General Chord and Scale Study: The way a chord or scale “sounds” to any given person is subjective. There are countless variables that contribute to the overall sound of a chord or a scale. (articulation, context, tempo, instrumentation, voicing…etc.) The following information will give you a basic understanding of chord and scale usage.

There are three basic chord types: Major, Minor and Dominant Seventh.

Major chords have a “happy” or “bright” sound.

G”, “Gmaj”, “Gma”, “Gmaj7”, “Gmaj9th” are all “Gmajor type chords. Note that a “Gmaj7” chord is not the same as a “G7” chord. “G7” is not a major type chord .

Minor chords have a “sad” or “darker” sound and they are notated as follows:

a”, “A-”, “Am”, “Amin”, “A-7”, “Amin7”, “A-9th, and so on. All of these are “Aminor type chords. Notice that there is always something that indicates “minor” between the letter “A” and any number that follows in the notation thus “A-7” and A7 are different chords.

Dominant chords are known for their “bluesy” or “soulful” sound and are notated as follows:

Gdom7”, “G7”, “G7th”, “G13”, “G11”, “G9” and so on. These are all “Gdominant type chords. Notice that there is nothing between the letter G and the number that follows. Knowing this will help you to recognize the different chord types later on.

Being able to distinguish between these three chord types can go a very long way toward improving your overall understanding of music. Simple melodies can be endlessly enhanced with chord usage. It is also critical for building a good “chord vocabulary” which any musician will tell you is a wonderful asset.

Inserting different chord types into a chord progression will help build an understanding chord usage. We will first examine the 12 bar blues progression. Countless popular (and unpopular) songs have been based on this simple form. Play through the following examples and then try your own combinations. You should also play the following examples in other keys. It will help to use an appropriate rhythm in the examples below. Note that the first four bars are called the “head”, the next four are called the “change” and the last four bars are called the “turnaround”. If you play a single note instrument play the examples below as arpeggios.

Example 1: 12 bar I, IV, V




Example 2: 12 bar blues I7, IV7, V7

G7 C7 G7 G7 head

C7 C7 G7 G7 change

D7 C7 G7 D7 turnaround

Example 3: 12 bar minor blues Example

A-7 D-7 A-7 A-7

D-7 D-7 A-7 A-7

E-7 D-7 A-7 E7

4: 12 bar waltz (3/4 time three beats per chord)

G7 B7 C7 G7

G G7 D D7

G7 C7 G7 D7

Example 5: 12 bar funk

A-7 D7 A-7 D7

C-7 F7 C-7 F7

B-7 B-7 E9 E7#9

Example 6: 12 bar ballad

G D E- E-

C C- G C

D C C- G D

There are other interesting ways to assemble chords into song form. One way is to use the Roman Numeral System”. The Roman Numeral System is based on the major scale. Each numeral represents a degree (or note) of the major scale. The more you know about the major scale the more you can manipulate the chords in a key. You can also improvise and/or write “outside” of a key using this knowledge. Learning the Roman Numeral System will help you become a better musician/songwriter.

Chords are referred to as “diatonic” or “non-diatonic” with regard to a scale.

Diatonic: This means that a melody or chord is formed from a major scale or “key”. Put another way, the notes in a C chord are part of the C major scale. The notes of a C chord are also found in the G major scale, this means that a C major chord is diatonic to the key of G.

Non-Diatonic: This means that a melody or chord contains a note or notes that not part of the major scale or “key”.

Example 1: A “diatonic” chord progression


This chord progression is “diatonic” to the key of “C”. All of the notes that make up each of the chords in this progression are also found in the “C” major scale. Notice that these chords create a very listenable sound. They sound very common and in fact can be found in thousands if not millions of songs.

Example 2: A “non-diatonic” chord progression

C E7 A- C7 F F- C

Several of the chords in this progression contain notes that are not found in the C major scale. The “E7” contains a “G# note” as does the “F-” and the C7 contains a “Bb” note. None of these notes are part of the “C” major scale. You should also notice that these “non-diatonic” chords create “tension”. If you stop on F- for example, it sounds as if you forget to finish or “resolve” the chord progression. Even though the chords are not all diatonic to the key of “C” this progression is still considered to be in the key of “C”. More on that later.

Let’s get to the “Roman Numeral” part now. If we use a gapped analysis of the “C” major scale (see Table 1 for details) we find that the chords of a key form a very important pattern. Even if you do not wish to understand the details, it will serve you well to memorize this pattern anyway.

