One of the best songwriting tools I ever learned was how to build chords from the major scale.
This is sometimes called “the harmonised major scale”, because the scale has been harmonised with itself.
The harmonised major scale is a must know topic for anyone wanting to start writing their own songs, improvising, or just wanting to learn more about music in general.
What is the Harmonised Major Scale?
If we take the notes in the major scale and stack them on top of each other in a certain way, we can create a series of chords from the scale. This series of chords is called the harmonised major scale.
You may want to read up on triads before looking at the next step!
I’ll take you through the method for working out each chord in the scale, then show the answers and some short cuts you can use to apply this fast and easy.
Refresher on Triad Chord Formulas
Let’s quickly revise the triad chord formulas (see the full article on triad chords here)
Major: 1 3 5
Minor: 1 b3 5
Diminished: 1 b3 b5
Augmented: 1 3 #5
Harmonising the Major Scale
As an example, let’s take a scale of C major:
C D E F G A B
If we start with C as the root note, and take the third and fifth notes from C:
We get: C E G
Next we want to understand how these notes relate to one another. We will look at C and E; then C and G.
The first note is always 1.
Seeming as we are taking these notes from the major scale, the intervals are already labelled for us:
1 3 5
So we can see that we get a C major chord.
Working out the second chord in the key
Start with the note ‘D’. If we take the next two alternate notes from the scale, from D, we get F and A:
D F A
To find out which chord these notes create, we have to look at the intervals that F and A create to D:
The interval from D to F
So first, we find D and F on the guitar neck (on the same string – it doesn’t matter which string):
You can see they are three frets apart. If you remember your intervals, an interval of three frets is a minor third, or, b3:
The interval from D to A
Find D and A on the guitar neck:
And count the frets between them – we can see that A is 7 frets from D. Looking up 7 frets in our list of intervals, we see we have a perfect fifth (5):
Intervals in this chord
So we have the notes:
D F A
And we found that they create the following intervals:
1 b3 5
Which, by looking at the triad chord formulas, we can see is a minor chord. So we create a D minor chord, D-.
So the first chord is C major, the second is D minor.
The next chords in the scale
We follow this process from each note in the scale.
I’ve listed the notes, with the intervals and what type of chord they make – it would be worth you working through this yourself and using the following table to check your answers:
|C E G||1 3 5||C major (C∆)|
|D F A||1 b3 5||D minor (D-)|
|E G B||1 b3 5||E minor (E-)|
|F A C||1 3 5||F major (F∆)|
|G B D||1 3 5||G major (G∆)|
|A C E||1 b3 5||A minor (A-)|
|B D F||1 b3 b5||B diminished (Bo)|
Work Out Examples in Other Keys
In order to help you understand this, it would help to harmonise some other major scales.
Try working out the chords in these major scales:
D major: D E F# G A B C#
F major: F G A Bb C D E
A major: A B C# E F# G#
Bb major: Bb C D Eb F G A
Using Roman Numeral Notation
Now, this pattern of chords is universal for all major scales.
When you harmonise a major scale, no matter what key it is in, you will always find the same order of chord types.
So rather than think about a chord in terms of the notes being played, we can start to think about a chord in terms of it’s position in the major scale.
Thinking conceptually this way is closer to how our ears work. When we hear a series of notes, we are not hearing a series of individual pitches, what we hear is how those pitches relate to one another.
We don’t hear notes, we hear the relationships between notes.
So if we take our C major scale, with the chords:
C∆ D- E- F∆ G∆ A- Bo
We can use roman numerals to represent the chords more generally based on their position in the scale:
|C major scale chord||Roman numeral|
An upper case numeral is used for major chords, a lower case numeral for minor chords, and a lower case numeral followed by ‘o’ for diminished chords.
So the chords in any major scale can be represented as:
I ii iii IV V vi viio
Why should you bother learning about how chords function?
When you understand this piece of theory, you can look at songs by your favourite bands, and you can start to reverse engineer them.
You can start to analyse and figure out what type of chords are being used.
You can then take this knowledge to write your own songs.
As an example, I wanted to understand an Yngwie solo and used this method to understand the arpeggios he was using.
And now I can write a solo in that style.
I also used this when looking at a classical piece of music to understand the chord progressions.
It’s a very powerful technique.
Shortcuts For Harmonising a Major Scale
This is a good shortcut for finding these chords on your guitar very quickly.
Let’s say we were playing in the key of A major. Remembering our major scales, we can find the notes in A major:
A major: A B C# D E F# G#
Next, we find these notes across the following strings:
6th string: A B C#
5th string: D E F#
4th string: G#
Mapped out on the neck:
You can take this as a general pattern for a major scale on the guitar, like this:
And then thinking about those notes as chords from the roman numerals we did earlier:
We can use this scale pattern as a series of root notes, for finding each chord in the scale.
For each chord, use a shape that has a root note marching it’s position in the scale.
For example, the I chord is on the 6th string, so use a chord shape with a root on the 6th string – like a barre chord.
Chords From Minor Keys
There is a tonne of theory to look over here. Take your time with it.
Once you understand these concepts, understanding and writing songs becomes a lot, lot easier.