Jamming Over Chord Progressions

Learn how to practically apply music theory to create memorable melodies over chords and progressions.

In This Lesson:

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How Do Musicians Know What Notes to Play?

Knowing the theory behind building scales, chords, and progressions is only part of the journey to making music.

Music theory can help you understand the guidelines of what commonly sounds ‘good’ and makes it easier to speak the same musical language as your bandmates.

But playing music is ultimately a creative activity. Your subjective choices about what notes to play (and what not to play) are what gives your music a personal touch.

When you’re jamming with your friends, practicing over a backing track, improvising a solo, or composing an entire song it’s important to know how to practically apply your music theory knowledge.

In this lesson, we’ll explore how to use music theory to choose what notes to play over common chords and progressions.        

Jamming Over Chord Progressions

An easy way to decide what notes fit over a section of music (or an entire song) is to base your choices on the underlying chord progression.

1. Identify the Key

Most common chord progressions will stay within a single key, so your first step is to identify the key. Here’s how:

  1. If you’re reading music, look for the key signature.

  2. If you’re jamming with other musicians, simply ask ‘what key are we in?’

  3. If you have no point of reference, then you’ll need to listen closely to the music to identify the chords and decide on what key they belong to.

For example, if you see a key signature with 3 sharps, you’re in A Major or F♯ Minor.

The first two approaches to identify the key are straightforward, but the third can take a bit of analysis.

Listen for these indicators:

  • Does the progression sound ‘happy,’ or ‘sad’? Generally (but not always!), happier sounding progressions identify a Major Key, and sadder sounding progressions identify a Minor Key.

  • Many chord progressions begin on the I chord of the key. This isn’t always the case, but it can be a good starting point if it feels like the music tends to revolve around this chord.

  • Identify in the progression where the music feels the most resolved & stable. This is most likely your I chord, or the tonal centre of your key.

  • Identify where the progression feels the most ‘tense.’ This is commonly a dominant chord. If it’s the only dominant chord in the progression, then it is most likely your V7. From there, you can determine what key it belongs to using the Circle of Fifths.

  • Identify all the chords being played in the progression, then map them to a key. You can use your sense of where the progression feels happy/sad or tense/stable to narrow down your options when the chords may fit more than one key.

Also be sure to watch out for key changes in a song! Not all songs stay in the same key the entire duration. When the key changes, you’ll need to change the notes you play over the chord progression to match.

2. Understand the Notes in the Key

The notes in a Major Key belong to a 7-note Major Scale. In Minor Keys, the notes belong to a 7-note Minor Scale.

Generally, as long as the chord progression uses the chords in the key, you can play the notes of the 7-note parent scale over any chord in the progression.

For example, here’s a progression in the key of C Major:

The C Major Scale has the notes C – D – E – F – G – A – B.

Since one or more of the notes in the scale appear in all the chords in this progression, the scale ‘fits’ over it.

However, with 7-note scales you will have to watch out for dissonant intervals.

The 4th & 7th intervals in Major Scales can sound dissonant if played over chords where a half-step interval is added. Such as playing a ‘F’ note over a C Major Triad, where it’s a half-step from the ‘E’ in the triad.

With Minor Scales you need to watch out for the 2nd & ♭6th intervals for dissonance.

So, an even safer bet is to start with a simpler scale that removes these intervals – The Pentatonic Scale.

3. Simplify - Play the Pentatonic Scale

The Pentatonic Scale excludes intervals that create dissonance and tension. This means that you can play its notes over any diatonic (within the key) chord progression and it will sound ‘good.’

For example, if you’re jamming a I-vi-IV-V progression in the key of C Major what notes can you play in a melody?

Since this is a Major Key, we’ll use the Major Pentatonic Scale.

To build it, follow the interval formula 1 – 2 – 3 – 5 – 6. Remember that you’re excluding the 4th & 7th intervals from the parent Major Scale to create a Major Pentatonic Scale.

For the C Major Pentatonic Scale, this gives you the notes C – D – E – G – A.

Since one of more of those notes are within any of the chords in the above progression, you can play the scale without having to worry about creating unpleasant dissonance.

