I was jamming with some jazz guys yet I'm not so good in jazz so I made a bunch of mistakes. One of the things they told me is is how inside of a chord progression, you then spread each chord to its associated scale. So if you have a four chord progression, you could potentially have four different scales. And I never came across that before. One guy even told me it's "spicy" to flatten certain notes of each scale as well.

So I was wondering what the theory is in regards to this. How do you turn each chord into its scale. For example, let's say I have the I-IV-V chord do I then play/pick notes from the associated major scale of each one of these. And then for ii,iii,vi you play the associated minor scales? Are there rules then as what to flatten? Or other rules in regards to certain chords, like dominant seventh chords, or other chord types how do you turn those into scales, do you just randomly pick what scale contains those notes or is it more to it? And when you have the a new sub-scale can you then turn to new chords inside of it.

I tagged this as jazz, but I'd like to apply this theory to other genres as well. I mainly play movie soundtracks, video game music (hence my interest in jazz), pop, new classical, stuff like that.

  • As far as my personal experience goes, jazz, especially modern jazz, very rarely uses natural major and minor scales. The answer to your question largely depends on what type of jazz you're playing... Swing? Be-bop? Free jazz? I am mostly playing "old" jazz, and the most common scales for me are harmonic minor, be-bop major (ascending), be-bop dominant (descending), blues hexatonic major and blues hexatonic minor. Given that jazz largely relies on maj7 chords, you can take the chords for your piece and see how they fit into the aforementioned scales.
    – Pyromonk
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 7:06
  • @Pyromonk but are you always cycling through those scales as they relate to the chords? like in a chord progression do you usually use multiple scales?
    – user34288
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 7:08
  • 1
    no. Most of the time, I only do it for solos or to add some "spice" to a certain phrase. There is no real reason to do it all the time, unless you are playing free jazz. Playing a corresponding scale over a chord, as far as I see it, is a way of "distancing" a certain musical phrase from the main key and adding some variation to it. I am playing tenor saxophone, so your mileage may vary. As a piano player you might be expected to add more variety, depending on the style of jazz you play.
    – Pyromonk
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 7:12
  • To expand on my comment a little bit, playing over scales that are related to a chord is basically a way of adding chromaticism to a musical composition. It is commonly used in jazz and modern classical music. So if you are not playing a rhythm-section instrument, and you know what key and chord the rhythm section plays in a given bar, you can use your knowledge of scales to add some additional notes. I very rarely see more than 2 chromaticisms per bar in the jazz music that I play. Naturally, it requires some understanding of pitch and a good command of chords to pull off if you're jamming.
    – Pyromonk
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 7:22
  • 2
    @Pyromonk you have alot of important things to say pls consider making it an answer!
    – user34288
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 7:25

6 Answers 6


The chord-scale system is pretty standard in jazz improvisation. Gary Burton teaches chord-scale in his Berklee College of Music class on jazz improv, so your fellow musicians are in good company in advocating its use.

Burton starts off with the assumption that you know the major and minor scales, and then clarifies the modes of each scale. From there, the rough concept is as follows, assuming the key is C major:

  • C major chord - play the C ionian/major scale
  • D minor chord - play the D dorian scale
  • E minor chord - play the E phrygian scale
  • F major chord - play the F lydian scale
  • G major chord - play the G mixolydian scale
  • A minor chord - play the A aeolian/minor scale
  • B diminished chord - play the B locrian scale

At this point, you're probably thinking "why not just play C major for all of those?" You could do that, but it helps to get your mind thinking along the lines of playing the different scales for each chord because you can't get very far in jazz without seeing a ton of non-diatonic chords, and you want to practice understanding which scale to play over which chord. For example, over any diminished chord, one reasonable option is to play a locrian scale with a keynote the same as the root of the chord.

There are also several other scales that work better or differently over various chords, such as the bebop dominant scale (I think Burton calls this just a "dominant scale" but for many that refers to a different scale) and the augmented scale. The bebop dominant scale might be played over any dominant seventh chord.

One more important complication in chord scales is that you can't ignore the normal melody line of a jazz piece when picking your chord scales. Well, you can ignore it, but then your solo might sound odd. When the melody note is not a chord tone, it's best to take it into account when picking your chord scale. For a super simple example, if the chord is a C major chord and there's a Bb in the melody at the same time, it's better to play a C bebop dominant scale or C mixolydian instead of C major.

I believe there's a free version of Burton's class on jazz improv available on Coursera, and I highly recommend it. Either way, you can learn to determine chord scales by starting slowly and analyzing some jazz lead sheets and writing in the scale that you would use over each chord. Keep in mind that chord changes don't always require scale changes. After marking up a lead sheet, practice soloing with it by improvising based on the scales you wrote down. Keep doing that until the process for picking scales becomes automatic.

