The challenge on this topic is Jazz improvisation scales and ideas on the following chord progression: C#maj7 - Cmaj7 - Bmaj7 - Bbmaj7

So 4 chords are descending chromatically within 2 measures and repeat over again. (4/4, Tempo ~120) I am not sure honestly even what to try because every next chord has all different notes from the previous one which kills the idea to try some scales (Except chromatic scale)

What works for me is to choose certain notes from the chord present in given moment and create licks from those notes. That way I can be sure that the current note is compliant with the current chord but however that seems very difficult to think about and invent licks in real-time while improvising.

What would be your approach to improvise on this?

  • My approach? Try something. Are you familiar with the concept of "wood shedding"? Try anything that comes to your mind. Do you have any recordings of people playing this music? What did they do? We can't tell you what sounds good to your ear, nor what will be acceptable and palatable to your audience. Spend a couple hours in a practice room (or wherever you go to play by yourself) and find something that works.
    – John Doe
    Oct 1, 2018 at 23:39
  • Thanks for the comment. The line is from Blink from Eldar but there the bass is on A# which makes the Cmaj7 on top actually A#6/11 but I simplified the case in this question. I can listen and transcribe his improvisations but I can’t read his mind. The point of the question is music theory ideas that are compliant to chromatically descending chords and in which direction should I think when improvising.
    – Alexander
    Oct 3, 2018 at 20:00

9 Answers 9


Thisd woud be tricky, indeed.

Root notes would be safe to work from, of course. Major 3rds and 4ths could work (in [loose] theory) across a couple of chords in the sequnce because the chords change by a semitone, for example a major 3rd of C#maj7 is a 4th of Cmaj7.

Similarly with the root and a maj7 note.

I'd steer clear of lingering 5ths and 6ths that straddle two chords as I would guess they'd end up as notes not in the scale (eg a 6th could become a minor 7th in the next chord).

I haven't got a guitar to hand to try it, but that's where I'd start.

As you say, the alternative is to play in the scale as of the chords as they change, which is safe and would work, but it's hard to come out with somehting that has some flow.

  • 1
    It is nice observation for the 3rds and 4ths. Seems more safe from mistakes because hiting the 3rd note late will not ruin the harmony of the next chord :)
    – Alexander
    Oct 3, 2018 at 20:32
  • Hiya Alexander, I had a go at this the other night on my guitar. What a strange chord sequence! It sets a mood though. The 3rd ,4th , root and maj7 notion seemed to work. If you throw in some 5ths as well but don't let them straddle when a chord changes, it starts to sound feasible as a kind of 'scale toolkit'. It's not an easy progression to improvise over though. What piece of music is it ? Is there an example online ? Oct 5, 2018 at 8:44
  • 1
    Hi, I wrote in some of my comments. Eldar Djangirov - Blink. He plays these exact same chords with Ab, G, Gb, F in the bass which I makes the actual chord progression Ab6/11, G6/11, Gb6/11, F6/11. I wrote Cmaj7 just for simplicity of the question.
    – Alexander
    Oct 5, 2018 at 15:59

I disagree with John Doe's comment that "We can't tell you what sounds good to your ear, nor what will be acceptable and palatable to your audience." In order to sound authentic as a jazz musician, you want to play the chord tones on the correct chords. Your audience is other jazz musicians, and they will judge your skill based on your ability to hit the chord tones when the chords change. You are right that each chord has completely different set of notes, so you will have to play different notes on each chord.

While practicing, start by playing the 3rd of each chord in half notes (B#, B, A#, A) each time those chords come around. Then try changing the rhythm in simple ways, while continuing to play just the 3rd of the chords. Once you get comfortable with that, start over with the 5ths, then the 7ths. All of this will probably take several weeks of practice, but playing chord tones will sound like you know what you're doing, and it will train your ears to gravitate to those chord tones.

Don't worry about playing eighth note lines or hitting chord extensions until you're really solid on these chord tones. And especially don't worry about scales. Bassist Carol Kaye often gives the sage advice "Don't play OVER the chords, PLAY THE CHORDS."

  • This is good way to start practice. I’ll try but will take weeks to get used to for sure. I’m playing Blink from Eldar which contain such descending chords but when it comes to improvising it feels like hell :)
    – Alexander
    Oct 3, 2018 at 20:44
  • Cool! I'm not familiar with that tune, but Eldar is a monster! He is able to play very fast complicated over these changes. Nonetheless, I would bet that if you transcribe some of his lines, you will see that he is outlining each of these chords clearly as they change.
    – Peter
    Oct 9, 2018 at 19:28

Lydian would be the obvious choice for me throughout the progression. That gives you more usable common tones (7th becomes root, #4 becomes 5th) and you don't have to worry about the natural 4.

To counter the constant downwards movement you can resolve chord tones nicely up by a half step: 2nd->3rd, 6th->7th. And add tension/color by going from root->2nd, 3rd->#4 and 5th->6th.

Those are the clear "strong moves" for me.

You could also alternate between Lydian and Ionian, which could create a more interesting harmonic landscape as you gain a common tone (3rd becomes 4th) when switching Lydian->Ionian, and when switching from Ionian->Lydian you have a bigger change. This can help break the monotony.

Finally between Bbmaj7 and C#maj7 (when looping back) you have three consecutive common tones (Eb, F, G) if you switch from Ionian to Lydian which can surely be utilized for good effect.


