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I have an extremely limited understanding of theory, and from what I currently understand, chords will sound good together if they share a common key/scale (e.g. for C major scale, the chords that sound good will be Cmaj, Dmin, Emin, etc.).

However, for Cmaj7 and Emaj7, I can't seem to find a "well-known" scale (key) that fits both. For example:

  • C major doesn't sound great
  • E major sounds okay with the Emaj7, but sounds bad with the Cmaj7
  • E minor pentatonic sounds okay with with the Cmaj7, but sounds bad with the Emaj7
  • etc.

There just seem to be too many conflicting notes like the G,C from the Cmaj7 and G#,C# from the Emaj7. The same seems to be true for plain Cmaj and Emaj (sounds good together, but a lot of conflicting notes if trying to find an underlying key/scale).

Follow-up: E natural minor seems to sound good on top of both chords. Similar to above, it seems to conflict on the 3rd and 7th note, so I'm confused why that works well with the chord progression.

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  • 1
    So you're asking why CM7 followed by EM7 sounds good despite that not being an individual scale that sounds good over both?
    – Aaron
    Jan 22 at 6:46
  • @aaron yeah, pretty much
    – lycus
    Jan 22 at 6:50
  • Alternatively, a name describing this "chord progression" could be useful too (edited the title)
    – lycus
    Jan 22 at 6:52
  • What reason should there be for one scale to fit both chords?
    – Tim
    Jan 22 at 9:19
  • 1
    I'm voting to close this question since it seems overly subjective ("sounds good" / "sounds bad" can't really be "measured").
    – user59346
    Jan 22 at 11:20

3 Answers 3

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In general, chords with common tones and whose non-common tones are only a short distance apart will make a good progression.

CMaj7 = C  E G  B
EMaj7 =   E  G# B D#

or, put another way:

CMaj7 = E  B  C  G
EMaj7 = E  B  D# G#

* two common tones
* one minor second
* one augmented second.

Note that the interval C–D# is native to the E harmonic minor scale.

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  • 1
    Also the E chord could be described as borrowed from the parallel major. Jan 22 at 12:49
  • @ToddWilcox The parallel major of? Please clarify.
    – Aaron
    Jan 22 at 17:04
  • Of E minor. Cmaj7 is diatonic in E minor, so that’s one way to think about it. Jan 22 at 18:59
  • @ToddWilcox That would explain OP's observation that E natural minor sounded good. Would you mind if I incorporate your observation into my post?
    – Aaron
    Jan 22 at 19:19
  • Not at all etc etc Jan 22 at 20:01
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... chords will sound good together if they share a common key/scale

The term to describe that is diatonic, when all the pitches of a musical passage belong to a single scale/key.

When pitches are used from outside a single scale/key, you call that chromatic.

You can have chord progressions that sound good that are either diatonic or chromatic. There are many aspects that go into good harmony (chord progressions). For example, chord root progression by descending fifth. But the topic of harmony cannot be described in a short answer. It requires a full course of study.

The chord progression you are looking at can be described as having a chromatic mediant relationship, which is when the chord roots are separated by a major or minor third while the two chords are of the same quality. This particular chord relationship does not occur in plain diatonic music, hence the chromatic label.

At the risk of over-simplifying, when harmony is chromatic you can think of two general situations: the music is modulating to a new key, or if the chromaticism is extreme you start to get into atonal music, or it might be better to call it non-tonal, non-functional harmony.

If you are just alternating between Cmaj7 and Emaj7, the harmony is essentially static, and definitely not a case of modulating to a new key. You won't find a diatonic scale that match both chords. Listing the two chords and their respective major scales should show why that is the case...

Cmaj7
      *           *
|     |     |     |
C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C
      E  F# G# A  B  C D# E
      |     |     |    |
      *           *
Emaj7

In that diagram the | indicates the respective chord tones and the * indicates the common chord tones between the two chords.

Notice the G and G#. The G is the fifth, the dominant of C major, but the G# is the third, the mediant of E major. Both tones are essential tones in the respective keys. The dominant provides an essential tonal degree in C major, the mediant provides the major modal quality in E major. You will not find any single pitch that will fulfill those two functions, and that's why one scale will not work for both keys.

What you can do instead is focus the melody not on a single scale but instead on the chord tones of each chord when the chord changes. To provide unity between the two chords focus on the two common chord tones, the E and the B. Treat the other tones like passing tones. So, for example, over Cmaj7 you could play the descent C B then passing tone A and with the change to Emaj7 continue from A down to G#. You might then ascend through the A and with the change back to Cmaj7 ascend from A to B. Such a line undulates around the common tone B which is the seventh of Cmaj7 and the fifth of Emaj7.

You could think of those melodic tones G# A B C as a segment of an A minor scale, but I don't think that is particularly helpful. When the chords are essentially chromatic, trying to shoehorn the melody into a diatonic scale just forces the melody to work against the grain of harmony. It's probably better to treat the melody more fluidly, more chromatically, while focusing on the common chord tones for some harmonic unity.

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A different kind of perspective... I hope.

What happens in my harmonic ear with a chord progression Cmaj7 - Emaj7 (repeat)? How can I treat this chord progression, what kind of a melody could I draw over it?

I feel Emaj7 as being the most natural home chord here, and the Cmaj7 makes chromatic alterations to the context, essentially sounding like being in E minor. In other words, it's doing the good old jazzy trick, switching between minor and major. Melodic lines centering on E fit well over those chords, and during the Emaj7 chord it's like in E major, and during the Cmaj7 chord it's like in E minor. Back and forth. I like the sound of chromatic alterations, and I guess so do many other people.

It's also possible to treat the Cmaj7 chord as a key center during that chord, and arrange melodic elements around that, and then modulate to E during the Emaj7, moving the center point back and forth. I tried it, and it can be done, but it feels weird and clunky, compared to E being a center and changing the harmony around the E.

You say "E minor pentatonic sounds okay with with the Cmaj7", and that's why I'm fairly sure that you hear the chord progression just like me - you hear E as being a tonal center. The only missing piece in the puzzle is to know about chromatic alterations. When the Emaj7 chord comes, you switch your thinking from E minor to E major.

To demonstrate this way of treating the chords - and with good reason to believe it's quite exactly the way that was meant in the question - I wrote a little smooth-jazzish tune:

Egg Sample tune

The key center is always E, just the pitches around it are changed back and forth.

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