  • actually I was thinking why not play the D minor scale for the D minor chord for example
    – user34288
    Commented Mar 15, 2019 at 1:44
  • 1
    @foreyez The reason there is that the idea of the example is that the melody would be in C major and therefore would not have a Bb in it, and a D minor scale has a Bb. Commented Mar 15, 2019 at 3:16

Modern classical music and jazz heavily rely on chromaticisms (notes outside of a piece's main key and scale). Playing a scale different to the piece's/section's main scale on top of a chord played by the rhythm section is one of the ways to add chromaticisms to a musical composition. These days, I mostly play "old-school" jazz, and I rarely see more than 2 chromaticisms per bar. When there's more, it's usually a chromatic progression from one note to another or a trill.

When composing or playing music, I mostly employ this technique for solo phrases, to add more "spice" to a phrase or to emphasise a transition from one chord to another (similar to drum breaks, which usually signify a change of chords or moving from one section of a piece to another).

The scales you employ and how often you introduce chromaticisms depends on the style that you play and your instrument and its role within the ensemble. In most musical genres, the rhythm section is not expected to move outside of the main key and scale for the piece/section. For example, the bass is expected to outline the tonic and the dominant of the chord being played. Piano in some styles of jazz is expected to be very "inventive" and play maj7 chords and their related scales/modes.

Free jazz and some styles of modern classical music depend on chromaticisms, and this is where I would personally expect every instrument (sometimes even the rhythm section) to play unrelated scales over a chord, or change key and/or signature every bar/phrase, or some unconventional logic to be used for musical progression. Probably, one of the most famous jazz composition progressions is "Coltrane Changes".

Usually, when it comes to jamming, you are either given a note sheet that outlines the chords per bar or the other musicians tell you what conventional progression you are going to use (12-bar blues being one), what key the rhythm section will be playing in, and what scale they are going to use. If you practise your scales every day, it should not be too difficult to take a look at the note sheet and find out what chromaticisms you can add to any given bar. If you have your personal printout, you can even add them to it in advance. I do not have perfect pitch or an eidetic memory, so that's what I normally do.

I started out as a percussionist (drums, kettle drums, xylophone) in a folk orchestra for kids and teenagers, playing in some metal, grindcore and mathcore bands and composing videogame music on the side, so I understand the difficulties you are facing. Jazz can become very complex, but most of the time it's important to know the chords per bar and the scales commonly utilised in jazz (harmonic minor, be-bop major (ascending), be-bop dominant (descending), blues hexatonic major and blues hexatonic minor). You might even add whole-half/half-whole diminished scales to your phrases, to add more of a "metal" feel to them.

To give you a more concrete example, the piece might be in, say, A blues hexatonic minor, and the rhythm section plays a min7 chord in the first bar (A-C-E-G). You decide to impress the audience and play outside of the piece's main scale. Your pick that day is the half-whole diminished scale in A. You quickly remember that its notes are A-B♭-C-C#-D#-E-F#-G. As you know, the half-whole diminished scale has the min7 chord as well. But you can add a few "blue" notes (chromaticisms) to the rhythm section's chord and play A-C#-D#, for example. That way, all of you will start on the same tonic (A). Your sound will be a bit "dissonant", but the listeners will still perceive it as "viable", because it is still within the main key of the piece and the root of the chord (A) and within the scale you have picked for your little "solo" (A half-whole diminished).

I would also like to add that I prefer to be consistent with scales that I "go away" to within a musical piece and not overuse this technique. If you jump between scales all the time, the average listener won't be able to follow. But if the rhythm section plays one scale, and you only ever change to another one, there will still be some audial consistency to what you're playing. Naturally, this rule does not really apply to free jazz or neo-classical music that is fully or almost fully chromatic in nature.

Hopefully, this makes sense.

  • Almost worth just saying ' in this piece, in that key, these two notes are the only ones that don't work too well'. I'm sort of joking..!
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 8:48
  • @Tim, there's truth to every joke. What would you personally change or add within my answer?
    – Pyromonk
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 8:50
  • 1
    It's just that I tell students that eventually, 'any note in any key, can be played anywhere in any tune, once you know what you're doing. Just have to know the rules to be able to break them'. Basically, any note can be and is used anywhere in jazz, that's one of the reasons I love playing it. Making it all work, despite the 'rules' we maybe ought to abide by!
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 9:04
  • @Tim, I completely agree! I was trying to lay out some basic ideas for foreyez to explore, since he has little to no experience with jazz. I think it's best to start out with the basics, which, in this case, might be learning some of the history and ideology behind jazz. I am in no way a professional teacher or musician. Hopefully, my attempt at "simplifying" things was not too crude.
    – Pyromonk
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 9:09
  • 1
    Not at all. The basic use of basic scale notes against certain chords is a tried and tested method, which we all fall back on, probably the first choice with a new number. it's safe and (almost) foolproof. A good start point.
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 9:53

One way to "turn each chord into [its] scale" is the chord-scale system. Be aware that it is mainly jazz-oriented and that it will often offer some pretty disgusting scales for any given chord (the first Wikipedia example offers the C whole tone scale for a chord consisting of C, E, G♯, and B♭).

