Harmonized chords are made from major scales, right ?

I stumbled on this page : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_musical_scales_and_modes

there seems to be a a lot of other scales out there, so...

  • can the other scales be used to build other chords and so other musical genres ?

  • if major scales are used to build minor chords, there is also a minor scale & an harmonic minor scale; can they be used to create exotic new chords ?

  • pentatonic & pentatonic minor scales have only 5 notes, yet we play chords that are build from the major scale, why ? can't we build chords from these ?

thanks for the time you'll spend on this question

5 Answers 5


Classically, chords exist independently of scales. One can form any chord on any root. Whether such a chord is useful depends on whether it sounds good or not. Jazz and pop music tie chords to scales more tightly (I think, I'm not as familiar with the jazz or pop theory.) When playing (mostly pop and country and classical and Latin) I just think of chords as quasi-independent of the melodies (they really only agree at phrase endings).

In a given key (from the 1600-19xx period), there are chords that have been preferred (by a lot, else the classification would be useful) like the I,V,V7,IV,ii,ii6,ii56,vi,ii,vii0, in major keys and i,I,iv,v,V,V7,VI,III,VII,vii0,vii07, in minor keys. In the 1450-16xx period, chords were usually (but not always) taken from the mode being used. Unfortunately, Renaissance (and Medieval) modal classifications described by theorists don't completely describe what composers wrote (even if that theorist was also the composer.)


You are asking too many questions in one but I see a general theme.

First I think there may be an ambiguity in your question. You could be referring to using the Major scale as a reference for chord building with formulas like Maj = (1, 3, 5), minor = (1, b3, 5), dom7 = (1, 3, 5, b7). In which case this is all there is. You are really using notes on the chromatic scale but referencing them by where the appear in the diatonic sequence. Or, you could be referring to the order that chords appear in the scale when any note is taken as the 1, and the next notes are determined by skipping every other note, i.e. jumping thirds. This produces a set of chords in order that naturally harmonize the major scale. I think you are asking about the latter, not the former.

If you build chord scales from the diatonic modes, Dorian, Mixolydian, etc, you will get nothing new, just a re-ordering of the ones you already know.

Harmonic and Melodic minor scales do produce "new" chord scales suitable for harmonizing minor melodies. This is a standard approach in harmony. The chords built from the minor scale are not that exotic, you get majors, minors, the dom7 on the V which is critical for a V7 --> i ending that is so common in Western music. You also get the augmented triad which is NOT part of the chords on the major scale.

You get exotic extensions to chords by adding more to them like (1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13) which is basically the major scale sequence in 3rds rather than steps.

In Western music we typically define a chord as containing certain intervals needed to produce pleasant, meaningful, harmony (subjective I know). And that usually requires 3rds. The formula (1, 3, 5) for a triad is usually the building block for all other chords. So, if a scale is missing notes it many not be possible to adhere to this standard. For example many people would say the "power chord" = (1, 5, 8) is not a chord. You could call it a primitive chord based on a 2 note scale. So when it comes to harmonizing the pentatonic? I don't view the pentatonic as a mode or scale in its own right (though others would disagree). To me this is just a subset of the diatonic scale and I'd uses standard harmony to back up a pentatonic melody.

On a different tangent I started learning Indian Carnatic scales a few years back. They have 72 distinct independent scales. Many of these do NOT map to a Western scale and cannot be used to generate a chord sequence like we do in Western music with a simple triad as the foundation. Some do, for example the major scale is one of the Carnatic scales. But others do not. I wrote a software programs that generated all sequences of "every other note", e.g. a triad or 7th chord, from each and every Carnatic scale. Some of these matched the Western chords we know and use, but others did not. My intent was to investigate whether or note one could apply standard Western harmony principles to these scales. It does not seem universal to me. I was inspired by a concert with Dave Holland and Sakir Hussien that was essentially a Jazz + Carnatic fusion. In my opinion it really didn't "fuse". Rather than having solid chord progressions the western part of it seemed to apply "drone" chords which is more Indian. Then, when Jazz players would solo the mood became more "jazzy".

