I'm creating an abbreviated music theory course for a guitarist buddy of mine. At this point, we're covering chord formulas, e.g., 1-3-5 in the C Major scale = C-E-G.

I found myself about to write a sentence (marked in bold below) in the lesson I'm working on:

"To determine the notes within a chord, we need two pieces of information: 1) the chord formula (e.g., 1-b3-5 for the minor chord), and 2) the key of the scale from which the chord is drawn (e.g., the C Major scale). All chords, by the way, are drawn from the major scales, versus from the minor, pentatonic, blues, or diminished scales.

Thus, the notes for the minor chord in the C Major scale are........"

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    Even your example, of a minor tonic, requires a note not in the major scale. I recommend you grab a book on introductory music theory rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. Jul 5, 2013 at 16:51
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    I'm not sure I understand what you mean by a chord being drawn from a scale. Have you considered such relatively common chords as 1-3b-5-7 (minor with major 7), 1-3b-5b-7bb (diminished) or 1-3-5# (augmented)?
    – nonpop
    Jul 6, 2013 at 9:15
  • I've cleaned up the comments a little here.
    – user28
    Jul 8, 2013 at 14:27
  • It would be more appropriate to say "Most commonly used chords" and then add reference to more detail. Jul 10, 2013 at 15:12

5 Answers 5


Good question, but your assertion is entirely incorrect. Chords are derived from intervals, not particular scales. Your presented definition of chords would not hold up under 12-tone theory, chromaticism, clusters, pandiatonicism, non-functional harmony, or a host of other theoretical contexts.

In addition, different chords are considered "common" in music theory during different time periods. Major, minor, and diminished chords have been common for the past few hundred years (about 600 or so,) but many other chords are now considered common. For this reason, it is also good to specify which time period your talking about, or at least clarify which common chords you're going to discuss.

Therefore, it is for the above reasons that it would be incorrect to say that "all common chords are built using the major scales" as it is non-specific and would only hold up under the umbrella of functional harmony.

Hope that helps!

  • But if you gentlemen were confused by the statement, there’s a good chance my guitar buddy will be confused, also. Let’s see. How can I clarify what I’m trying to say in the lesson (and thus, ask in this post)? How about the following? All chords, by the way, are built upon the root of one of the twelve major scales, versus the root of any other scales, such as the minor, pentatonic, blues, or diminished scales. AND, I’m still awaiting confirmation on the point, because the minute I say something like, “all chords,” I’m going to find out later that I’m wrong. Thank you, --Otis Jul 6, 2013 at 1:14
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    @OtisGilchrist - I was not confused by your statement - it is simply incorrect. You will be hard-pressed to find a respectable confirmation when your own point is in itself incorrect. I agree with Carl's comment above - refer your friend to an actual theory textbook and interpret / clarify when you need to. Jul 6, 2013 at 13:06
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    Well, I've taken the advice of revamping my abbreviated course and basing it on Peter Vogl's The Guitarist's Music Theory Book. I now feel more confident that I'm guiding my buddy based on a higher understanding of theory. Jul 13, 2013 at 15:37
  • @OtisGilchrist - good for you! My comments / answer were / was nothing personal, it's just, why work harder than you need to? Jul 13, 2013 at 17:47

I would reword your statement to say "Since all chords are organized collections of tones, all chords can be associated with a scale within the modern diatonic & chromatic systems of harmony. Major triads, for example, can be associated with the major scale since both collections contain a root, major 3rd and fifth. Although there are many scales which align themselves with a major triad, the major scale is a more well-known choice and therefore a more digestible association for beginning instrumentalists."

Although there are many theories in music and a whole host of nomenclature and syntax that exist, it all boils down to the same set of 12 tones (in modern Western diatonic & chromatic harmony, that is.) I have found that the easiest way to chords, arpeggios and improvisation to students is to associate the chords with common scales. For example:


C Major Triad => 1, 3, 5 => Major, Lydian

C Minor Triad => 1, b3, 5 => Natural Minor (Aeolian), Dorian

C Diminished Triad => 1, b3, b5 => Whole/Half Diminished, Half/Whole Diminished

C Augmented Triad => 1, 3, #5 => Augmented, Whole Tone, 3rd Mode Melodic Minor

C Dominant 7 => 1, 3, 5, b7 => Mixolydian, 5th Mode Harmonic Minor, Super Locrian

These are just a few examples. Every scale contains hosts of possible chord combinations, just as every 3 or 4-note chord is contained within several scales. These simply serve as mechanisms to associate chords with a set tonality and provide a degree of functionality for beginning & intermediate students of music. I hope this helps!

