I've been playing a lot of diatonic everything. So basically just staying in the scale as I improvise with melody/chords. I play alot of songs by ear and I notice when they use accidentals but I don't really know the theory of how they do it besides that it just sounds good.

So I'm thinking it's just "whatever sounds good" and go with that. Or is there some theory in regards to how to add non-diatonic notes?

I want to play/improvise like this guy.

  • That question is a bit more sophisticated. I'm just looking for a simple yes/no if it's by ear or not. I can handle it being by ear. I'm almost hoping it's that way. However, if there's theory to it I'd like to know what that general theory is.
    – user34288
    Jun 20, 2018 at 16:55
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    Everything you can hear in music has some theory that has been developed to explain it. The problem with this question, to me at least, is that for each accidental there's potentially a different theory. So it's not like there's one theory for how to use chromaticism. There are tons of them - countless ways to understand why certain things sound the way they do. Jun 20, 2018 at 17:48
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    @foreyez in that recording, you're hearing pretty standard progressions that include chromatic passing chords and non-diatonic progressions. You don't need to learn theory so much as these standard progressions. Just as a ii-V-I is a nice cadence, so is | ii min | iv min6 | I64 | V7 | I Maj |. You're latching on to those more complex progressions. The recording almost certainly isn't improvised, btw.
    – jdjazz
    Jun 20, 2018 at 18:22
  • @jdjazz in the youtube comments he says it is, but I agree with you that most of it was probably composed beforehand. thanks for mentioning "chromatic passing chords" and "non-diatonic progressions" these are keywords I wasn't aware of.
    – user34288
    Jun 20, 2018 at 18:39
  • You play by ear, but 'notice when they use accidentals'. In a lot of tunes with improvisational propensities (most tunes!) the 'accidentals' occur when the chords stray from the diatonic ones. For example, in key C, there's an E chord (V/vi), or an A7 chord (V/ii) where non diatonic notes (accidentals if you like) work well. But in a tune in C, I'm quite likely to play Eb, or Gb, but over a C chord. Two very different scenarios. Which are you asking about?
    – Tim
    Jun 20, 2018 at 22:19

5 Answers 5


Chromatic Passing Tones

Using bebop scales is a great option because they contain chromatic passing notes, which is the sound you're looking for. There are many different bebop scales:

enter image description here

By adding a chromatic passing tone, these bebop scales gain something valuable: the downbeats emphasize chord tones. For example, looking at the C major bebop scale, the notes that occur on downbeats are C-E-G-A. These notes spell out a CM6 chord. The downbeats of the C dominant bebop scale spell out C-E-G-B♭, a C7 chord. The C melodic minor bebop scale spells out C-E♭-G-A, a Cm6 chord. And the C harmonic minor bebop scale spells out C-E♭-G-B♭, a Cm7 chord.

These scales teach us that it's important to think about where we want to introduce non-scale tones.

Another way to introduce non-scale tones is to approach notes chromatically. Chord tones, for example, can be approached from a half step below or from a half step above. Between the two, it's more common to approach a chord tone from a half step below. A common improvisational exercise is to surround chord tones. In the example below, I'm surrounding each chord tone of CM6 using a half step below and a whole step above:

enter image description here

Chromatic Passing Chords

The video you shared doesn't contain many chromatic scale tones (only one that I heard). What you're hearing in that video is related--chromatic passing tones. The video also contains more complex progressions that, while non-diatonic, are still very standard.

The progressions you hear in the video almost certainly aren't being improvised. But to develop an ability to improvise chord progressions, you need to learn songs and build up your vocabulary of chord progressions. Start out by transcribing the chords to the song you linked to. Find other jazz songs with similar progressions, and take note of where they differ. As you expand your vocabulary of known progressions, you'll develop a variety of choices you might decide to use on-the-spot while improvising a progression.

Some of the non-diatonic progressions you'll hear in that song alone include:

  • | IV Maj | ♯iv dim | I64 | V7 | I Maj |
  • | IV Maj | ♯iv dim | V7 |
  • | V7 | ♯v dim | vi min |
  • | II7 | V7 | I Maj | (note the II chord is dom7 rather than min7)
  • | I Maj | ♭iii dim | ii min | V7 |
  • | ii min | iv min6 | I64 | V7 | I Maj |

The best way to practice these is in context. Transcribe interesting chord progressions that you hear, play them on your instrument, try modifying them, and try combining different progressions. Categorize their function ("this one is a nice turn-around," etc.).

