With 40 years of teaching professionally, I have taught countless students (beginners to advanced) how to play or improve their chops.
Music Theory for Guitarists: How Do You Harmonize a Major Scale?
Harmonizing a scale forms the chords in that scale. For the major scale, the procedure is quite simple.
- Start with the major scale and form triads (three note chords) by adding the third and fifth above the root.
- If the root is on a line, the third and fifth will be found on adjacent lines above the root note.
- If the root is on a space, the third and fifth will be found on adjacent spaces above the root note.
The chords formed are always the same shapes corresponding to the intervals of the major scale: Major, minor, minor, Major, Major, minor, diminished, Major.
The C Major Scale
This is quite simply, Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do. The key of C Major has no sharps or flats, the notes are all natural: C D E F G A B C. A standard way of notating intervals is with roman numerals: I II III IV V VI VII VIII.
Triads in the Key of C Major
When the C Major scale is harmonized to form triads, the resulting chords are: C Major, D minor, E minor, F Major, G Major, A minor, B diminished, C Major. These are the chords in the key of C Major. This means that the C Major scale can be used over any of these chords for improvisation or composing purposes. This is also a strong song writing tool, as many pop and rock songs are diatonic (contained within one key). Play these chords in any order, and the resulting sound is very pleasing to the ear.
The song "Runaway Train" is a perfect example of a song that is strictly diatonic. There are no chords outside of the key of C Major. The ever popular, One Four Five progression is found here. The One chord is C, the Four chord is F and the Five chord is G. For every Major scale the shapes and order of the chords are always the same Major, minor, minor, Major, Major, minor, diminished and Major (octave higher) . I have notated both the scale and the chords along the fifth string for clarity, but they do not have to be played this way. Any voicing of the chords will work
4-Note Chords in the Key of C Major
To form four-note chords, simply add one more note onto the triads. Follow the same procedure: if the notes are on lines, add one more note above the triad on the adjacent line, if the notes are on spaces, add one more note above the triad on the adjacent space. The resulting chords are C Major 7, D minor 7, E minor 7, F Major 7, G7, A minor 7, Bm7b5, C Major 7. All of these chords are seventh shapes and have a strong jazz sound.
Once again, I have notated all the chords with the root along the fifth string. Some of these shapes are very had to play with these voicings. Try normal voicings for these chords, the results will be the same. The C Major scale will fit with all of these chords. In fact, it will sound better, because some of the notes from the scale that are commonly passing tones will sound much more pleasing. For example: across a C Major chord, the B note is normally used as a passing tone, because it will clash with the root C, but over C Major 7 the B is contained in the chord. A very serene sound.
Harmonizing Scales in All Keys
I have transcribed all the sharp and flat keys on recurring string sets. Obviously, working out all the triads for each key on ALL strings sets is a monumental task. Try to memorize one key and one string set per day. Then try to mix and match the same key on different string sets (I have included an example for G Major). This is a huge study and requires a lot of work, but will open up the fretboard for improvisation and composition.
Harmonization of All the Major Scale Sharp Keys
Harmonization of all the Major Scale Flat Keys
"God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman" Chord Melody
This arrangement puts the triads to work. They can be extremely valuable in chord melody composition. It is not all that hard when you have this knowledge. Voice the melody note as the highest note and build the triad underneath. Not that easy to play or memorize and it will have you running all over the fretboard. With enough practice, you might master it in time for the festive season.
© 2013 Lorne Hemmerling
Larry Allen Brown from Brattleboro Vermont on March 09, 2016:
The Lydian Mode
The Lydian Mode Expanding the Musical Vocabulary © Larry Allen Brown
One of the interesting things that can be done when improvising over a major chord is to shift into the Lydian Mode. It's easy to do.
The characteristic note in the Lydian mode is the raised 4th. ( flatted 5th ). When improvising on the guitar for example, spotting that note in the heat of the moment can be difficult. There is a very simple way to do this.
Knowing the Scales
Using the key of C as an example ( no sharps or flats to deal with ) the notes from that scale are C, D, E, F, G, A and B. The Lydian mode will invoke a raised 4th degree. In this case that would be the F. The easiest way to accomplish this would be to simply play a scale that has all the same notes as C with one exception. An F# is needed . The key of G supplies that. Every note in the G scale is also in the C scale with one exception: The F is now F#. All the other notes are the same as the C scale. The formula is simply to play a scale that is rooted up a 5th from the key of C. That would be the G scale. When playing in G, play up a 5th and superimpose the D scale and so forth. In the course of improvising, hitting the #4 ( #11) will naturally occur and the difference will be noticeable.
