How to harmonize the major scale

How To Harmonize The Major Scale In Thirds - Triads And Tetrads

How to harmonize the major scaleOne of the fundamental theoretical elements to understand music is the harmonization of the major scale. Harmonizing scale is building chords with notes. For this, you have to stack thirds (It is also possible to harmonize the major scale in fourths). If you are wondering why thirds and not seconds or sixths for example, the reason is mainly historical: our music today is based on harmony in thirds. Once you have read this lesson, you will be able to find the tonality of a song simply by looking at its chords, you will know which scale to play on which chord progressions.

Harmonizing the major scale in triads

How to harmonize the major scale ?

In the first part of this lesson, we will build triad chords. Those chords are built with three notes stacking in thirds (major or minor). We will take the scale of C major as the first approach, it is the one that everyone knows and there are no # or b in it. It is easier to explain and to understand.

We will create a first chord starting from the first note of the C major scale (C). We just need to stack the third of C (E) and the third of E (G) with the root note (C). Here is our first triad, the C major chord (C-E-G). This chord includes a major third (C-E) and then a minor third (E-G). In other words, we formed this chord by starting on C, jumping D and taking E, jumping F and taking G of the C major scale.

C major chord

C major chord

C major scale C D E F G A B
C major chord (triad) C X E X G X X

 

The second chord that we will build is a minor triad. It is made up by stacking thirds too. A minor third (F) and a major third (A) are stacked with the root note (D). As it starts from the note D, it is a D minor chord (D-F-A).

D minor chord

D minor chord

C major scale C D E F G A B
D minor chord (triad) X D X F X A X

 

If we do the same with the 5 other notes of the scale, we get 5 other chords. We obtain major and minor chords, with one exception: the degrees VII stack 2 consecutive minor thirds, that give a diminished triad. Here are the seven chords obtained after the harmonisation. There are 3 major chords (I-IV-V), three minor chords (II-III-VI) and one diminished (VII). Whatever the major scale used, the principle is the same. The first chord will be major, the second will be minor and on and on.

Degrees I II III IV V VI VII
C major scale C D E F G A B
Triad chords C Dm Em F G Am Bdim

 

Harmonisation of the major scale in triads

Harmonisation of the major scale in triads 

Remember that

The triad chord built on the 1st degree of the major scale is MAJOR
The triad chord built on the 2nd degree of the major scale is MINOR
The triad chord built on the 3rd degree of the major scale is MINOR
The triad chord built on the 4th degree of the major scale is MAJOR
The triad chord built on the 5th degree of the major scale is MAJOR
The triad chord built on the 6th degree of the major scale is MINOR
The triad chord built on the 7th degree of the major scale is DIMINISHED

Harmonizing the major scale - Tetrads

Now we can harmonize the C major scale but with an extra note for each chord. This way we will obtain four note chords known as tetrads. This is nothing but a triad with an extra note: the seventh. All these chords have a strong jazz sound, they are very used and so it is very important to understand and master them.

Triads Tetrads (four note chords)
Root Root
Third  Third
Fifth  Fifth
  Seventh

 

Degrees I II III IV V VI VII
C major scale C D E F G A B
Tetrad chords CMaj7 D-7 E-7 FMaj7 G7 A-7 B-7b5

 

Harmonisation of the major scale with four note chords

Harmonisation of the major scale in four note chords

  • Cmaj7 is the I chord : C-E-G-B (1-3-5-7)
  • Dm7 is the ii chord : D-F-A-C (1-b3-5-b7)
  • Em7 the iii chord : E-G-B-D (1-b3-5-b7)
  • Fmaj7 the IV chord : F-A-C-E (1-3-5-7) 
  • G7 the V chord : G-B-D-F (1-3-5-b7)
  • Am7 the vi chord : A-C-E-G (1-b3-5-b7)
  • Bm7-5 the vii chord or the half diminished : B-D-F-A (1-b3-b5-b7)

We can of course, generalize this harmonization to any scale.

  I II III IV V VI VII
C major scale Cmaj7 Dm7 Em7 Fmaj7 G7 Am7 Bm7b5
Db major Dbmaj7 Ebm7 Fm7 Gbmaj7 Ab7 Bbm7 Cm7b5
D major  Dmaj7 Em7 F#m7 Gmaj7 A7 Bm7 C#m7b5
Eb major Ebmaj7 Fm7 Gm7 Abmaj7 Bb7 Cm7 Dm7b5
E major Emaj7 F#m7 G#m7 Amaj7 B7 C#m7 D#m7b5
F major Fmaj7 Gm7 Am7 Bbmaj7 C7 Dm7 Em7b5
Gb major Gbmaj7 Abm7 Bbm7 Cbmaj7 Db7 Ebm7 Fm7b5
G major scale Gmaj7 Am7 Bm7 Cmaj7 D7 Em7 F#m7b5
Ab major scale Abmaj7 Bbm7 Cm7 Dbmaj7 Eb7 Fm7 Fm7b5
A major scale Amaj7 Bm7 C#m7 Dmaj7 E7 F#m7 G#m7b5
Bb major scale Bbmaj7 Cm7 Dm7 Ebmaj7 F7 Gm7 Am7b5
B major scale Bmaj7 C#m7 D#m7 Emaj7 F#7 G#m7 A#m7b5

 

Harmonizing the major scale  - Drop 2 voicings (tetrads)

The three neck diagrams show how to play the seven chords of the harmonized major scale on the guitar. The chord shapes used in these diagrams are drop 2 voicings, they are the most popular chords used in jazz music to comp, solo or build chord-melody arrangements. The interval pattern used for these chords is R-5-7-3 for the two major 7 chords, R-5-b7-b3 for the three minor chords, R-5-7-b3 for the dominant chord and R-b5-b7-b3 for the half-diminished chord. 

For clarity, each chord is represented by a specific colour.

  1. Major 7 (red)
  2. minor 7 (green)
  3. minor 7 (blue)
  4. Major 7 (pink)
  5. Dominant 7 (brown)
  6. Minor 7 (orange)
  7. m7b5 (purple)

Harmonized major scale - Drop 2 voicings - Lowest notes on D-string

Harmonized major scale tetrads part 1

Harmonized major scale - Drop 2 voicings - Lowest notes on A-string

Harmonized major scale tetrads part 2

Harmonized major scale - Drop 2 voicings - Lowest notes on E-string

Harmonized major scale tetrads part 3

Keep in mind

The four note chord built on the 1st degree of the major scale is MAJOR 7th
The four note chord built on the 2nd degree of the major scale is MINOR 7th
The four note chord built on the 3rd degree of the major scale is MINOR 7th
The four note chord built on the 4th degree of the major scale is MAJOR 7th
The four note chord built on the 5th degree of the major scale is DOMINANT 7TH
The four note chord built on the 6th degree of the major scale is MINOR 7TH
The four note chord built on the 7th degree of the major scale is HALF DIMINISHED (m7b5)

Building chord progressions

Now that you know how to harmonize the major scale, you have to be able to build any chord progression from any major scale. The most common is surely the II-V-I progression. It is simple, to build a II-V-I in the key of C just take the II (Dm7), the V (G7) and the I (Cmaj7) and you obtain Dm7 | G7 | Cmaj7. Lets built a II-V-I in the key of G. Chords will be Am7 (II), D7 (V) and Gmaj7 (I). You have to do this in the twelve keys. 

II V I chord progression

II V I chord progression

Conclusion

Knowing how to harmonize a major scale is helpful to compose a song for example. With these notions you can create your own progressions, harmonize a melody or analyse a jazz standard.

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