Scale Choice: Major Chords

The Scale Choice series of articles are intended to highlight the construction of different scales, the structural basis of which will then be expanded and applied to different chords in a musical setting. As we modify the basic scale with additional notes we will explore the relationships which these notes have with the original scale and discuss the structure of the new scales or modes and their application.

The content of these articles is intended as an introduction to this topic and is therefore not exhaustive. While much of the information will relate to genres such as Jazz and Fusion, it can also be applied to other styles of music.

Perhaps the main focus of this series is to encourage the use of your ears to guide your note selection. After all, to achieve complete freedom when composing and improvising we must gain an understanding of how all twelve notes may be applied to different musical situations.

All of the following discussion will be related to the C major scale, the C major triad and the C major triad with extensions.

The major scale is in many respects the basis of tonal music: for example, the major scale’s modes were used in Medieval and Renaissance music, the relative minor scales are ‘taken’ from the major scale, and we derive all of our scale formulas from the major scale.

The C major scale contains the following modes

Major-scale modes

as you can see, a major scale is also known as the Ionian mode.

It also contains the C major pentatonic scale

C maj Pent

and the A minor pentatonic scale.

Am Pent

The inclusion of the flat third (E flat), and other notes, to these pentatonic scales moves us into the realm of the Blues and the Blues scales.

C blues

A Blues

Although, more typically associated with dominant harmony, the blues scales may also be applied to major chords. Here, the E flat is often used as an approach note to the major third (E)

Eflat approach

By combining the C blues scale and the A blues scale a nine-note composite blues scale is produced.


This scale is also known as the Mixolydian/Blues hybrid scale, because it incorporates the Mixolydian mode and blues scale which share the same root note: for example, C Mixolydian and C blues.

C mixo

C blues

Again, this scale’s application is typically over dominant harmony but may also be used over major chords or chords which lack the third degree, such as the so-called ‘Power’ chords of Rock and Heavy Metal. As with many chromatic applications, the use of the blues and composite blues scales must be treated with care when applied to a major sound world. Further discussion on how these notes can be treated in this type of application is found at the end of this article.

If we raise the fourth degree of a major scale we create the Lydian mode.

C Lydian

This choice is common for major chord applications. By also raising the fifth degree of a major scale

Lyd sharp 5

we create Lydian sharp 5, the third mode of the melodic minor scale. The sharp fourth and sharp five of these modes may be reflected in the underlying harmony or may simply be added through the notes of the mode.

If we add a D sharp to the C Lydian mode we create Lydian sharp 2, the sixth mode of the harmonic minor scale.

Ldian sharp 2

With this application the resulting extensions to the major chord are the sharp 9 and sharp 11.

Sharp 9&11

Again, this may be played by the underlying harmony or added by the notes of the mode.

By adding a sharp five to the major scale we create C Bebop major scale.

C bebop

The sharp five can be viewed as a chromatic passing note between the fifth and sixth degrees PN

or, as a chromatic upper neighbour note to the fifth degree of the scale.



When the fifth degree of a major scale is raised we get C Ionian sharp 5 mode, the third mode of the harmonic minor scale.

Ionian sharp 5

Occasionally, the Octatonic, or diminished, scale may be used over a major chord instead of its more usual application over dominant or diminished harmony.

C Octatonic

As you can see, the octatonic scale incorporates the minor third of the C blues scale and the sharp fourth and fifth degrees from the Lydian sharp 5 mode.

Oct, Blues, lyd sharp 5

We have now combined all twelve chromatic notes (except C sharp) with the C major scale. (There are other combinations of chromatic notes which can be applied to the major scale, however, a full discussion of these is beyond the scope of the present article).

Of all chromatic notes it is probably C sharp and B flat which can potentially cause the biggest problem when used with C major scales and chords. C sharp, being the raised root note lends a flat ninth sound more commonly found in dominant harmony, while B flat also suggests dominant rather than major harmony. Both may be treated as passing notes or upper or lower neighbour notes. In this way, their disruptive influence on the C major sound is lessened.

Chromatic LN

Chromatic UN

The lower, or upper, neighbour and passing notes are probably the most common means of including chromaticism over a chord when the use of a complete scale or mode choice is not desired. A solo or melody needs to have shape and direction, and simply playing the notes of a scale consecutively is not always the best way to achieve this. The use of neighbour notes and passing notes can facilitate melodic shape and direction while also effectively incorporating chromaticism into the sound world of the underlying chord, or chords.

An example of this is the use of the Lydian mode as a means of introducing further chromaticism. Many people are familiar with the Lydian sound and are therefore ready to accept the raised fourth degree over a major chord. Therefore, the Lydian sound may be implied by treating the F sharp as a chromatic lower neighbour note to the fifth degree.

Implied Lydian

Here, the Lydian sound is introduced without stating it explicitly, for example, by running through the entire scale. In this way the characteristic sound of a mode or scale is implied by adding a chromatic passing note or neighbour note with the mode. In the following example the Lydian mode is again being used in bar one, however, in bar two the chromatic lower neighbour note to the third (D sharp) gives this bar a Lydian sharp 2 sound.

Lydian sharp 2 implied

Below is a summary of the scales and modes which we have discussed.

summary- major

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