Playing over chords

Hi, I am wondering what it means to play a scale over a chord. I suspect this is covered in improv techniques but would much appreciate a simple explanation with perhaps a suggestion for lessons to learn more. Thanks again for your time.

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Hi @sam3, thanks for writing!

When someone tells to play a scale over a chord, you have to find a scale that fits to the chord tones.

Let’s start form the beginning.

First, always remember that scale and chord are the SAME EXACT thing.

Here an explanation:

Let’s take a simple mode, D-dorian (if you’re not familiar with modes, go check out Modes of the Major Scale Tutorial |

Now, if we think of the chord behind that scale, we would take the 1st, 3rd 5th and 7th of the scale, thus discovering D-7, and if continuing with the 3rds, in it’s entirety, D-13:

Screen Shot 2020-08-18 at 6.55.51 PM

As you can see, if I take the 9th, 11th and 13th of the chord and put them within the same octave, we have the same notes in the same range as in the D-dorian scale.

Of course this is not that simple in all situations, with for example melodic minor modes the stack of 3rds would not add up.

However, when asked about scale over a chord, it is relatively simple to figure out.

Here list of tips, in the order of importance:

  1. Try the stack of 3rds; take the chord symbol and pile up 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 11th and 13th, and if it is a major scale mode, you will have you scale!

  2. Look at the chord symbol, here example G7b13b9. Put all the chord tones and extensions (meaning for example #11 or b13 etc.) within an octave, and you have your scale:

Screen Shot 2020-08-18 at 7.13.11 PM

  1. Often the chord symbol doesn’t give all the entire information, for example C7. In these cases it is up to you to find all the options you have, which can be several. Let’s keep the C7 as an example:
    Screen Shot 2020-08-18 at 7.16.21 PM

Now, we know for sure that we have to have the tonic C, major 3rd E and the b7th Bb in the chord. All the other notes can be varied; you can for example have #5, # or b9, 11 or #11 or 13.

Using the notes that the chord symbol determined and adding the ones you choose, you will end up with a scale you can use over C7.

Then of course we can’t forget the scales with less notes, pentatonics for example.

Extra question for you: which basic pentatonic scales you can play over C7? Remember to use the tips mentioned above!

Thanks, let me know if you have any further questions,



Hi Tuomo

This was really useful.

Question: how would relate what you have just described here to the jazz improvisation exercises and also the transcription exercises you have kindly created?

Maybe another example?

That would be useful to explain for people as well who are just starting out.



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Hi @paul1523727, thanks for writing!

Always remember that everything in music is related. Always try to find similarities with all things you deal with, and you’ll be surprised how much everything is just about the same thing.

The important thing that ties the things talked above to the other exercises you mentioned is listening.

Every time you study something theoretical, remember to play the examples and try to understand them from listening point of view. Let’s take few minor scales I mentioned earlier in this thread as an example.

D dorian (chord is D-7, or D-13 to be more specific, but let’s keep chords simple now)

D melodic minor (chord is D-maj7)

D harmonic minor (chord is again D-maj7, check out the tip no. 3 from earlier thread for why we can have same chord symbol for 2 different scales)

On paper we can easily see and understand how these 3 scales are different, but more important is to hear the difference.

This is how you can start:

Go to your piano. Let’s take the first, dorian minor. What makes it different than the others?

Play the notes of the dorian with you right hand, and play a low D on the left hand so your ear has a reference point. Noodle around, improvise a little, create melodies and small chords/intervals with this scale while still playing a low D, and listen what defines this scale?

With dorian, the notes that create its unique sound are 6th and b7. Now play the scale a bit more, try to listen to those notes, and really work on getting the sound into your ear. Do this for a while, 15-20 minutes. Then leave the instrument, and try to sing this scale/ melodies within the scale without any help from the piano (you don’t have to sing out loud, as long as you’re sure the sound of the scale has become clear to you).

It’s remarkable what 15-20 minutes can do. Now you should have the specific sound or dorian in your ear and mind.

Now, do the same thing to the D melodic minor; the notes to pay attention to are 6th and major 7th. Noodle, improvise, play intervals and chords for at least 15 minutes. Get away from the instrument and see if the sound has stuck with you.

And the last one, D harmonic minor. Important notes are b6 and maj 7th. Repeat all the steps mentioned, take your time and be patient, it doesn’t matter if you need more time, as long as you achieve the goal of really hearing the scale and the overall sound it creates.

Now, once you’ve done this throughly and are sure you hear the scales well, you will have much stronger view of not only 3 different scales, but intervals and chord tones as well.

Thanks, let me know if you have any further questions,



Thanks Tuomo! These are some great suggestions for examining whatever scale we might be studying (or struggling with :sunglasses: ).

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Thanks Tuomo.

Very dear (and eye opening) indeed and an interesting exercise at and away from the piano.

The question I also have is how would you relate what you have explained to:
1 - the ear training exercises (beginner, intermediate and advanced)
2 -transcription exercises (say Bud Powell and others, etc.).

Should we be adopting a similar approach to our playing (and learning)?

Not just identifying the notes but examining the notes based on the scale type?

This opens up a new world in many respects in the was we look at playing, etc…(I guess that’s what you and Hayden and the other teachers have been trying to drill into us all - haha).



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Hi @paul1523727,

I think we should adopt these ear training ideas to everything we practice, after all music is about listening.

Main goal is to get your ear familiar with more and more things, chords, scales, the “language” of different eras of music etc. When studied throughly, the ear training and transcription exercises are covering all these aspects.

You can apply the same method I explained above to everything. Here some ideas over the exercises you mentioned:

1 - the ear training exercises
2 -transcription exercises

In the exercises I’ve given you material to work with (for example what scale the melody is based on, what key, first and last chord, parts of the solos already transcribed etc.)

Applying the 15-20 minute approach to the material you’ve been given, you will get familiar with the exercise even before you’ve start it. By this I mean, for example, in the beginner ear training, if the notes of the melody are all from Cmajor scale, I would first spend that 15 minutes only on listening the C major scale the way we discussed earlier. After that the exercise itself should be a piece of cake.

Same works for all the other exercises, of course with more advanced ones you have to be more creative with the listening method.

Being creative and smart with practicing is an important part of learning; we all have to “learn to learn”, find different learning skills that work for us as individuals.

Lastly, I want to mention that the ear training exercises are built in a way that we should not proceed to the next level before the simpler ones are totally clear and easy, first I mean the beginner exercises, ESPECIALLY intervals, as they are the basis of all melodies and chords.

Thanks, let me know if you have any further questions,


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Wow, that makes sense really! really like how you simplify it to be easily understood :blush: Thanks so much!!! Tuomo

I remember I started watching the modes lesson and I really dig those lessons, Hayden too knows well to simplify the formulas! :blush:

brilliant tips on how to prep for improvising too! :star_struck:

Hi @Kristeta,

Thank you, I’m glad if I can help!!

Let me know if you have any further questions,


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