  • Nate I'm going to have to disagree with you in part here. I think your definition works pretty well for functional harmony, but it is not an all-inclusive definition. For example, it would not hold up under quartal or quintal chord theory or even microtonal chord theory. As I mentioned in my own answer, your definition also leaves out cluster chords and sound-mass textures as well. The definition is okay, but it is very limited. Jul 6, 2013 at 13:11
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    @jjmusicnotes - I agree with you completely. That's why I explicitly stated that this is for modern diatonic & chromatic systems. I went on a limb and assumed that Otis was not looking for a definition that covered the entire landscape of music theory, but something that served as a practical & usable starting point for his abbreviated music course. Jul 6, 2013 at 17:37
  • @NateKimball - agreed, I assumed as much as well. I think Otis would be fine if he just specified the limitations of his scope. Jul 6, 2013 at 19:00
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    I’ve taken the advice and have revamped my abbreviated course to base it on Peter Vogl’s The Guitarist’s Music Theory Book. I feel more confident now that I’m guiding my guitar buddy on the basis of a higher understanding of theory. Nate, I’ll be happy to upgrade your answer. How do I do that? I appreciate all your comments/answers, gentlemen. --Otis Jul 13, 2013 at 15:42

Nate gave a great answer, though if we're thinking of only chords that can be built from the major scale, the augmented triad (C, E, G#) doesn't fit. It can be constructed from the minor scale, for instance, in C-minor, the notes, Eb-G-Bnatural are available. However, it is a rare chord so maybe should not count. (It gets more acknowledgment mainly because it forms a natural parallel with the diminished triad, which IS in the major scale).

The (fully-)diminished seventh chord (C, Eb, Gb, A-natural) is however a pretty common chord that can only be formed with minor mode scales, not major. For instance, in C-minor, B, D, F, Ab.

Then there are chords that are less common than the diminished-seventh, but still more common than the augmented triad, that cannot be formed from either the major or minor scale. For instance, the ("Italian") augmented sixth chord, Ab, C, F# isn't available in either the notes of the major or minor scale. Nor are the "French" (add D) or "German" (add Eb) or "Swiss/Alsatian/etc." (add D#) versions of the same chord.


I suspect that you are talking more about the way were refer to the notes within a chord or scale, such as 1, 3 and 5 make up a major chord and 1, b3, and 5 make up a minor chord or 1, b2, b3..... make a Phrygian scale. If this is the case I would word it so that you're saying the nomenclature is derived from its relationship to a natural major scale (Ionian). Using accidentals (#/b) to describe a note shows how it is different from Ionian or a major triad.

When intervals are referred to as major or minor they draw their name in relation to a major scale as well. 2, 3, 6 and 7 can be referred to as major or minor but you should be careful to notice that not all the minor intervals apply to the minor scale (Aeolion), because it has a major 2. This is for the same reason as with the earlier example, it is based on major and declaring it minor designates that it is a half-step lower than the interval would be in the major scale. 4 and 5 have been deemed perfect for their consonant qualities and are deemed augmented (#) or diminished (b). All naturally occurring modes but Lydian and Locrian have perfect 4 and 5 and they both have one or the other.

I'm glad to see that you want to word things properly for your students!


There's a shred of truth in there. The chord 'C' means C major, the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of a C major scale. If we want something different - Cm, Cdim, Caug (and that's just the triads) - we have to say so. And when we name intervals, our basic framework is the major scale starting on the lower note. Whatever key or mode a piece is in, D to A is a Perfect 5th, because A is the 5th note of D major scale. It's also the 5th note of D minor scale, but that doesn't change its name.

Guitarists often seem interested in what scale 'goes with' a chord. That's looking at chord theory from another angle.

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