Scales ARE Chords!

Scales and chords are the EXACT same thing. Here's an explanation of it.

I very often see people obsessing over scales, as if that will make them any better, and other people judging those obsessing over scales saying things like "why don't you better spend your time learning something useful like harmony or rhythm playing." Well, here's the thing; they are the same thing. It isn't even that they are very closely linked or come from the same roots, no. Scales and chords are the EXACT same thing. Let me explain:

Let's take a I chord in the key of C which is a C major chord made up of the notes C E and G. Now, if we extend the chord tones up to a 7th we add the B which is the major seventh. Taking this further up the extensions of this chord we will get to the 9, 11 and 13 which are D, F and A respectively. So now we have our fully extended chord tones of C E G B D F A. Let's rearrange those notes into ascending order and we will get C D E F G A B look familiar? It's our trusty old C major scale! So the C major scale is basically a flattened down Cmajor13 chord with all the trimmings. Now let's do they same with the ii chord, which in the key of C major is a Dm. Let's go up the extensions again for the ii chord, we have R b3 5 b7 9 11 and natural 13 which gives us the notes of D F A C E G B. Brilliant, a great sounding Dm13 arpeggio! Or is it? Let's rearrange the notes in ascending order again to D E F G A B C and we have a nice little D Dorian scale. This is the second mode of the C major scale, much like the ii chord is the second chord in the key of C major. This is no coincidence, the D Dorian mode is a squashed down Dm13 chord.

This works with all the chords you know and all the chords you do not yet know. Scales are the exact same notes as chords when they are fully extended. This is because we create chords scales by stacking up thirds of some kind on top of each other. This is "Tertian harmony" or harmony based on stacking thirds. Quartal harmony is common in jazz and is created by stacking fourths to create chords. So terms of scales vs chords, 2 = 9, 4 = 11 and 6 = 13

So back to tertian harmony; much in the same way that we flattened a fully extended chord down to get to the scale we can arrange and stack a scale to create it's chords. Lets use the same examples in reverse, C major scale, and we use the 1st degree of the scale C. So our notes are C D E F G A B C and we basically play one miss one, play one, miss one, up the scale. So we get C, (miss D) E, (miss F), G, (miss A etc) B, D, F, A. Providing you start from the root of the chord you are choosing to build upon, then taking this approach will always give you some variant of the following chord tones in the following order, root, third, fifth, seventh, ninth, eleventh, thirteenth. I say 'some variant' because you may get to the flat third, or the flat seventh, or a sharp eleventh or something similar but regardless of 'flat/sharp/diminished/augmented' intervals, they will always be some kind of third, seventh, ninth etc.

Let's prove our point by doing the same from a different mode, the F Lydian scale. F Lydian has the notes of F G A B C D E, these are the intervals of root, major second, major third, sharp fourth, perfect fifth, major sixth and major seventh. If we stack these up in thirds as we do in tertial harmony we arrive at the notes F A C E G B D. A perfect Fmaj7#11 chord with the added extension of our 9 and 13 in there. This is the IV chord in a major key and that Maj7#11 is the defining sound of Lydian.

Even if we do something a little more "out there" like the whole tone scale which is a hexatonic (6 tone) scale, we arrive at the same concept. If we start from C and lay out the notes of the C whole tone scale we get C D E F# G# A# C. Now lets use the enharmonic equivalent for the A# which is Bb. If we stack these notes up like chord tones as before (play one miss one) we get the notes of C E G# Bb D F# which is a C7#5#11 chord with the chord tones of root, major third, augmented fifth, flat seventh, ninth, augmented fourth (this chord has no 13th because is it only a 6 note scale rather than a 7 note scale). Again it's certainly no coincidence that the whole tone scale is often played over a Dom7#5 chord! 

I think that this way of viewing scales and harmony is a more "informed" approach. It's quite freeing because you no longer have to think "what scales will fit over this chord" or "what chords do I need to express the sound of this scale." Also another advantage is that the more simplified/vague the chord is, the more scale options you have because the extensions could be varied. For example a simple dominant seventh chord could imply Mixolydian, Altered, whole tone, lydian b7. All because the R, b3, 5, b7 is found in all of those chords. The scale choice gets more specific when the chords and extensions get more defined. If the Dom 7 chord also had a #11 in it then it's that lydian b7 that you want to use. The most vague of chords would be a power chord or 5th chord because it doesn't even imply major or minor, let alone types of sevenths or upper extensions. Root note grooves and power chord grooves can be the most fun at times. You will have to take context into consideration, firstly the context of the chord within the surrounding chords because this will help define your scale choice, and also the context of the genre. If you are trying to sound like happy upbeat country music, your altered scales may not be the best choice, despite the fact that the chord you are playing over (a G major for example) has all the right chord tones (R, 3, 5) to suggest it fitting in with an altered arpeggio (R, 3, 5, b7, b9, #9, #11, b13). So be careful. 