  • I thought the general agreement on , say, D7 in key C was to call it V7/V rather than II7, as it actually is the dominant of the dominant.
    – Tim
    Jun 20, 2018 at 22:12
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    @Tim, I'm not familiar with any convention that V7/V is more correct than II7. I think it's six one way and a half dozen the other way. I personally prefer to think about the chord in terms of the tonic. Other references do use II7-V7-I too.
    – jdjazz
    Jun 20, 2018 at 22:23
  • I used II7 for many years, till I read Bert Ligon's 'Jazz theory Resources', which persuaded me that V7/V for example explained that pesky D7 better, but now, I'm undecided. As you say - 50:50...
    – Tim
    Jun 20, 2018 at 22:27
  • @Tim, I'll have to check out that book. Foreyez, that's a good start, but the most helpful will be finding songs with the progressions you like. Learning them in the context of a full song/progression will build your sense of how to deploy those sub-progressions when improvising.
    – jdjazz
    Jun 21, 2018 at 4:33
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    I keep coming back to this answer, good stuff!
    – user34288
    Oct 26, 2018 at 20:17

If you have a good understanding of diatonic systems, start thinking about the relationship between the notes outside of the scale and those inside the scale. As a baseline, it's important to understand that there is a relationship between all arbitrary collections of notes, diatonic or not. It's also helpful to know that for a given major key, seven notes are in the scale and only five are out, so you're already more than halfway there.

Let's say you're playing a tune with the chords C | Ami7 | Dmi7 | G7 |. Just before the transition between C and Ami7, someone plays a G#. How can you explain this note using an understanding of diatonic harmony? Well, G# is the leading tone of A minor, and its presence in the melody implies an E7 (or a G#o). Playing a G# effectively allows the soloist to imply a V7-i cadence going to that A minor. Because it also implies a G#o, you can also make a connection between any G# (... or B D F) diminished scale runs that you happen to hear in a C major system. You might also hear someone play the whole tone scale starting at C, going to G# and then landing on an A; you can explain the accidentals here (F# G#) by connecting those notes to E7-A. If someone played a Bb on this transition, you might rationalize it by noting that Bb7 is the tritone substitution of E7.

This is just an example and you can use that kind of analysis to explain the relationship between just about any set of notes. Indeed, you can certainly make more farfetched connections, but it's going to take more work for listeners to really grasp what you're doing. If you just start playing the Bb altered scale over that C major chord, you probably aren't going to be able to sell anyone on that connection. But you could get some pretty outside notes to sound "in" by properly contextualizing them; a fairly common example is people playing minor blues licks over tonic major chords, allowing you to get b3s and b5s to make sense in a major system.

I should reemphasize that this is kind of a wasted endeavor if your understanding of diatonic systems isn't really good. If it took you any significant amount of time to figure out why G# implies V7-of-vi in the key of C then your time is far better spent focusing on what that means than it is trying to explain every single note you see in a solo. But you should know that there is an explanation for virtually everything.


As some comments state (mine in particular). Everything should be done by ear. However there are some guiding principles for adding chromatics (accidentals) to a solo. (dejavu, I feel like I answered almost the same question last week).

  1. Leading tone principle. When chromatics are added it is sometimes in leading up to a scale tone. One case in point is the harmonic or melodic minor. These have "accidentals" relative to the original key to produce a leading tone to the first note of the minor scale. This can be done anywhere.

  2. Other scales. Two popular scales that have chromatic passing tones in them are the blues scale and the bebop scale. The true blues scale is minor pentatonic with a flat 5 added. The Bebop Ionian scale is major with a sharp 5 (flat 6) added.

Once you get used to the sound and feel using them in solos is easy. I think this is a good starting point. You can also make Bebop version of the melodic minor scale which sounds very cool.

  • The major bebop scale has a flat 6 rather than a flat 5. There's also a mixolydian bebop scale, a couple dorian bebop scales, a great melodic minor bebop scale, and a harmonic minor bebop scale.
    – jdjazz
    Jun 20, 2018 at 17:33
  • Oops, I think you are correct. I'll edit.
    – user50691
    Jun 20, 2018 at 18:30
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    Everyone seems to ignore the major blues scale. Just as used as its oppo!
    – Tim
    Jun 20, 2018 at 22:06

READ lots of music. Don't worry about improvising for now, just play 'what the guy wrote'. You'll discover all kinds of possibilities. You can hang labels on them if you like. But I'd rather you spent the time playing even MORE unfamiliar music.


Look up secondary dominants and borrowed chords and modal mixture Here a some good videos on those things. Signals studio music is a great Youtube channel if you want you can check out some more of his video it would be worth it.

  • yep already watched all those. signals music studio is awesome and has best radio voice ever. :)
    – user34288
    Apr 12, 2019 at 18:09
  • @foreyez I think he may have the most aesthetically pleasing speaking voice of all the youtube music educators I know
    – user45266
    Apr 13, 2019 at 6:05

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