Scale Degrees & Chord Harmonization

Hello, and welcome to the first CPDmusic lesson in well too long! Today's lesson is on scale degrees and chord harmonization. This lesson is crucial if you want to write songs, as with this knowledge, you will be able to know which chords sound good with your scale.

Ultimate Guitar


Hello, and welcome to the first CPDmusic lesson in well too long! First off, I'd just like to say I really hope you guys have learned a lot through these lessons, and I hope I really helped some of you guys grow as musicians. Anyway, down to business. Today's lesson is on scale degrees and chord harmonization. Now, this lesson is crucial if you want to write songs, as with this knowledge, you will be able to know which chords sound good with your scale. Now, I'm almost certain that this question has crossed your mind before; how did he know what chord to use next?. And the answer is really quite simple, but to fully understand this lesson, you should probably read these lessons first:
Basic Chord Theory I Basic Chord Theory II

Scale Degrees

Now, first of all, we are going to use something called Scale Degrees in this lesson. Now, you might have seen scale degrees before, and just not known what they were. Basically, scale degrees are just a series of roman numerals you will see on a piece of music, such as this:
Now, to fully understand these, you will need to know the roman numerals up to seven; if you don't, refer to the below chart.
One = I Two = II Three = III Four = IV Five = V Six = VI Seven = VII
Now, what these roman numerals tell you is which chord to play in relation to the key you are playing in. For example, look at this strumming pattern:
Okay, it's a strumming pattern, but I don't see any chords? Wrong! The chords are right there! Now, to start, let's just ignore the 7 after each roman numeral, and just focus on the numeral itself. Basically, the progression is this:
I (four bars) IV (two bars) I (two bars) V (one bar) IV (one bar) I (two bars)
So, how exactly does this tell us which chord to play? Well, let's say we wanted to play the progression in the key of C. We know that the C major scale (like the chord progression lesson, it's always the major scale!) is:
So, what this roman numeral tells us is which chord to play in relation to that scale, with I being the first note of the scale, II being the second, etc. So, the first four bars are the I chord. In the key of C, that would be a C chord. Then, it goes to IV, or F, back to I or C, than to V of G, IV or F, and finally back to I or C. So, the chord progression is now:
C (four bars) F (two bars) C (two bars) G (one bar) F (one bar) C (two bars)
Now, remember how there was a 7 after each Roman numeral? Well, that pretty much tells us which type of chord it is. For example, an uppercase numeral means major, and a lowercase numeral means minor. Refer to the below chart for more examples.
I = Major i = Minor I7 = Major Seventh i7 = Minor Seventh i(+7) = Major Minor Seventh i = Diminished I7 = Diminished Seventh Isus2 = Suspended Second Isus4 = Suspended Fourth
So, if we go back to examining our chord progression, we see that they are all uppercase numerals followed by a seven. Therefore, they must be Major Seventh chords, making our final chord progression this:
C7 (four bars) F7 (two bars) C7 (two bars) G7 (one bar) F7 (one bar) C7(two bars)
So, those are the basics of scale degrees in music. But, there is probably one thing you're still asking yourself

How Does This Help Me Harmonize?

I'm guessing that you most likely came here to learn how to harmonize chords to scales, not to learn scale degrees. So, let's get down to the good stuff now, and learn how to harmonize! Basically, there are seven base chords that harmonize to a scale, and they are simply the chords formed from those scale degrees! Let's start off by using a scale we all know, like the A minor scale: A B C D E F G Now, to find chords that sound good with the A minor scale, we need to find the seven scale chords formed from the scale degrees. How do we do that? Well, you would simply form a triad with every other note to get the base chord of the first scale degree. So, starting on A, or the first scale degree, a triad with every other note would be: A C E Now, using our knowledge on chord theory, we can determine that the above triad is an A minor triad, making the first scale degree of A minor a i. This means that the A minor chord would harmonize well with the A minor scale (that one's pretty obvious). From there, to find the second scale degree, we would just start on the second note, B, and form a triad from there. The second scale degree to harmonize with the A minor scale would be: B D F From our knowledge on chord theory, we can than determine that this is a B minor triad, making the second scale degree a ii. Also, this means B minor would also harmonize well with the A minor scale. Now, try forming chords with the remaining scale degrees, and check your answers on the chart below. Also, once you get to a point where you're at the end of the scale, it simply repeats. For example, the D triad would go D F A. Once you are done, you will have seven chords that harmonize with the A major scale.
A minor (i) B minor (ii) C major (III) D minor (iv) E minor (v) F major (VI) G major (VII)
And there you go; seven chords to play with the A minor scale! Now all you have to do is find a chord progression and strumming pattern that you like, and you're set! Now, with common scales such as the minor scale, you could probably just Google that information. But, it really comes in handy with unusual scales. For example, you may have remembered in my lesson Unorthodox Tonalities II, I gave a list of seven chords that harmonized with each scale. This is the method I used to come up with those chords, and if you've read the lessons, you would know they aren't very common chords. Now, there is still one more important thing to realize with scale-to-chord harmonization.