So there you have it! All scales are chords anyway (arpeggios at the very least). Try viewing the notes on your instrument not by scales but as flattened out arpeggios and see how that works out for you. Jazz musicians do this all the time, they play modally, one scale per chord as the chords change and following the chord and key changes as they go.

Using this concept, it will also help you pull out extra chords and extensions on the fly because the entire scale you are visualising is just one big arpeggio.

Let me know how you get on with this concept. 

About the Author:
By Steven Martin, If you enjoyed this article, share it on Facebook and Twitter, and be sure to get in touch with any questions or comments.

31 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    *Chords ARE Scales. how do you think chords are formed? can play any chord you want that can be linked to all sorts of scales and modes(through a lot guess work if the player has time to waste if they're not sure of the theory behind it), but learning scales gives you a better understanding(and less time wasting later on) to why chords are constructed in the way they are and what other chords/notes fit together to form a melody that matches... just learning chords without knowing whats behind them(and following bad advice articles like this that only retard progress) is what leaves music enthusiasts stuck in ruts and unable to progress beyond basics and overused/unoriginal riffs and patterns/shapes. scales are not hard to learn and shouldn't be ignored or thought less of as this article would suggest. learn your root to root or 1 octave to the next. if you know that, then with a bit of time, it's no problem to figure the same notes and where the same shapes repeat themselves all over the board. you'll only be as good as you want to be and how much you want to put into it. it's not rocket science...jeez...
    steven seagull
    Have to say this is one of the best lessons I've read on the site - it's such a fundamental thing but it seems to be a simple connection that many guitarists struggle to make. Play a bunch of notes sequentially, it's a them simultaneously, it's a chord - simple as that.
    Play a bunch of notes simultaneously, you have a chord (assuming that there is at least one consonance in it...), play the same bunch of notes sequentially, you have an ARPEGGIO. A scale is a completely different thing. Yes there ARE chords/arpeggios that have the same notes as scales. At the same time, a scale is not just "a bunch of notes", it is a bunch of notes with a structure. I sympathize with the general underlying idea of this article, and some people may even find it useful as it is, but many of the things said here are factually incorrect, starting from the title. Which is a pity because the underlying idea is VERY good.
    Completely agree - the intention is good with the article, but what's the point of spreading misinformation with titles that are plainly incorrect?
    for some reason in my mind I feel it's the opposite
    Yeah, I've always thought of it as 'chords are scales'. Chords are just tritonic/tetratonic scales. However, the whole 'chords are scales' (and vice-versa) analogy breaks down when you start talking about compound (and extended) chords, anyway. It's when musical art crosses over to psychological science (i.e. how we interpret music and sound).
    This lesson is written in such a way that only people who already know what he's talking about could even follow it.
    Well no shit, there's obviously some assumed knowledge. But all that amounts to is knowing the major scale and being able to count to 7. If you can't already do that, why bother reading past the first line? Not every lesson needs to be catered to beginners. It saves a hell of a lot of time to assume that people know a thing or two about SCALES in a lesson further expanding on SCALES. A little common sense will save you, and everyone else, a hell of a lot of time. This is absolutely not a lesson for people who already get the concept, and not every lesson needs to hold your hand and lay down the fundamentals every time.
    I can agree with this. This is how I've been visualizing them for a long time, and I feel like it has helped.
    I feel like the best thing for scales would be to ditch the names and start over. Names like "myxolydian" aren't doing the hobby any favors.
    I honestly don't think it makes a huge difference. If anything I think people are way too willing to start on modes before they have the foggiest how they want to use them but that's beside the point... I think the name is the least of the issues, really.
    "The hobby" seems a rather dismissive way of talking about music. After all, this is a fundamental thing in [Western] music, whether you're playing a guitar, a pipe organ or composing an orchestral piece.
    I agree, - nothing more off putting than hearing your peer talking about how they've been working a lot recently with the "myxolydian diminished 9th of C sharp minor...." "So... You changed the 3rd note up one and the 8th note up one? Very clever, - why didn't you just say that?"
    "Mixolydian" is a mode of the major scale, first off. If you play it like a scale, it means nothing. You need chords as context. What difference would changing names make? I used to hate the idea of learning theory because 'All the greats didn't use it' (completely untrue, btw), and those band kids 'sound so nerdy when they use terms like 'Subdominant of F#', but if you're serious about music, then why wouldn't you just learn how it works? I can understand being off-put by people getting too wordy and technical in their phrasing, but if you spend a few hours of your life learning what it means, what does it matter? And a better question is: If it's just your 'hobby' and you have no desire to compose, then why in the hell are you looking up modes? Because the cool kids are doing it?
    I don't think the particular scale names really make a big difference, but there is a *ridiculous* amount of jargon in musical theory. There are so many (illogical) names for the same things. It's been bloated through hundreds of years of development and mashes of culture. It makes understanding music to a novice seem so daunting and confusing.I actually have my own terminology for a lot of scales and chords, and it works beautifully. : P
