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I have a rough idea but I'm a beginner and I want to get some pointers. If I play a chord, how do I know what notes I can play on top of them that will sound good. I'm thinking any that is part of the scale that chord is part of. Does that sound correct?

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  • 5
    Does this answer your question? How to know what notes will go together while improvising?
    – Tom
    Dec 9 '20 at 13:27
  • it depends on the style. You should try to play different things and hear how they sound. Then you will understand. Some people focus too much on theory instead of also using their ears. It might be different for deaf musicians (I have no ideas how they do it).
    – user20754
    Dec 9 '20 at 15:46
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There is no such thing as "allowed to play" or "not allowed to play".

Music is an art form and a means of self expression so anything goes. There are canned answers with foundations in Western music theory but to say that theory mandates what can be played puts the cart before the horse so to speak.

It is true that certain combinations of notes sound pleasing while others are generally considered unpleasant. But that means you can capitalize on the unpleasantness of these note combinations to tell an unpleasant story. In fact any note can be played over any chord.

If someone were to interpret your question from the Western point of view they might immediately provide a list of all the chords in the Major scale and Melodic Minor scales and start listing this mode goes with that chord etc. However such lists and explanations are intrinsically ethnocentric. They ignore the multitude of Indian scales, Carnatic and Raga, East Asian scales, even European scales that didn't make it into classical music theory.

You could make your question a little better by providing a specific chord progression, song, or even genre of music. Then people might be able to provide better guidance.

As an attempt I'd offer the following, from a purely Western point of view.

Let's say you are strumming a D minor chord and want to develop a melody. The notes are {D, F, A}. This chord alone does NOT specify a key so really any minor sounding mode will work. Examples from Western music are D dorian {D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D}, D minor {D, E, F, G, A, Bb, C, D}, D phygian {D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb, C, D}, and D locrean {D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, D}. The common feature is that the major third of the chord {F#} is avoided. The third gives the chord its minor or major tone. Also missing is the maj 7th {C#} but this is not forbidden. In some genres players put a maj 3rd over a minor chord as a passing tone. Based on this you might say that chord tones should be highlighted but any combination of notes leading into them is "allowed". Other examples of scales that would work are the D min pentatonic {D, F, G, A, C} and D minor blues {D, F, G, Ab, A, C}.

You are free to add notes not in the chord to create extensions, e.g. {D, F, A} + {C, E} = Dmin9.

If you are asking about creating solo lines then a better approach is to learn or write melodic lines that you think sound nice, regardless of note combination, then start using them over chords to see what works. There is no formula that ensures "good music" will be the result.

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This is being asked from a blinkered point of view! Just about any of the 12 notes, if not all, are 'allowed' to be played over a specific chord!

First 'problem' is that a chord in isolation isn't a good start point. Any one particular chord could belong to several different keys, each of which has its own set of notes - and those sets differ, sometimes greatly.

It should go without saying that for any chord, the chord tones - notes played in that chord - will fit. Why wouldn't it?

After that, it can get rather subjective. Take a C7 chord in Blues. C E G B♭. In Blues, E♭ and G♭ crop up because they're Blue notes. Neither are chord tones, and in the wrong situation, e.g. classical music, they would involve the player and a firing squad!

Let's try to simplify (and de-mystify!) it all.

Firstly, the diatonic notes from the piece's key are a good start place. But - it will depend a lot on what actual chord is prevalent at that moment. Taking key C major, the notes (diatonic) are C D E F G A and B. Those notes may fit with any diatonic chords, and this is basically what you ask. As before, if the chord in question is, say, C major, obviously C E G will fit, and D and A blend quite well. F and B might, but that brings us onto another important point.

Where in the bar do notes sound good/bad? 1 on 1 is always guaranteed. So playing a C note on beat 1 on a C bar has to work. Beat 3 is also strong, so C E or G is also a good choice. Since beats 2 and 4 are weaker,other notes will fit in less obtrusively. And there's always what I call 'stepping stone' notes - aka passing notes, that join together the more melodious notes - that will work anyway.

So to sum up, any note is 'allowed'; use those ears to decide; there's no hard and fast 'rule'; consider diatonic notes first; be aware of where in the bar notes are being played; also be aware that sometimes a completely 'wrong, technically' note will work brilliantlyif played well and followed up with something that maybe fits perfecty.

And above all, if you do play a wrong note, smile as if you meant it, and play it again a couple of times soon after, to just prove that you did...

And consider 'aloud' as opposed to 'allowed'. It's music...

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  • Only 12 notes?! Oh my, you can forget Blues (bending that is). ;-)
    – user50691
    Dec 9 '20 at 18:10
  • @ggcg - good point - I'm trying to keep it simple. OP isn't too experienced.
    – Tim
    Dec 9 '20 at 18:12
  • I couldn't resist.
    – user50691
    Dec 9 '20 at 18:16
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You need to first know what musical style you are playing, because what you are "allowed" to do depends on the harmonic conventions of the style.

Of course, you are allowed to do whatever you want. Music is art. But, it's understood you want to know what is acceptable in a particular style. Again, this is really a harmonic issue (how to combine simultaneous tones) where the guiding principle is consonance versus dissonance.

