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I was messing around with some arpeggios and stumbled on some chord progression that I really liked.
It's something like Am, Am/C, B7 and BbMaj7
The thing is I couldn't play anything on it that sounded decent since all the 8 notes are spanned by the chords + the fundamentals are 4 consecutive half steps so I'm kinda lost here lol.
Could anyone suggest what key/mode could fit here or just simply some lick that would work ? Thanks !

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Let's have a look what we've got going on here:

  • chromatic voice leading movement, first jumping up, and then resolving downwards back to the tonic chord
  • A "pedal" note of A. Each chord contains an A in a different context.

So while you have the note A that remains constant throughout, the bassline jumps up and then gradually snakes inevitably back down to A. This can be viewed, and used in a number of ways (which may well contrast each other, it's all about what you choose to do with it):

A notable characteristic is the way that the descending bass element of it builds tension, the chords work sort of like a pendulum swing, the whole progression has this "gravity" leading back to the A minor. This should be respected when soloing/writing melodies over it: it has a sense of "periodicity" to it, like someone swinging an axe, or watching a slow pendulum: you feel the A minor coming throughout the whole progression, and then it finally arrives.

Here, as an aside, notice that swapping the Bbmaj7 (x13231 and 6x887x) chord for a Bb7 (x1313x or 6x676x) or even a B7b5 chord (x13130 or 6x675x) also is a lot of fun. Don't want to get to bogged down in pure theory here, so I'll just leave it here as something to try.

On a harmonic level, notice that there is an A (the tonic) present in every single chord. What this means is you can contextualise the same A minor patterns differently. You know that great moment in the blues where the I chord changes to the IV chord, and suddenly the same notes played again seem to magically sound different. Well, in your chord progression you almost have the same thing happen in every bar.

Now add to this, you have 2 strong melodic lines, implied by the chords:

Try singing the following notes over the chords (1 per chord):

A C Bb B and C E D# D C

if you substitute the Bb for a Bbmaj7 you can also use E F# G# A. But honestly, even if you don't, the "false relation" of the G# and A in the Bb chord don't actually stick out that much.

Now, if you want to mindlessly solo using a scale, then the A minor pentatonic scale will work well.

As will all the other minor scales pretty much (aeolian, phrygian, dorian, harmonic minor, melodic minor) There's no harm in playing around with any of these scales, and noodling to see what you can come up with.

A more integrated approach though is to not use "a scale" to play over these chords, look at the notes themselves. All the above scales are just variations on a theme really: A (B OR Bb) C D E (F or F#) (G or G#) A. So the real trick is to decide which of the "optional notes" you want to use when. This can be done artfully to outline the chords (e.g. repeating C B A G F# E over the B chord and then changing to C Bb A G F E over the B flat chord). And of course certain melodic fragments lend themselves to the above scales. Play around with melody lines using all the above notes and just see what you come up with. And if you start to get lost, lean on the tonic, and lean on the E>D#>D>C melody.

And as an addendum, this chord progression but in D minor is used at the beginning of one of my favourite all time albums, a Brazilian Album called "Os Afro-Samba". The original album is a little lo-fi, but the music is absolutely incredible. You might want to wait and see what you come up with yourself before listening though, in case you find you are unable to "unhear" the way it's done in that song. Up to you!

The above link doesn't work on mobile, here's a link to the individual song, "canto de ossanha"

(when searching for songs from this album don't bother with the re-recorded versions from the 90s, they really suck in comparison compared to the original cut).

  • Wow, brillant answer ! So much details lost on me because of my ignorance of music theory, that's sad Will definitely check the Bossa albums though ! – deque Oct 18 '17 at 0:10
  • @deque well if you point out the parts that are lost on you, I'll be happy to walk you through them. Also I'll try and add some audio examples to this answer when I have the time, as theory is rarely useful without something concrete to tie it to (especially when you're a beginner who can't translate the abstract concepts into something a bit more tangible) – Some_Guy Oct 18 '17 at 9:37
  • @deque just heard another one, bit a of a different vibe haha Slayer - Bloodline – Some_Guy Oct 25 '17 at 19:39
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For this particular example, there are only IMO three ways to play a melody over a chord progression like this. And you won't find anything but general solutions here.

  1. Play by ear. Try to "visualize" (the correct term is probably audiate) the melodic progression. In other words hear in your head what you think will sound good, and try to play it. Great exercise for your ear.

  2. Play chord tones. This means you take the notes from the respective arpeggios, and play only those (or combine with method #1). Searching for "chord tones" seems to yield some usable results. Great Jazz and fusion soloists swear by them.

  3. Play scales that fit the chords. Keep in mind that many scales could fit a single chord. Speaking strictly in diatonic modes, Minor(Aeolian), Phrygian and Dorian go well with minor 7/6/7b9 chords. Major(Ionian) and Lydian with major/maj7. Mixolydian is a perfect match for that dominant 7th chord. Locrian is seriously underrated, but perhaps not very usable here. Now with that in mind (if you know the theory), try figuring out which of the pentatonic scales could fit in. Which scales go together with more than one of the chords? Which melodic and harmonic modes could be used? Do some research on the altered scale (mainly how/when to use it). Invent a new scale. The possibilities are... around 4000. (if you are inclined). Back on the subject of actual music, think of how you could build tension, and not only how, but when you want to relieve it. Also chromaticism. Do that.

This is a general direction for developing great melody. If you get into #3, remember that theory is like grammar, it shouldn't dictate what music/language should be like, only be like a style guide to help you become understood. The main point I'm trying to make is that MUSIC.

  • Thanks man, great tips !! Especially the maths paper (I'm a mathematician myself :D) even though I used to hate group theory, maybe it'll change my mind Sadly I know nothing about music theory :( – deque Oct 18 '17 at 0:05
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I'd say that a lick that mainly focuses on the notes A-A-B-Bb would work. So would a lick that focuses on A-C-B-Bb.

Here's an example for A-A-B-Bb (one line per chord):

(rest)-A-C-E-A-A

A-C-E-A-A-B

B-B-B-B-(rest)-Bb

(rest)-Bb-Bb-D-C-Bb-A

I was thinking swing jazz for the above lick.

  • It's not easy from the way you've transcribed your melody how it should fit over the chords, at what point in relation to the chords would the notes come. Perhaps a transcription with bar lines or a shprt audio recording would be more useful – Some_Guy Oct 19 '17 at 12:06
  • @Some_Guy, given that I said "one line per chord", I thought figuring out how the melody fits over the chords should be intuitive enough (e.g. the "A-C-E-A-A-B" line fits over the Am/C chord). Note the use of anticipations in my melody. Then again, I agree that the rhythm of my melody is ambiguous...and pretty hard to notate without sheet music. – Dekkadeci Oct 19 '17 at 13:24
  • my mistake, I missed that note in you're answer. – Some_Guy Oct 19 '17 at 15:54

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