Using the pentatonic
Another way of accomplishing this and adding additional color tones would be to play a major pentatonic scale a whole step up from the key of the moment. ( or the minor pentatonic a half step lower then the parent key). If C major is the chord, play the D major pentatonic ( or B minor pentatonic - same notes ). When doing this, the notes that would be emphasized would be B which is the major 7th of a C chord. D which is the 2nd ( 9th ), E which is the 3rd, F# which is the # 4 ( # 11 ) and A which is the 6th ( 13 ). Since the pentatonic scale has no leading tone like a major scale, it works great. A D major scale for example would have a C# in it and that note played against a C natural is likely to set ones teeth on edge. Playing the D pentatonic avoids that minor 2nd interval.
George Russell brought the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization ( LCCOTO ) to the public awareness over fifty years ago. Russell’s work represents a radical expansion of the harmonic language for both composition and analysis. It marks an abandonment of the major-minor system, which dominated Western music for over 350 years. Russell’s root scale follows the natural overtone series and runs from C to C with F#, rather than with the customary F natural of the major scale. Russell made a powerful argument that the Lydian scale is the true parent scale rather then the accepted major scale. Anybody who has listened to jazz over the past 50 years has heard his concepts being put to use. Russells concepts are more likely to be found in private conservatories such as the New England Conservatory, or the Berklee College of Music.
Jason Gross explains the reasoning behind the LCCOTO- "For Russell, the Lydian mode (with, in the key of C, its tonic F and dominant C) was a more logical candidate to become the primary scale because it suggests a greater degree of unity between chords and scales. Russell argues that a major scale, for example C, consists of two tetrachords that embody two tonalities, not one. But if you adapt the major scale to Lydian mode (in the key of C that would be a C major scale with F-sharp instead of F), it removes the duality of conflicting tonics, and more fully satisfies the tonality of the major chord. With one tonic used for each respective scale, Russell reasoned that a greater variety of chords could be stacked. This offered a new path for adventurous musicians: Standard chord progressions need not dictate the course of an improvisation, as each note is equidistant from a single tonic center. Notes could flow more freely beyond the strictures of a song's chords."
So, the next time you're improvising over a C major chord, try using the GMajor Scale and see how it sounds. It'll be your first venture into playing "outside'. Once your ears get used to these outside tonalities you can slip them into your improv and slip right back into the inside key center at will. And, if you hit a "bad" note, hit it again so they know you meant it. hehe. Where would we be without music?
Larry Allen Brown from Brattleboro Vermont on March 09, 2016:
Very well done Lorne. As a Berklee alum I can say that what you offered is spot on accurate. I've been teaching for about 30 years now, and I always take my students through basic Diatonic Harmony so that they know where chords come from. I wrote this a while back and I think it will only reinforce what you've said.
The Harmonized Major Scale What is Diatonic Harmony? © Larry Allen Brown Oct 2, 2008
Where do chords come from in music and how are they constructed? It all begins with the major scale.
The importance of knowing and understanding the harmonized major scale is vital to any musicians ability to communicate something melodic when soloing over a chord progression or in composing music that makes sense.
What is the Harmonized Scale?
Most people who had some kind of basic music in grade school are familiar with the sound of the do, re, me, fa, sol, la, ti, do construction of the major scale. Those individual notes are built on a series of whole steps and half steps. If a person were looking at a piano keyboard and located the note C, he would notice that it was a white key. The very next key would be a black key a half step away, followed by another white key then another black key. Each step from one key to the next is called a half step. To go from one C note to the next C note would require 12 steps known as the Chromatic Scale. There are two places where a white key is followed by another white key. The notes E to F, and the notes B to C. If a person wanted to play a C major scale, he could play all the white keys starting on C, and the construction would be; whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step. That would be 7 notes ( no black keys ) with the 8th note being the starting point of C once again and bringing the player to the next octave.
A person could take every other note and play them together and arrive at the chords that would be diatonic to the family of whatever key he was playing in. For example, in the key of C, one could play the C, E, and G, and he would have a root position C major triad. Following that same formula, he could then play every other note starting on the 2nd note, D, and play D, F, and A which would give him a D minor triad. Applying this same formula with each successive note will present the scale in harmony.
Breaking this down it would look like this:
Major triad - C E G minor triad - D F A minor triad - E G B Major triad - F A C Major triad - G B D minor triad - A C E diminished - B D F
These are the fundamental building blocks of chord construction. It is how chords are built. All chords are derived from the major scale. Those chords can be altered in a variety of ways by adding additional notes called tensions, or "color tones". Those are the salt and pepper notes that make things interesting. Sometime notes that are not diatonic to the key can be added to stretch the harmony even further. Ones own ears are the final judge when it comes to what works and what doesn't.
What Lorne has presented is absolutely accurate, and I think the information on the CAGED system is a must to see how the neck is connected. If a player applies his knowledge of Harmony, with at least 5 different ways of making a chord (Major, minor, and dim, and the pentatonic shapes that go with those chord shapes, and the arpeggios that outline those chord shapes...he's in business. Once that's under your fingers, there's a few interesting things you can do to spice things up. I'll post one.