixths and sevenths, fives and flat fives in the same chord. This has thankfully led to some of the rich variety of chords and polychords that abound in this century's music.

In its formal structure today, "the blues" refers to a 12 bar structure. It is customarily composed of 7th chords, or dominant 9th chords at the one, four and five diatonic positions. The bars of each chord in the form are outlined below:

1.            2.           3.            4.          5.           6.          7.          8.           9.

||:C7 / / / | F7 / / / | C7 / / / | C7 / / / | F7 / / / | F7 / / / |C7 / / / | C7 / / / | G7 / / / |

10.       11.        12.

F7 / / / | C7 / / / | G7 / / / :||

 More often than not, these chords only serve as reference points to more complex sub-patterns, including tritone substitution, and reharmonization along the lines of the diatonic cycle of fourths. Charlie Parker's blues compositions show numerous examples of varieties of twelve bar blues chord progressions. 


||:C13 / C#7 F#7 | F7 / Bb7/ | C7 / C#7 / | C7 / F#9 / | F7 / / / | Fmi7 / Bb7 / |

 F#mi7b5 / B7#9 F7b5 | E7#5 / A7#9 / | D7b5 / A7b5 / |G#7b5 / G7#9 b9

C7 / A7#9 / | Dmi7 / G13 C#7b5 :||


No, that's not a Charlie Parker blues progression, but it shows some typical extended blues chords. There are simpler ones, and more complex.


Unfortunately, it's just that- an art. No book will make you a player, but it can show you some tools, and some general guidelines and maybe help you get where you want to go a bit more quickly. What about those scales?

Scales are really just a resource like a dictionary. They show you a series of notes related to a chord or progression in a sort of shorthand form that is easier to memorize. Naturally, it carries information about the notes in the chords that may be created from it, and can serve as a means of calling chord forms into the context of progression more quickly. But if a player's only means of musical expression is the not-so-accurate attempt at rapid execution of scales, that player probably sucks.

The best players I have heard all seem to have a facility for the creation of melody. This may reflect some pattern or scalar or "lick" playing, but mostly, it's the intelligent and tasteful execution of different but related notes. If you examine transcriptions of some of the best playing, this seems to be done by the stringing together of small two or three-note "micro-melodies" or motifs.

These small ideas frequently use accidental tones to reinforce "inside" scale tones. Also, the time of change of harmony is often highlighted by using the outstanding different tone of the upcoming chord change as a melodic target. This can sound seamless if this tone is embedded in yet another motif. 

For example in an Emi7 to A7b9 progression in a tune in C, try to land on the note C#, the third of the A7 chord on the first beat of the A7 chord. It is a very outstanding different tone, being a half step above the tonic that reflects the tonality of the 3 minor, or E.

 A little about motifs. Anything that sounds good works. The first five notes of "Honeysuckle Rose" is a nearly universal motif. Once you have it, play with it, vary it, try it backwards, leave notes out, and put notes in. Then put it in context. Try tying that to some other idea, such as three successive chromatic notes ending on an inside tone of the present chord. Moving chromatically from a 6th tone to a major 7th is classic and sounds grounded.

Chord arpeggios are good creative ways to begin motifs. Remember to keep each one small, three to five notes, and try to know several ways of playing each. Include the altered notes, the 11ths and 13ths of chord arpeggios, and remember to see them as parts of the melodic and harmonic minors. Most of all, play them! Bad or good, string them together, and if you don't like them change them.

A good way to work with motifs is to create a few, say five, and limit playing over a short chord progression using just those few. Vary them in any way that makes sense, and work with them until you are comfortable making melodies with them.

If you find particular combinations you like, learn them everywhere on the instrument, so they'll be available to you. As a resource, listen to everything. It might be a few notes from a commercial, or a lick from a recording, or something from a composition. "Rhyming" the lick by playing it starting on a different note of the scale is another way to increase your vocabulary. Traditional blues licks sound a bit different and interesting if modified to suit melodic or harmonic minors and used accordingly.


 Coming soon..More on motifs and creating melody lines.