  • so basicaly, it's major/minor scale that are used to create harmonized chords... and no one would do 1 3 5 on a pentatonic scale to create chords...ok
    – Phil
    Commented Apr 13, 2020 at 12:04
  • I dont see the difference between 1 3 5 chords and "you could be referring to the order that chords appear in the scale when any note is taken as the 1, and the next notes are determined by skipping every other note"
    – Phil
    Commented Apr 13, 2020 at 12:05
  • Isn't the Indian system like, there are no chords at all, just a drone, and the notes of the scale create different intervals and tensions relative to the drone? Or I wonder if this is how someone from that culture would describe what it means. So the thing with Western harmony would come from the fact that the scales just happen to be symmetric and uniform enough between notes that intervals can be stacked. In the equal temperament system this has been taken to the maximum extreme, and now newcomers to music assume that 12TET is some kind of a law of nature. Commented Apr 14, 2020 at 18:31
  • You are lumping all Indian music into one, like all Indian food. It is several dozen cultures. The Ragas are usually played with a drone (or 2). Ragas are highly improvisational and they likely have not developed multi voice harmony because of this. By the way there are Ragas that are basically the major scale, so how do you explain the lake of harmony and chords?
    – user50691
    Commented Apr 14, 2020 at 18:36
  • I did what I did with the Carnatic scales out of curiosity. I wanted to see if a multi voice harmony emerged that was (1) not contained in Western music and (2) still harmonious. I also wanted to see what resolutions occurred naturally, (7-8 and 4-3) for V7 - I. There are some interesting surprises. I think one can do better than drones.
    – user50691
    Commented Apr 14, 2020 at 18:39

You can harmonize any scale by stacking intervals from the scale. What could prevent you from doing that?

Robben Ford just recently happened to talk about harmonizing the diminished scale, which has 8 notes:


Harmonized chords are made from major scales, right ?

As a shorthand description that is sort of true.

Each tone of the diatonic scale can be used as a chord root in common harmonic practice. That works because all the triads produced that way are either major, minor, or diminished and those are the main chord types used in that style.

But, there is no reason to require building chords on all the tones of an exotic scale.

Familiar melodies like Hava Nagila or Miserlou use exotic scales, but they are often harmonized with a limited set of chords, the tonic chord and some auxillary chord, or just the primary tonal chords.

You can make a similar observation about the blues. In a typical 12 bar blues no chord is built on the flat fifth.

So, a practical tip is don't try using each tone of an exotic scale as a chord root.

The deeper insight is chords are not derived from fixed scales. Both that issue has been covered in other answered questions.

  • I meant to write "not derived from fixed scale." I corrected that. If you follow the harmony system using chord roots, which is what most people do in tonal harmony since Rameau, chords are intervals of thirds above roots. The tones are mostly diatonic, but the tonal degrees are variable. The scale isn't fixed, it's variable in the modal degrees. Commented Apr 14, 2020 at 14:09
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    LOL I thought, what is this, it seemed like exactly backwards ;) I agree that it's an important insight to see chords and scales as separate things. You can build or derive chords from scales, but only chords and intervals really "exist" when there's sound, scales only exist in the listener's imagination and expectations. C major - which scale did it come from? Who knows, maybe none. Commented Apr 14, 2020 at 15:08

"Harmonized chords are made from major scales, right?"

No. You've seen a list of the chords that can be made out of the notes of a major scale (or probably just of the triads - three-note chords) and fallen into the trap of thinking that the story ends there.

It doesn't. There are LOADS more chords. You can think of them as modifications and extensions of the 'major scale' triads, or you can think of them being constructed from other scales. Major, minor (all flavours), pentatonic, whatever. Either way, there's a whole lot more of them!

The way we NAME chords, C, Cm, Cm7, Cm7(b5)(b9) etc. uses a 'start with the major triad then modify/add stuff' system. 'C' - the most simple chord name - means 'C major triad'. Everything else is a change or addition. But that doesn't mean it's the best way to look at harmony in general.

  • ok I tried with major scale modes and minor scales and harmonic minor, but how does one name chords based on pentatonic scales ? if I follow the 1-3-5 rule, I end up with crazy intervals
    – Phil
    Commented May 7, 2020 at 13:34
  • The 'black notes' pentatonic scale can be looked at as a Gb6(add2) chord if you like. But the strength of the pentatonic scale isn't in building chords - it's that it fits over so MANY chords in a major or minor key!
    – Laurence
    Commented May 8, 2020 at 0:38

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