Consonance is tones consider to sound "good" together, and dissonance is tones consider to not sound good together. You can replace good/bad with lots of other descriptions. The important thing is consonance and dissonance work together in most harmonic styles. It's like breathing in and out, you need both. It's important to understand the concept of consonance and dissonance working together, because in most cases you have multiple options form choosing notes, and there is not one correct way to do things. There are only options. The choices you make are sensible and have expressive power vis a vis consonance and dissonance.

In practical application we talk about consonant chord tones and dissonant non-chord tones. Also, two other sets of terms are usually applied: accented & un-accented tones and diatonic or chromatic tones. Let's look at the application of these ideas:

The basic consonant chord is a major or minor triad. Chords work in keys with seven basic tones. Minor keys have a few extra harmonic details, but we will skip that. Also, the ii7, V7, and vii07 are the common seventh chords in classical style, but we will skip those details too. A triad has three tones so that will always leave out 4 dissonant non-chord tones. Let's see that for a C major chord. The chords tones are C E G and labelled R 3rd 5th for the root, third, and fifth of the chord. The four non-chord tones are in parenthesis...

   R   3rd 5th     R
   C   E   G       C
  / \ / \ / \  !  / \
(b) (d) (f) (a) (b) (d)

Notice that any of the dissonance non-chord tones is always one step away from a chord tone. Additionally, any of the twelve chromatic tones which is not a chord tone will be one step - whole or half - from a chord tone. To the extent that any of the non-chord tones is a dissonant "wrong note" it can always be "made right" by resolving it by moving a single step to a chord tone.

The space between the fifth of the chord and the root above present a special complication, noted with an exclamation point. The tone above the fifth can't move up to the root by a single step, likewise the tone below the root can't move down by single step to the fifth. We will skip those details and just say any non-chord tone can be resolved to a chord tone by a single step movement.

At this point we need to add a caveat: in "classical" style the handling of non-chord tones follows a very circumscribed harmonic style. While in principle you can move any non-chord tone by step to a chord tone only certain moves were the conventional choices. Three important harmonic concepts in that regard are tendency tones, secondary dominant chords, and enharmonic spelling, but like other complicating details we will skip that. A deep study of harmony is necessary to really understand it, but you can probably get by with these two rules of thumb:

  • when a non-chord tone is a half-step away from a chord tone, make the half step move to that chord tone for resolution, in our C chord example B moves up to C and F moves down to E
  • any chromatically altered non-chord tone will tend to resolve in the direction of the alteration, in our example chord F# would move up to G and Ab would move down to G, and so on

The basic triad can be extended with sevenths, ninths, etc. up to a thirteenth chord. Both classical style and jazz use chords up to the ninth as a regular part of their basic harmonic vocabularies. In some ways these extended chords make the sense of consonance and dissonance murkier, but in other ways simpler.

Consider a thirteenth chord. It contains all seven tones of a key! You literally cannot play a diatonic non-chord tone over a bona fide thirteenth chord. But this is really more of a theoretical concept. In reality a supposed thirteenth is better regarded as an added sixth. Let's skip that theoretical mess and use the working premise that a fully and proper ninth chord is the common extended chord type.

In a ninth chord there are five chord tones leaving only two diatonic non-chord tones. Now the chord diagram looks like this...

   R   3rd 5th 7th 9th
   C   E   G   B   D
        \ / \ /
        (f) (a)

Diatonically there is also nothing left that doesn't "fit" the chord.

On the one hand that would seem to make things easier - there are only two non-chord tones to worry about - but on the other hand some new issues arise. Depending on the non-chord tones used and the line played you could potentially do things like make the E G B portion sound like a E minor tonic, or the G B D portion sound like a dominant chord, etc. in conflict with the C root. Such things may or may not be desirable.

How to get started:

  • play only chord tones first
  • play diatonically to introduce non-chord tones
  • resolve non-chord tones by step, give preference to half step resolutions
  • first try un-accented chord tones, three important types: neighbor tone, passing tone, escape tone
  • then try accented non-chord tones called appoggiaturas
  • first try chromatic non-chord tones as half-step below chord tones

That list increases the complexity in a gradual way. Don't overlook the effectiveness of playing mostly chord tones. It will first get your ear tuned into the key and harmonic structure. You only need to add a little bit of non-chord tones to basic chord tone motion to get a nice melodic line. There is no formula of how to do it. But in homophonic music (music based on chords) you can find tons and tons of melodies that have something like a 75% chord tone to 25% non-chord tone mix. Again, that isn't a formula for everything. It's just something to give you the sense that you don't need to overload your melodic playing with lots of non-chord tones.

Of course the other thing you can do is noodle. Just play diatonically, noodle around in the key/scale, meaning play scale motion freely, usually with a fairly fast rhythm, don't worry about chord tone, during the noodling, but when you end the noodling line end on a chord tone. A good thing to try is working over the barline. Noodle for a bar, then when the chord changes with the barline, end on a chord tone in that next chord. You can think of this as dissonance and consonance on a larger scale: a whole bar of "dissonant" noodling resolves to the next consonant bar.

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