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Matching Scales to Chords

     Chords are made from scale materials or pitch sets, meaning that any scale that contains the notes of a particular chord that is being used is a potential candidate to be used over it. But something to always be aware of is the musical context because each scale has its own flavour – see modes.

     It will be hard to give you a detailed view of all the possible chords and scales that go together but consider this:

  • Chords with more extensions, or more complex, are easier to pin down the scale to use over it because the extensions giveaway the remainder of the scale material and thus, making a pretty good job at implying the overall modal sonority.

     It is more difficult to figure out what scale we could use over a C major chord that exists in several scales and/or tonalities; in C major, F major, G major, F minor harmonic or melodic, G minor melodic, C half-whole diminished, etc. It will harder to choose which scale to use if you don’t have a good grasp of the musical context at hand.

     That said, each chord may imply a mode by having chord extensions that giveaway the respective mode’s sonority and such chords may be presented in a modulating sequence, creating contrasts, and most likely you will have to follow those chord changes with the respective modes and tonalities.

     But you don’t even have to be changing scales all the time as long as the chord succession has chords from the same tonality. Then it should be fine to use the same scale over such chord changes.

      For instance, if you have a Am – F – G – C or a vi – IV – V – I chord progression, these chords exist in the tonality of C major – see scales harmonization to know what chords exist in the major scale. This means that you can use the C major scale to make a melody over all of those chords.

     Obviously, things can get a little bit more complicated when chords from different tonalities enter the scene. In this case, and if you don’t know from where they are coming, you can make the obvious choice of pairing major modes with major chords and the same with the minor ones. If you know how each mode sounds, the choice will present itself according to the musical context at hand – see Modal Harmony and Functional Harmony.

     Nevertheless, I put together a table for the most common modes and scales to be used over specific chords that you can use as guideline for your scale to chord choices. This is by no means a comprehensive table over the risk of being unpractical and overwhelming. And with no further ado:

You don’t have to be stuck with these scales/chord relationships. Provided a proper musical context any scale can be played over any chord.

     As I previously mentioned in other posts, developing a good hear and the feel for how each scale or mode sounds when played over a given chord is a skill of the utmost importance.

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