In music theory they teach you there are scales are there are chords, and I am having a hard time really solidifying their relationship(s). What I am getting confused with is the chord progression/scale relationship in a song. How can you determine what notes can be played over each different bar?

  • If I am in C major and the current bar is a F or a G, I get the F and G arpeggios can be played, but what other filler notes can also be played?
  • If I am in C major what notes can be played with d min or e min? Do you just play the C major scale when you are in a d min arpeggio bar with d as the root or do you now play the d min scale?

How can you determine all notes that can be played during a bar in the chord progression and not just the arpeggios of the progression?


I suggest you take your focus away from improvisation for a bit and concentrate on studying, reading and playing a wide repertoire of music. See what great composers and players DO over different chord sequences. Get out the Fake Books. Look at songs with great melodies. How do they fit with the notated chord symbols?

(If you can't come up with a better melody than 'Stardust' to that chord sequence, maybe you should just play that one, beautifully. No-one really wants to hear your inferior improvised one. But that's a whole other topic.)


Do you just play the C major scale when you are in a d min arpeggio bar with d as the root or do you now play the d min scale?

That is a possibility.

But what about the other possibilities?

The chord/scale system encourages looking at one chord in isolation instead of understanding chord progressions and harmony. But you will get a much clear notion of what could be played by knowing the next chord and understanding the harmonic implications.

Yes, a D minor chord in C major gives some context and suggests playing a C major scale starting on D - the second mode of C major, or worse calling it D Dorian - but what if the next chord is A7? If that were the case, playing a C# in a passage over a D minor chord would make sense. That could be playing some form of a D minor scale or decoration (filling in) of the chord from the key of D minor.

From the perspective of tonality Dm G7 versus Dm A7 suggest two very different things. The first one is diatonic and reinforces C major as the tonic, the tonal center. The second - assuming C major had been established before - suggests a tonal shift to D minor. The important point is that the choice of what to do over the Dm chord is strongly influenced by where the music is going, about what the next chord is.


There are chord patterns that fit almost to any melody like C am dm G7 (I vi ii V7) but I know this is not what you are asking for.

One reason for your confusion is that chords are related or have common tones. Sometimes it is difficult to decide in a melody which chord will be the best. But mind that there is never an absolute and only one secure solution for harmonizing a tune. Musicians and composers are happy that they can choose among different chords how they will arrange the accompaniment of a tune. This gives them the possibility of a harmony variation.

If you have no idea at all which chord might fit to a passage or a motif try first with the chords that contain the most of the notes of a short motif. You could even take a die to help for your decision.

But some songs (even melodies that come from your heart or your memory are actually chord based and then it is like you first have to say what you mean before you can understand what you mean.) Only a broad experience will make it easy to "hear" or "see" in a melody what will probably be the underlying harmony.

And when you are experienced by playing hundreds of e.g. pop songs you will find that there are actually just a dozen patterns of chord progressions that are underlying to the most popular pop songs, as the audience always wants to hear the same - but without knowing that it is always the same. And when one day you'll realize that this always the same song, e.g. the Pachelbel canon, or the fifties progression I, vi, IV, V or the phrygian cadence, the subdominant cadence, the blues schema - just with another title - you will only listen more to the authentic voice of Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Lennie Cohen, Tina Turner and enjoy their performance than analyzing the chords like now you still do when you listen to Frank Sinatra's I did it my Way.


For starters, you play a chord, and simply try putting specific notes over it! Keep to diatonics for now!

Soon, you'll find that certain notes fit better over certain chords. As you already know, over a C chord C E and G fit best - of course they will, they're exact matches to the notes of that chord! You'll also soon realise that certain other notes are not such a good fit over certain chords. That's partly what the question is about.

Let's be in 4/4, a very common time signature. In 4/4 there are two places in each bar, basically, that are emphasised. Beats 1 and 3. Especially beat 1.Try out the 'notes over a chord', this time only playing test notes on beat 1, but keeping the rhythm going. You'll find that it pushes certain notes one way or the other - good, or not-so-good. And sometimes not-good-at-all!

Next, keep a good note on beat 1, and 3, and listen to what fits on beat 4, the weakest one in the bar of 4/4. Keep on the root chord for several bars, and you'll probably notice that the notes you think sound fine on beat 4 are not necessarily those that fit better on beats 1 and 3.