The pattern is: I major, II minor, III minor, IV major, V major/Dom, VI minor, VII minor b5(dom)

In the key of “C” major this means the following chords are “diatonic” to the “C” major scale:

C major, D minor, E minor F major, G major or G7, A minor, B minor b5

As you will see in the tables that follow, if you form a “gapped analysis” of the twelve major scales you always arrive at the above pattern, the names of the chords change but the pattern they form (maj, min, min, maj, maj, min, minb5) do not.

So example 1 could be referred to as a “I, IV, I, V” in the key of “C”. Example 2 would be analyzed as a “I, III7, VI-, I7, IV, IVminor, I”.

Here are six areas where the Roman Numeral System can better your understanding.

Stereotyping A lot of music can be stereotyped by chord progressions that occur over and over in a particular style. (See table B for more details) For example: A I, VI, IV, V” is commonly referred to as a 50’s chord progression. There are thousands of songs from that era that are based on this form. That is not to say that this chord progression will always sound like a 50’s song. If you were to play this progression in the key of “Ab” adding a 9th to each chord you would end up with “Every Breath You Take” by The Police (Abadd9, F-add9, Dbadd9, Ebadd9). So in short, any stereotypical chord progression can be endlessly altered in order to achieve a different sound or mood. You can use the Roman numeral system to come up with your own versions of standard chord progressions or you can use it to avoid a standard sound all together.

Songwriting The Roman numeral system is invaluable to a songwriter. It allows you to “see” how your chord progression relates to other musical styles past and present. Understanding it will make it much easier to find the right chord for a particular part or complete an idea that you may have left unfinished. For example: A standard bridge section to a song could be a “III-, IV, III-, IV, V”. You can plug this in to almost any “pop” chord progression and you have a new song or maybe a more complete song. Try adding this “III-, IV, III-, IV, V” idea to some of the chord progressions we have already covered and you’ll see that it almost always works. Ex. Try adding B-, C, B-, C and D to example 1(page 1) in measures 4,5,6,7 and 8 respectively.

Transposing There are many situations where transposing to a different key is necessary. Whether you are in a recording session, on a gig or writing music you are likely discover a situation where you have to move a song to another key. The Roman numeral system is a simple way to do this. As you examine the tables that follow you will better understand how to transpose and at some point you will find that you can do this with ease.

Improvising Almost all adept improvisers use some kind of system to supplement their natural abilities. Nine times out of ten the Roman numeral system is part of their thinking. For example, if a horn player is soloing over some combination of “A- and D9” he or she could recognize this as a II, V in the key of “G”. This would then open the door for other scales to be used for improvising. Instead of the standard “A blues scale” the soloist now recognizes that the “A” Dorian scale can be used. “A-, B- and E- pentatonic” scales could also be used as they are all diatonic to the “A” Dorian scale.

Turnarounds A turnaround can be loosely defined as the section of a song or progression that leads back to the beginning of the song or progression. A turnaround will typically (but not always) end with the V chord. The last four measures of a twelve bar blues are commonly referred to as the turnaround. Turnarounds are sometimes the foundations for entire songs. The fifties chord progression (I,VI, IV, V) for example is also standard turnaround. A thorough knowledge of turnarounds will not only help with your ability to play the blues but it will strengthen your chord vocabulary and give you a healthy foundation for building songs. There will be a table of turnarounds at the end of this text for you to experiment with.

Chord Substitution You could probably devote your entire lifetime to this phenomenon. For an in

depth study of chord substitution I highly recommend reading “Chord Chemistry” by Ted Greene. It is an easy book to find and it has proven invaluable to thousands of chord hungry musicians. Be careful that you don’t pick up just any book called Chord Chemistry. The book you need must be authored by Ted Greene. There are also examples of chord substitution in this text. Substituting D-7 instead of G7or replacing D-7b5 for F- or changing D (as a V chord) to Daug or D11 are all examples of chord substitution. The reason chord substitution relates to the Roman Numeral System is that each Roman numeral has specific rules for substitution. (Ex. Augmented, 13, 11 and 7#9 chords can almost always be substituted for the V chord {as long as it doesn’t interfere with the melody of course}) These general rules are outlined in great detail in Ted Greene’s book. Substituting chords by trial and error into the 12 bar blues form has been a valuable learning experience for me and it is more fun than trying to remember all the rules for substitution.