  • This is the concise answer. Another downside to the chord/scale system is some people won't recognize simple progressions like ii V I as simple diatonic patterns. Some seem to insist jazz is all chromatic without recognizing obvious diatonic patterns. Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 16:56
  • To get this as the "correct" answer from an internet search... I would emphasize that it is just one way. To me the chord-scale system seems like a shortcut to being able to play something that cannot be said to sound completely wrong, but without having to understand functional harmony and chord roles very deeply. In the chord-scale system, how do you even decide which fitting scale to select, if you don't have a sense and taste of what you want to imply in terms of functional harmony? Just select something randomly? :) Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 18:04

Another name for improvisation is vocabulary. Knowing theory will help you discover your vocabulary to use in improvisation. The second best way to learn to improvise is to listen to players you like and imitate them.

One of the first lessons I prescribe a student wishing to explore improvisation are upper/lower neighbors and passing tones.

A chord is typically made up of, for example, the 1, 3, and 5 of a scale. Then explore the half step lower or lower neighbor of each chord tone. enter image description here

Then explore the upper neighbor or half step higher. enter image description here

Then employ passing tones such as going from C, C# to the D. Put them all together to create "rambling" lines:

enter image description here

Then you can employ superimposed chords which are actually modal. For instance, if you are playing a G7 chord, you can play an A or Db chord over it: enter image description here

Try to refrain from playing "licks." Learn your musical alphabet. Playing licks is like being able to speak but not read. Don't make the mistakes I made.


I don't understand this "one scale per chord" concept at all. You should imagine your own different chords on top of the backing instruments, and the fewer notes they play, the more freedom you have. The chords might imply scales, yes, but you don't have to think about the scale as your first priority. Think about chords, and let the scale question resolve itself when needed, if needed.

Even if the progression only has one chord in it, you overlay different stuff on it, to give that one chord different interpretations. If it's a C major, you can imagine the C in any number of roles. Play an Fm on it ... what scales or harmonic contexts does that combination remind you of? How about a Db major? D major? Bb minor? E major? How about a sequence of major chords: C - A - Gb - Eb - C? Does your "harmonic situational awareness" change if you don't play them as chords, but arpeggiate them?

It doesn't have to be anything complicated. If the backing chord progression does a I-IV transition going from C to F, think of some chord tricks you could do to support that transition. Think of it as V-I in F. Or ii-V-I in F. Play a C7 on the C. Play a C9 on the C. Play Gm - C9 - Gb9 ... feels nice, right before going to the F, right?

What I'm saying is, instead of having to jump directly to complete scales from the given chords, another way to look at the problem is, you're re-arranging the song with new, more jazzed-up chords. And then you reveal bits and pieces of your improvised arrangement as you go.

  • I like to think about it as sub-scales, like subdirectories in a file system.
    – user34288
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 23:11
  • @foreyez: think about what? Does my answer make any sense to you - would it enable you to do something in a soloing situation? Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 17:28

I do like the selected answer, but judging by the question, it might be more than you need at this point.

What you really should be doing is listening to the kind of music you want to play. Figure out what they are doing in solos that you like. I'm suprised no one suggested this. Maybe when you're jamming with your more experienced friends, get them to show you what they are doing.

For the type of music you are apparently playing (I-IV-V etc.), you probably don't need to know all that much. Solos in basic progressions tend to be fairly diatonic, meaning basically in the same key. Focus more on rhythmically strong phrases and developing ideas. The selected answer mentioned Gary Burton, this is what he taught in improv. classes.

So, come up with a short motif, two, three or four notes, and "develop" it throughout your solo. (if you don't know what this means, look up "developing motifs"). Also, a lot of solos in pop music focus on the chord tones, so you don't have to get too crazy with scales.

If you want to "spice it up" a little with passing tones, when in a major key, you can mix in the b3 and the #4, (in C, that would be Eb and F#), which imply a minor blues key. You can really play chromatic passing tones anywhere, usually these are on weak beats or off the beat, but you have to use your ear to figure out what works for you.

I don't know that you are going to pick up everything there is to know about music theory from a post, people study this stuff for years. If you are really interested, you could always take an improvisation course online from Berklee.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.