I'm not going to give a 'set of rules' as to what works - there isn't one - but hopefully, there are some ideas as to why what works here. Get playing!

EDIT: you can answer your own last question, about playing D min scale notes (but which minor scales?!) over Dm chord (in key C), simply by doing it. You'll notice some notes are 'avoid' notes, that really don't work well. You now need to discover modes.


One can view chord scale relationships in at least two ways. In my experience the more common approach in modern improv is to think of which mode fits over which chord. This relation is "invertible" in the sense that one can think about which chords exist in each mode or scale. This is how I learned the relation in classical harmony theory. The former is how it was presented in Jazz improv, e.g. Jamey Abersold etc.

Realizing that all 7 diatonic modes are just shifted copies of the Major scale, and similarly for the melodic minor modes, you really only have 2 scales to learn (depending on your instrument).

If you think of each chord in isolation then you run into the trap of chasing the chords, as I think you understand. But when you understand the purpose, or function, of each chord in a sequence you can understand how the group of chords support a melodic line, how they move in circles to walk you away from I to IV or vii, and back to I again. The I IV V and the ii V7 I are both embedded in a larger progression called the circle progression,

I -> IV -> viii -> iii -> vi -> ii -> V -> I

I find that it helps to play through the major scale at different speeds, with different phrasing, and using a variety of sequencing patterns over the circle. Then you develop a ear for where the different voices are going.

As for which notes can be played over a sequence of chords... You may not like this answer but... All Of Them! The entire chromatic scale CAN be played over any chord or sequence of chords. The trick of it is in the approach. Typically (but not always as there are exceptions for every rule) one develops melodic lines that land on chord tones on string beats (one rule of thumb). That doesn't mean that you need only use scale tones or chord tones in the approach. Classic counter example to that way of thinking is the blues scale, or one of its various extensions. It is very common for players to force the minor blues over a dom7 chord with the same root. They add to this the M3 of the 7th chord leading to the following scale (1, b3, 3, 4, #4, 5, b7, 8). Note the long chromatic line that fills the space from b3 to 5. What really forks for me is what I call a leading tone principle. I allow myself any freedom to choose notes but aim for a chord tone on a strong beat and chromatically move up or down to that note. This is just one of many sources of inspiration. What really works is going back and fourth from one approach to another to make things interesting. Perhaps start on simple arpeggios and add texture as you go with chromatics.

Regardless or your approach the idea of playing arpeggios and modes over a progression is a good idea to get your ear acclimated to the movement of the notes and what works. This exercise helps with voice leading. I wouldn't recommend only playing arpeggios over the respective chords but I would recommend having them in your ear as focus points. This is, imo, the virtue of Abersold's approach that is sometimes missed. One is not suggesting that you only stick to diatonics, but you certainly need to know where they are in your head or the solo could meander off course and not come back.

As for the notes in the arpeggio of the chord it helps to learn poly chord theory and chord extensions. Complex chords like 9ths, 13ths etc can be broken down into simpler arpeggios (triads) that overlap. A classic example is the Maj7 chord which can be thought of two triads (1, 3, 5) + (3, 5, 7) The second group (3, 5, 7) is really just a minor triad played on iii. In some schools of thought this makes the iii chord a viable substitute for the I. If you add the 9th you get Maj7(add 9) or whatever the correct name is, and you can think of it as the -7 of the iii chord, or the 5th of the V maj triad. This way of thinking allows you to extend chords beyond their form. You can play the major scale in thirds, (1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13) and that exhausts all possible diatonic extensions, creating a Maj7(13) chord. This can be done with any mode to generate a full 13th chord at any position in the key. So in fact the whole major scale really "fits" over every chord in key. One possible exception is the 4th which is considered an avoid note. But in fact it isn't really forbidden to play it over a chord. It would sound odd if it were a focus point, i.e. played on a strong beat or the end of a melodic phrase. But passing through the 4 to get to the 3 would sound great as that would create resolution.

Blindly following (scale, chord) equivalence can lead to some unnecessary excursions away from home. Take for example minor ii-V's. Using the melodic or harmonic minor scales for minor keys we get ii-7(b5)-->V7-->i (where i is really vii, e.g. A- in the key of C). Rather than play Locrian over the ii-7(b5), Mixolydian over V7 and minor over i (or Dorian if you aren't paying attention), you can just build melodic ideas from the harmonic minor scale played on the i. It's easier to think about, hear, and makes for more "traditional" melodic lines.

