Say you have a scale and you've found a chord that is rooted at degree 1 of the scale and such that every tone of the chord is in the scale as well. The chord is then said to be compatible with the scale, and it sounds nicely with it.

What if instead you find a chord similarly as above except that it's rooted on another degree of the scale say the 5th degree. Is this also a compatible chord or is it called something else, or does it not have any relevance at all and will often sound horribly when played with the scale?

By degree I mean the position in the scale relative to the root, so the root is degree 1, the second tone in the scale played (ascending) is degree 2, and so on...

I hope that was clear.

  • 1
    You appear to say that for example C scale notes will sound good over a C chord. Similarly, a Dm chord will support the same scale notes, etc. If this is your supposition, it's a little awry, as it depends on where those notes are played in a bar, and what emphasis (timing, etc.) they are given.You're asking - have you actually tried playing using this idea? It's a great way to confirm.
    – Tim
    Feb 28, 2014 at 17:45
  • Well, I don't want to re-invent the "chord wheel" - thats why I ask. It seems related to polychords, but the book doesnt go in depth into those. It seems to work for a 1-3-5-7 chord rooted at either degree 1 or 4 on top of the Bebop Maj scale. But Im wondering if it always works, or what is the technical term for this idea, so that I can read up on it without - like I say - rediscovering the wheel on my own. Feb 28, 2014 at 17:49

3 Answers 3


Every chord built in a scale is compatible with the related scale.

Let's look a the key of C major. The compatible chord within the are as follows:

C  Dm  Em   F   G  Am  Bdim
I  ii  iii  IV  V  vi  viio

They are all built off a different scale degree of the C major scale, contain notes of the C major scale, and all of them are at home in the key of C major.

When playing a scale over a chord though, you would want to focus on the chord members. So if someone is playing a G in the key of C you would want to focus more on notes G, B, and D than C, E ,F, and A. The deeper you look at this the more you need to understand how modes work as you would want to focus more on the notes in a chord than the notes in the scale.

  • Check the last para - don't play C,E,A maybe, but F works well (dom7), and actually E is used quite a lot (dom13). A works as 9th, and C is a nice sus.Depends where in the bar they go (see my other comment)
    – Tim
    Feb 28, 2014 at 18:00
  • 1
    @Tim true, but I just wanted to outline the basic idea of harmonizing a chord with the notes in a chord rather than saying any note you play in C will sound good. Once you get good at improve you can pretty much play any note over any chord, but to a beginner it's a lot easier to think of the basic scenario (the notes of a chord). And I don't say "never play them", just focus more on the notes in the chord.
    – Dom
    Feb 28, 2014 at 18:05
  • 1
    If you want to learn how modes work, you can't do better than looking at Leonard Bernstein's "What is a Mode?" lecture, to which I listened with rapt attention at age 10 when it first aired and remember to this day. Among all his other accomplishments, Bernstein was one of the greatest teachers of the 20th century.
    – BobRodes
    Feb 28, 2014 at 22:16

The proper term for your "compatible" is "diatonic", which means "involving only notes proper to the prevailing key without chromatic alteration."

I'll expand a bit on Dom's excellent answer if I may. There is a good deal of music theory around using notes other than the diatonic ones. One of the most often-used ones is sharping the 7th note of the minor scale, to lead more powerfully to the Tonic. (The Tonic is the first scale degree. The terms for all the scale degrees in order are Tonic, Supertonic, Mediant, Subdominant, Dominant, Submediant, and Leading tone. Of these, you will most often hear Tonic, Subdominant and Dominant.)

I'll go into some detail on this. I'll use A minor to show the diatonic chords of the minor scale. A minor has the exact same notes as C major, just starts on A instead of C (A minor is therefore the relative minor of C major, and C major is the relative major of A minor):

a   bo  C   d   e   F   G
i   iio III iv  v   VI  VII

Note that I use lower case for minor and upper for major, with a o for diminished chords. Dom's way is more common in guitar music, and mine in classical music theory books; of course he has done the same for the scale degree numerals as I have.

I'm going to step back a bit and explain the relationship of the Dominant and Tonic chords in a major key. The triad (a "triad" is a chord consisting of a note, the note a third above it, the note a third above that one, called the root, third and fifth respectively) built on the Dominant (5th) scale degree (a V chord or "five chord") pushes powerfully towards the Tonic. That's where it got its name, actually, it's the "dominant" chord in the scale. Try playing a G chord (not a G7, that's next) followed by a C, and you should hear this effect for yourself.

Now, you have probably heard of a "Dominant 7th" or "five seven" chord. In C, this chord is the G7 chord, GBDF. This chord leads ("resolves") even more powerfully to the Tonic. Try playing these for yourself and see. Then, try playing BF followed by CE, and you will see the "innards" of why this works.

Ok. Now, try the same thing in a minor key. Play E minor followed by A minor. Not quite the same effect, is it? Try playing E minor 7 (EGBD), the diatonic Dominant 7th chord in A minor. Missing something? Try playing GD followed by AC, and those "innards" just aren't there, are they? The reason for this is that GD is a "perfect fifth, whereas BF (the one we used in C major) is a "diminished fifth", commonly called a "tritone". It's a half step less than a normal fifth, and is more dissonant. Creates more tension therefore, which resolves when you move to the other notes. So, what do we do? Typically, we raise the 7th note of the scale. Try playing E dominant 7 (EG#BD) followed by A minor. Try playing G#D (there's our tritone again) followed by AC. You'll notice that the pull to A minor is much stronger now.

So, that's why we sharp the 7th a lot in minor keys. As you can see, this is one page out of a pretty large book. I hope it gets you started. :)


The chords you are talking about are called "diatonic" chords: chords whose tones are taken from the scale. If your scale has 7 tones, then you can make at least 7 diatonic chords (depending on how many tones you stack on each chord, or whether you use thirds or fourths to create your chords). The two kinds of scales that "diatonic" is most often used with are the major scale and the melodic minor scale, so for each of these you can refer to the roots of the chords as I, ii, iii, etc.... as someone mentioned above.

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