I've been trying to work out what scale a song with chords Em A C D is in.

The major chords A, C, D are never together in any scale. If C and D are there it would suggest the key is G but then the A would be minor. How is it possible the song can have these chords and in what scale is it?

Edit: Later in the song the A major sounds more like Asus2.

Edit: As an example this is a song that has this chord progression

  • 4
    Basic Analysis questions like these are unfortunately off topic. Please see our help center for details on what types of question fits the scope of this site. music.stackexchange.com/help
    – Neil Meyer
    Aug 26, 2016 at 8:30
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    I added the song only for demonstration. It's a question more about fundamental chords theory than basic analysis. I've rephrased the question, I hope it's ok now. Aug 26, 2016 at 8:48
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    I think this is an on-topic question as it goes into the substance of how chords work. Many people are taught the simplistic way of thinking that you use the chords "of a key" to write a song. But a cursory look of pop songs shows that obviously chord choice is more complex than that.
    – Some_Guy
    Aug 26, 2016 at 10:59
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    The questioner asks "How is it possible the song can have these chords and it what scale would it be?", which is just begging for an answer about harmony and "non-key" tones, especially in the context of pop music. Good question I think
    – Some_Guy
    Aug 26, 2016 at 11:00
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    @Some_Guy Yup, I second that this is a valid question. By the way, many pop songs are "bound" to the four most common chords of only one scale, see this music video of "4 Chords" of The Axis of Awesome.
    – MC Emperor
    Aug 26, 2016 at 15:01

3 Answers 3


Your question is based on a misunderstanding, which is "there must be a single scale fitting a chord progression". This is usually wrong; many interesting chord progressions are not based on the notes of a single scale. The chords in your progression have a C (C major) and a C# (A major), which, as you've noted, usually don't occur in the same scale.

There are two ways to get around this when playing a melody / improvising over such a progression. Either you skip the "dangerous" notes; i.e., you avoid both the C and the C#. This will leave you with an E minor pentatonic scale, maybe with an added F# (i.e., an E natural minor scale without the sixth note). The other option is to use both the C and the C#, but only where they fit the chords, i.e., use a C over C major, and a C# over A major.

Most people will hear this progression in the key of E minor. Note that the key of E minor is not a single scale, but the union of E natural minor, E harmonic minor, and E melodic minor. And in this way the C as well as the C# become available; the same is true for the D and the D#; the latter doesn't occur in your progression, but it could; try:

|| Em | A | C | D B7 ||

To most ears this would sound as a perfectly conventional progression, and its chords contain a C, a C#, a D, and a D#.

For more information on minor key harmony have a look at this post.

  • If you listen to the first minute, can you hear that the A is Asus2? Thus making it neither maj or min.
    – Tim
    Aug 26, 2016 at 9:03
  • @Tim: I just referred to the progression the OP showed in his question. I don't know which song it is based on. He probably removed the song reference to make the question fit for this site. As such, it is a progression that can and does occur a lot in pop music, so I think an analysis is of general interest.
    – Matt L.
    Aug 26, 2016 at 9:05
  • +1. There's also the oft used parallel key - major/minor, which gives the same results.
    – Tim
    Aug 26, 2016 at 9:11
  • @Tim, I edited the question to add the Asus2 which you heard in the song. I had to remove the link to the song to keep the question generic. Aug 26, 2016 at 9:14
  • An excellent worded concise summary of a concept that is often difficult to explain to people with the "what scale should I use question"
    – Some_Guy
    Aug 26, 2016 at 10:54

As Matt L. said, this is pretty clearly E minor (natural minor, i.e. Aeolian mode). The A chord can be understood as a borrowed chord from the nearby Dorian mode:

V:2 clef=treble name="Aeolian"
e, ^f, g, a, b, c d e "C (VI)"[e, g, c]
V:1 clef=treble name="Dorian"
e, ^f, g, a, b, ^c d e "A (IV)"[a, ^c e]

This major IV degree in a minor mode is an extremely common borrowed chord. A great example is Stairway To Heaven, where it is used both to convey a sort of folky mood (Dorian and Mixolydian scales tend to sound a bit celtic on guitar IMO), and to weave in chromatically descending lines.

V:1 clef=treble-8
"III"[g,c']ecc' | "IV"[^f,^f]da,^f | "VI"[f,e]ca,c

Your question is based on a misunderstanding, which is "there must be a single scale fitting a chord progression - Matt L.

I would agree, but just in case you actually search a scale that fits all notes combined from Em, A, C and D, you could go Bebop:

  • D Dominant Bebop: interval set 0-2-4-5-7-9-10-11 scale: D E F# G A B C C#/Db
  • A Minor Bebop: interval set 0-2-3-4-5-7-9-10 scale: A B C C#/Db D E F# G

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