A lot of the chords in a lead sheet are filler, they are part of a cycle extension that treats a relevant chord as a temporary I and uses part of the circle progression to fill in space. If you are looking to make a progression more interesting, learn the circle in maj and min keys and just grab a chunk. Once you understand how the circle works you can solo over the chords in sequence even of they are present and it will sound good, like you are adding texture to the song. If you are confused about a complex progression a good exercise is to try and figure out the real keys and modulations then remove all the cycle extensions. This reveals the bare bones harmony of the song. Staying with the reduced progression and letting the rhythm section back you up with extra chords will sound better than chasing chords.

As for a soloing approach I would recommend two exercises.

  1. Transcribe or read transcriptions of famous solos for songs and artists you like. Ask yourself along they way what they are actually doing. I found this very helpful with Charlie Parker solos, Wes Montgomery, Mile, etc. You will learn more from this than trying to follow a set of rules that quite frankly are not enforceable.

  2. Follow the Jerry Coker approach and write your own licks or phrases that sound "cool" to you and learn how to fit them into progressions. You will learn from this approach and it's more creative, you will sound like you more than like someone else or like a computer generated scale machine.

To answer your question about Dmin chord in C major more directly, it depends. Dmin in the key of C is on the ii and the mode that fits over that is D dorian, which is just C major starting on the 2nd note. However that doesn't mean it will sound bad if you play D minor (key of F maj) over it. It will force a modulation of the song out of the key of C and into F. The deciding factor would be whether you really hear a key change, or one is indicated in the song, perhaps by the presence of an A7 chord before it. Even if you force the modulation you would want to gracefully modulate back when the chords move back into the original key.

  • 2
    Maj7 (add9) - usually called 'maj9'. As in C E G B D = Cmaj9.
    – Tim
    Dec 29 '19 at 9:50

Scales as pathways from one chord tone to another

Given some chord, there are the notes which participate in that chord, and there are all the other notes. The notes that are part of the chord will, of course, sound fine when played with that chord. The other notes can simply serve the roll of decorating the chord tones or moving from one chord tone to another.

In this sense any scale containing the chord tones can work with a particular chord.

The easiest way to make this work is to "aim" for chord tones on strong beats and keep "other" pitches to weaker ones.

Victor Wooten has an outstanding video demonstrating this principle of "any note works" in the broadest sense.

Staying "in the key"

The idea behind matching scales with chords is that chords occur within the larger context of a key. The D minor chord, for example, can be found in the keys of C major/A minor, D minor/F major, and G minor/Bb major. Those keys all contain the notes D, F, and A, so the D minor chord is "native" to those keys.

As long as the context — the key — is understood, then that scale can be played against the D minor chord. For a D minor chord occurring in a C major context, one might play D E F; but in a Bb major context, one might play D Eb F instead.

"Outside" chords

Sometimes one encounters a chord that doesn't neatly fit the key of the broader musical context. For example, a musical passage might be in C# minor overall, but contain a D minor chord along the way. In a case like this, the chord tones will still "work", and the in-between notes get selected from the scale of the overall key.

Given the example above, a D minor chord in a C# minor context, one could play a scale like D E F (F# or G#) A. The D, F, and A will all fit against the D minor chord, and the E, F#, and/or G# will all sound "correct" because the larger musical context.

"Good" or "bad" notes as defined by rhythmic placement

One of the core principles behind scale/chord pairing is that the scale helps keep chord tones on strong beats and non chord tones on weak beats. Since non chord tones are, by definition, dissonant, keeping them in relative weak rhythmic positions softens their effect.

Where danger lurks is placing non chord tones in rhythmically strong positions. This will emphasize the "wrong-sounding" notes. However, this also creates some of the most interesting and effective musical impacts. Experience is the key. Sticking to scales, and placing chord tones on strong beats is good practice for beginning to improvise and developing one's ear and intuition, but as one gains experience, one also develops a sense of which "outside" notes will "sound good" — or how to make them sound good. There's no rules for this, just developing one's experience, personal sense of what sounds one wants to use, and how one wants to use them.

At this point, an improviser comes full circle back to the "scales as pathways" idea, except that now scales are just pathways from any note to any other note.

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