Expanding to More Complex Chords

Now, another important aspect of scale-to-chord harmonization is well just like the title reads; expanding to more complex chords. For this portion, we will use that series of numbers from the chord theory and unorthodox tonalities II lessons, which shows the scale in relation to the major scale. Now, we know that ALL minor scales follow this pattern: 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 Now, what would happen if we wanted to harmonize the first scale degree as some kind of seventh chord? We know there are many different types of seventh chords, so which do we use? Well, we know that a seventh chord follows a 1-3-5-7 pattern, so we would take the first, third, fifth and seventh notes from the scale we are using. In the case of the minor scale, it would be: 1 b3 5 b7 Now, from our chord theory lesson, we can recognize that chord as a minor seventh chord, making the first scale degree as a seventh i7. Now, if we wanted to play, for example, the third scale degree as a seventh chord, we would simply shift that formation over. It would still be 1-3-5-7, but the 1 would start on the third note of the scale. Therefore, the third scale degree of a minor scale played as a seventh chord is: b3 5 b7 2 Now, this is a bit more obscure. For this, we would have to substitute actual note names in the place of the number. So, in the key of A, this would work out to: C E G B Which we know as a C major seventh chord, making the third scale degree of the minor scale a III7. Now, feel free to experiment with different chords, such as suspended chords. You're bound to come up with an endless number of chords for a scale, a task which you thought impossible until now!


Well, that's all for today's lesson! Hopefully I wasn't too rusty after my lesson writing slumber, and hopefully you enjoyed this lesson, and learned a lot from it. Before I go, I hate to shamelessly advertise, but I have a new fiction series called Leech, which is currently being published on this website. Go to my UG profile if you want to check it out, and if not that's cool too! Anyways, until next time! Did You Like This Lesson? Check Out All My Lessons Here. More Lessons Coming Soon!

6 comments sorted by best / new / date

    1) B diminished, not B minor. B to F is a tritone, not a perfect fifth. 2) you use '7' to refer to both maj7 and 7 chords. in your 12 bar blues, you give I7, IV7, and V7, which are dominant chords. but then you refer to Cmaj7 as a III7 in A minor. but III7 would be C7, or C E G Bb, rather than C E G B. 7 is used to denote dominant 7th chords, whereas maj7, M7, or Δ to refer to major 7th chords. it's great that you enjoy writing lessons and you write a lot, but i consistently notice fundamental flaws in your understanding of theory -- and i'm trying to say this as well as possible without sounding condescending. you're bound to confuse many, many beginners who will then proceed to make the same mistakes you have. in all seriousness, i advise you go back and review the basics of theory.
    i(+7) = Major Minor Seventh shouldnt it be minor with major seventh? (minmaj7) Good article though. Begginers will catch quite a lot of it, but they might also get confused, as youve mentioned A major scale instead of minor scale once. Also, you didnt tell them about the Bm7b5 chord(I know its not used to much and its being substitued, but hey...)and you forgot about the possibility of turning the minor chords into major and major to minor, as this is quite often used in writing process. Nevertheless good aricle
    Ok this has inspired me to write a definite series on harmony and use of modes. So much bad information.