When playing solo over a chord, a scale should be chosen. When a musician choose a certain scale, what is the rationale behind?

I can come up with a few points but only poorly.

such scale

  1. has tensions that are diatonic to the key,
  2. has tensions that are common tones with the target chord's tones

is there any other better ideas?

  • See: music.stackexchange.com/questions/132629/… Commented Jun 14 at 8:26
  • 1
    'Tensions' could be any notes, not always those that are diatonic to the key. The important notes will be those which are contained within said chord - if it's a four note chord, that only usually leaves three other notes (tensions) .
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 14 at 8:26
  • Not exactly a duplicate, but related: music.stackexchange.com/questions/58957/… Commented Jun 14 at 8:30
  • It is very context dependent. In jazz context none of your proposed guidelines would be correct. In typical modal/diatonic context the scales are more likely chosen to fit the progression not a single chord so even the assumption that "scale for a chord should be chosen" falls apart.
    – Jarek.D
    Commented Jun 14 at 11:47

2 Answers 2


When playing solo over a chord, a scale should be chosen.

I would not necessarily choose a scale.

I would determine what key the chord is functioning in and then improvise in that key.

Ex. Dm7. You basic "chord/scale" teaching tells you to play a D dorian scale. That teaching does not explain the chord usually does not function in isolation but functions within a key.

So, if Dm7 occurred in progression Dm7 G7 C6, then we have a very recognizable progression functioning in C major. Roman numerals for it would be C: ii7 V7 I. You would improvise in C major.

what is the rationale behind?

Two reasons:

The three chords, or some similar passage, can be regarded as a phrase. You don't needed to select three "chord scales" in isolation, when you can just recognize the the passage as a phrase in C major. It's thinking of one unified idea versus three disconnected ideas.

Generally, you wouldn't want to choose a scale for a single chord that might conflict with the overall phrase tonality. Ex, with the Dm7 chord, or to make the point more emphatically, let's make the chord a plain Dm triad. Especially with the plain minor triad, many types of minor-ish scales will be suggested by "chord scale" teaching. You might choose D harmonic minor. That would conflict with the overall C major phrase. While not necessarily a musical disaster, temporarily tonicizing the Dm chord can be perfectly fine, but depending on the details you could make a muddle of the tonality.


There is no "proper" guideline for setting a scale to play over a chord.

There are some standard practices in thinking about the scale-chord relationships in various styles of solo playing, so the approach will be genre dependent.

A particular scale does not even need to be chosen to select notes to play over a chord. Using a scale is one way of simplifying the player's note choice in a solo.

When playing over a chord there will be notes that are "consonant" and "dissonant" to the chord tones, to various degrees. The most consonant notes will be the chord tones themselves. Non-chord notes that are in the same diatonic pattern as the chord notes will be the less dissonant notes. The "chromatic" notes will tend towards more dissonance.

Chords can suggest a scale to use, again depending on style. For example, if the chord progression is based on a diatonic I IV V progression ( C, F, G, in the key of C major), then the major scale can be used over any of the key's chords.

If a chord is extended, a different scale may be implied by the chord tones. For example, if the piece has a Dominant 7 chord, a scale may be built out of the four chord tones, with the implication that the scale will contain the intervals of the chord tonic, a major 3rd, a perfect 5th, and a minor 7th. Mixolydian (Major flat7) scale is an easy fit and is often suggested in jazz primers.

More complex chord spellings set a list of your primary consonant tones, and scale choice becomes a matter of experience and desired style.

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