    Of course, changing the names of a chord doesn't change the way it sounds in any way...LOL! But sometimes we have to change the chord name as the sound changes - e.g. C or C/E or C/G to be specific.
    You misunderstood me. I'm not saying it changes the sound, I'm saying it makes theory much harder to learn when the nomenclature is nonsystematic. Also, slash chords and any sort of abbreviations are fine. I didn't say they weren't needed. I was referring to Anjohl's comment.
    For one, I was thinking of a systematic / standardized naming system for all scale combinations and chords within the chromatic scale for software applications. Theoretically, what alternative names could you suggest if you were to rename the mixolydian mode, [1-2-3-4-5-6-b7]? G13add4 perhaps?
    To be honest, since mixolydian is just the 5th mode of the diatonic major scale, I'd just call it 'M5', or something. If you wanted to encapsulate the modal key signature within the name, then I guess 'G13add4' would do. However, as useful as the 'G' is in indicating the natural key, it only really works for the diatonic major scale. Not all heptatonic scales have a natural key, so I wouldn't use it. Also, naming scales after the chords within them could be very messy. Something like this scale: (1-2-b3-4-b5-b6-bb7) would be a nightmare!
    There's nothing wrong with scale names , chord names, note names and terminologies as long as we use them to comprehend the complexities of the music we hear and create. Terms like "major", "natural minor", "arpeggio", "pentatonic", "mixolydian", "C#", "chord tones", "passing tones"... etc. should make life easier for guitar players and not the other way around.
    I focus more on learning chords and all their crazy extensions and voicings rather than scales because you'll eventually start visualizing the scale those chords reside in anyway. More importantly you learn the relationships between certain notes through altered chords which will guide your lead work when jamming in a scale.
    Good lesson. But sometimes this kind of approach makes things look more complicated than they really are. If you have a basic diatonic progression like C-Am-Dm-G, I see no point in changing scales all the time. It's all diatonic to C major so use C major scale over everything. This kind of thinking can make you not see the "big picture". Context is the most important thing. For example, if I see a ii-V-I somewhere, I think it as one thing, not as three different scales. I just figure out which key the ii-V-I is in and I know which notes will work.
    I also do this, but I believe its severely limiting to your playing, im working on being able to do that but at the same time be able to go complex and embellish a solo with specific chord tones as the progression goes along. PLaying C major scale over everything gets a little bit boring sometimes dont you think?
    You're missing the point. All the chord tones in that progression are present within the C major scale. If you want to use outside notes then great, focus on chord tones and use non-diatonic notes freely to colour the sound. Claiming that you're using D dorian over a ii chord in C major doesn't achieve anything. All it does is fool a lot of people into thinking they're playing something other than the C major scale.
    Yeah, exactly my point. I'm not saying CST is bad but it may make you not see the big picture. And music isn't about individual chords. The chords are connected to each other. They get different functions in different contexts. Just playing CST can make you only see individual chords, not big concepts. I think CST is useful for songs that modulate all the time or use complex chords (one good example is Jeff Beck - Goodbye Pork Pie Hat. The main progression uses chords D7, C7 and Bb7 but the chords don't change that often which makes every chord sound like a new key - and also, none of the chords belong to the same key). But there's really no use for it in basic diatonic progressions - it can actually just make the progression look more complicated than it is. D dorian and C major are the same notes. And if you are in the key of C all the time and all your chords are diatonic to C major, I see no point in thinking each chord as a scale. Thinking "C major, A minor, D dorian, G mixolydian" just makes no sense. Those scales are the same notes as C major. And since you are in the key of C major, why not just play C major all the time?
    The core notes will almost always be "C-D-E-F-G-A-B" but the tonal center differs for each diatonic mode and the function of each note changes giving each mode a unique sound. Not every song is modal but playing modally involves sticking to certain restrictions and involves emphasizing some notes and chords while de-emphasizing others. Most likely, you wouldn't want to exhaust or throw in all the modes or 7 triads into one song or verse / intro / chorus and when it comes to soloing over chord progressions, this doesn't necessarily mean you'll be changing modes for each chord change but involves retaining the coherence and continuity as well.
    The title is very misleading. I understood the concept that chords and scales are very relative to each other but, they should not be mixed. I agree to the one comment that scales have structures ... moreover, I will rather say that scales are more complex than chords. We all know that chords have only few forms but for scales, its very complex... this lesson makes sense but for those who knows little , it could be a nightmare
    Some clarification if it's needed. The title was to attract some attention (as it did). Yes, chords are notes played simultaneously, and yes scales are notes played consecutively. The idea behind the article is to present the idea of a more holistic view of the neck where the lines are further blurred between chords and scales. This can be a very freeing approach and might be the 'twist of perception' that allows you to escape the clutches of scale playing and give you a new dimension to your writing/improvising. Thank you to everyone who read and enjoyed it!
    A lot of the differnt chord are really easy. Therfor not a lot of people know what they are doing. Tske the chord C and look at it the different ways that you can do the C. You can move up the on the freat and the chord will change. Theirfore the tome will change!!
    GREAT lesson! Theory doesn't have to be intimidating and this lesson shows that beautifully.