You still need to watch out for chords that contain notes outside of the Pentatonic Scale since you can unintentionally play dissonant notes over that particular chord. But the chances are much smaller than with the 7-note Major Scale.

For example, you’ll probably want to avoid playing a ‘C’ note over the Gmaj chord above since it is a half-step interval from the ‘B’ in the chord. Instead, playing a ‘G’ or ‘D’ note will sound more stable.

4. Going Beyond Pentatonic Scales

Playing the Pentatonic Scale is often easy and straightforward, but it can get a bit bland since you’re avoiding the intentional dissonance and tension that makes music exciting.

As you get comfortable playing the Pentatonic Scale over a chord progression, you can start to experiment with bringing in the notes of the 7-note parent scale for more variety.

You can play blues scales, modes, or any other scales that share at least some of the notes of the chords in a progression depending on the musical statement you’re trying to make. Just be careful with dissonance.

This is where your creative options really open up!

What to Play Over Chord Progressions

Jamming Over Individual Chords

When the chords in a progression don’t belong to the same key, or when you want to add more variety and creativity to your melodies, you can zoom in and play the notes that fit best over specific chords.

In Jazz, this is known as ‘playing the changes,’ but it is a common approach in all types of music.

Rather than being constrained to the notes that fit over an entire progression, you can uncover almost infinite creative options.

This approach does take a little bit more thinking and analysis, and it’s ok if you need to take a step back and plan out your melodies before playing them.

As you get more comfortable and expand your knowledge of keys, chords, and scales, you’ll eventually be able to naturally improvise melodies over any chord and progression.

Be patient, experiment, and have fun with it!

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What to Play Over Individual Chords

With some approaches you’ll add non-diatonic notes (outside the key) to your melodies. This adds character, but also tension & dissonance. Be intentional in your choices so your music sounds interesting, but not unpleasant!

When in doubt, play the notes of the chord (the ‘Chord Tones’). Then you can experiment with other notes and scales to add more character and personality to your melodies.

What to Play Over Chord Types

Chord tones are your safest bet no matter the chord type, but as you encounter Major, Minor, Dominant, Diminished, or Augmented Chords you’ll have flexibility on what other notes & scales sound ‘good’ over each.

For any of your scale choices that include non-diatonic notes, again be careful about creating unintended dissonance.

These non-diatonic notes do add character to your melodies, but you’ll want to play them on purpose so that it sounds ‘right’ to yourself and your listeners.

  • Blues Scales contain a non-diatonic note for a ‘bluesy’ sound.

  • Modes contain one or more non-diatonic notes for their modal ‘character.’

  • Melodic Minor Scales & Harmonic Minor Scales include non-diatonic notes over Minor Chords.

  • Augmented Chords & Diminished Chords are very dissonant on their own. You’ll often want to minimize your note choices to avoid jarring melodies.

What to Play Over Major & Minor Chords

Struggling for the next note or chord when jamming with friends or practicing? Jam Pages was made just for you!

What to Play Over Dominant, Diminished, & Augmented Chords

Target Notes & Connecting Melody Lines

When playing a melody, think ahead of upcoming chord changes and make smooth transitions. This will help your phrases sound like a musical conversation rather than a jumble of notes.

Learn the 'Rules,' Then Break Them!

It’s one thing to play the notes and it’s another thing to feel the notes.

Repeating patterns and scales over chords usually doesn’t sound very emotive, enjoyable to a listener, or a true reflection of yourself as a musician.

Whatever instrument you play, remember to vary your dynamics, accents, and embellishments when playing your chosen notes so that you achieve both the sound and the feel that you want out of your music.

Timbres and tones, rhythms, and silence between the notes also help form your full musical intention.

Everything in this lesson is a guideline to get you started, but there really are no limitations to your creativity here.

As you develop as a musician it can become exciting to deliberately break these rules and take your music into new directions.

The bottom line is that if it sounds good to you, then that’s all that matters!

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Jam Pages

Music Theory Cheat Sheets for Chords & Scales in All Keys