My first instinct is to look at the sequence as two chord pairs, enharmonically spelling the chords differently: Dbmaj7 - Cmaj7, Cbmaj7 - Bbmaj7, both pairs utilizing the same harmonic idea. Dbmaj7 resolves to Cmaj7, and Cbmaj7 resolves to Bbmaj7. To get an idea how that works, let's first consider this:

example 1

The second bar has some kind of a cadence, with Dm7-5 aka Fm6/D, resolving to tonic C. Let's twist this a bit more, replacing the Fm with Dbmaj7.

example 2 with Dbmaj7

Then let's make that in Bb:

example 3 in Bb

And finally let's make a version with just the second bars:

example 4 with C and Bb

To me that works nicely. I imagine the following scales over the chords explicating the harmonic idea in my mind:

  • Dbmaj7: Db Lydian (or F natural minor)
  • Cmaj7: C major (C Ionian)
  • Cbmaj7: Cb Lydian (or Eb natural minor)
  • Bbmaj7: Bb major (Bb Ionian)

For the Dbmaj7 - Cmaj7 pair, I treat C as being a tonic in my melody improvisation, and for the Cbmaj7 - Bbmaj7 pair, I treat Bb as being a tonic target, meaning that there's a modulation between the bars.

This was my first idea. I'm sure there are other ways to see the four-chord sequence, for example as simply expanding the maj7 chords to full maj13 chords and not trying to see any common tonics.


You say playing scales wouldn't work, but you could play the scale of whatever chord you were playing (say C♯ major, then C major, then B major, then B♭ major). Then, from there you could get creative in mixing it up. Another thing you could do is play something, then play the same thing (or something similar) a half-step lower, which tends to sound cool in my opinion.

  • Sounds a bit weird to be honest since the chords change fast and have nothing in common. For comparison this works much easier on Giant steps where the chords keep the same or similar tones and you can change the scale smoothly. But it is clear that i need lot of practice to get comfortable with this one.
    – Alexander
    Oct 3, 2018 at 20:27
  • Well, if you like weird, then there you go :)
    – user45266
    Oct 4, 2018 at 0:09

I usually put my saxophone aside and try to sing a melody over the harmony in question. Even try to think up some lyrics – then the line becomes more vocal- like and musical. Actually, it’s all not about scales, it’s about musical ideas that are being developed and lead somewhere. By the way, why not to try using Lydian mode on, say C#maj7 and major scale on Cmaj7, then the two measures will have a common tone F double# and G. As for me, I’d been trying to reinvent the bicycle for quite a long time then I decided to take lessons from a good teacher. I’ve been learning over the internet at https://usaxophone.com/private-saxophone-lessons/. Not overpriced, really helpful. You chose what you want to concentrate on, be it ear-training (which is vitally important for improvising), theory or improvising itself. You can always ask questions!


C#maj7 - Cmaj7 - Bmaj7 - Bbmaj7

I understand the "problem" presented. The chords aren't diatonic to one scale so it seems like a problem for choosing a scale for improv. assuming you need to improv. from a scale.

But I think the bigger problem is not having the complete harmonic picture. Is the idea actually...

|: C#maj7 - Cmaj7 - Bmaj7 - Bbmaj7 :|

...notice I put in the double dots to show that the progression is meant to be repeated.

Or is the chromatic descent passing motion between perhaps two diatonic areas? If that were the case, improvising in the preceding key over the chromatic descent, and embracing the harmonic clash, before changing to the next harmonic area, could work. It would be similar to the harmonic effect of a pedal.

Another important aspect not explained is the duration of these chords. If the duration is short, it lends itself more to the feel of chromatic passing motion. If it moves slowly, the feel might be more of bona fide chord changes, and improvising with chord tones and embellishments would be the straight forward thing to do.

So 4 chords are descending chromatically within 2 measures and repeat over again. (4/4, Tempo ~120)

That didn't register with me on first reading. (That's why posting notation or lead sheet is so helpful.)

My first thought is the progression is really monotonous.

Anyway, if C#maj7 gets a clear emphasis on beat 1 to start each repetition, you might be able to get improv. in C# major to work, probably by emphasizing the tones of that chord upon each repeat. The harmonic effect would be to consider C#maj7 the proper chord and the rest to just be passing motion. The rhythm used for the chord progression will make a difference whether that effect comes across.


"What works for me is to choose certain notes from the chord present in given moment and create licks from those notes."

Yes, that's an excellent approach. It's the way we always used to do it before the Berklee 'chord = scale' thing took over the world!


One idea would be to think about this progression as T->D->T->D so more like C#maj7 F#7b5 Bmaj7 E7b5 and try some standard bebop I-V-I language. Some of the stuff Eldar plays seems to be suggesting this type of thinking. Also major II-V-I sometimes get substituted as II-#Imaj7-Imaj7 so modal interchange of tritone sub so that chromatic sequence is not that alien to the bebop language.

In more general terms - side slipping is a bread and butter of jazz and even the theme from Blink has the elements of that - so similar phrases repeated in semitone steps.

Any strategies aiming at finding a scale that fits well the whole sequence IMO go against what is actually happening in jazz improvisation unless the goal is to barely survive at the jam session. It is clear that what Eldar is trying to do there is to find a nice balance between fluid melodies that go smoothly through the chromatic chord sequence but at the same time reflect the changes and play the important chord tones and fortunately the bebop language that his has ingrained in his muscle memory fits these chromatic changes really well.

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