Chords in Context

Learning to improvise can be confusing, with advice ranging from ‘just trust your ear’ to ‘see that chord, play this scale’. The first approach takes a lot of experience, while the second is an over-simplification of harmonic progression. Chords exist in context, and it’s the context that tells you what a chord signifies both melodically and harmonically. For example, these three progressions start with the the same chord (C major), yet each progression signifies a different scale or mode for improvising, songwriting or other forms of composing:

Ex 1

01

Ex 2

02

Ex 3

03

N.B. These progressions are not necessarily in the original keys of the song examples given

 


But there are many more possibilities. The triad of C major is found in all of these scales and modes:

C major and its different modes, e.g. D dorian, A aeolian, G mixolydian, F lydian
F major and its different modes, e.g. G dorian, D aeolian, C mixolydian, Bb lydian
G major and its different modes, e.g. A dorian, E aeolian, D mixolydian, C lydian

E harmonic minor: E F# G A B C D# E   (e.g. Celia Cruz, ‘La Vida Es Un Carnival’)
F harmonic minor: F G Ab Bb C Db E F  (e.g. Muse, ‘Exogenesis’)

F melodic minor: F G Ab Bb C D E F   (contemporary jazz – same up as down)
G melodic minor: G A Bb C D E F# G  (contemporary jazz – same up as down)

The same is true, of course, for the other 11 major triads, with appropriate transpositions of the relative scales and modes. So when you practice a major triad arpeggio, think of the many different harmonic contexts that it may occur in. Elaborate the chord notes with those various melodic possibilities. Here is an exercise to get you started:

Ex 4

maj-arpeggios-elab

 


As with any major triad, the same minor triad may appear in many different harmonic contexts. The triad of A minor, for example, occurs in all of these scales and modes:

C major and its different modes, e.g. D dorian, A aeolian, G mixolydian, F lydian
F major and its different modes, e.g. G dorian, D aeolian, C mixolydian, Bb lydian
G major and its different modes, e.g. A dorian, E aeolian, D mixolydian, C lydian

A harmonic minor: A B C D E F G# A   (e.g. Busta Rhymes, ‘I Know What You Want’)
E harmonic minor: E F# G A B C D# E   (e.g. Grant Kirkhope, ‘Klungo’s Theme’)

A melodic minor: A B C D E F# G# A   (e.g. John Williams, ‘Binary Sunset’)
G melodic minor: G A Bb C D E F# G   (e.g. Temples, ‘The Golden Throne’)

N.B. Not necessarily the original keys of the song examples given

The same is true, of course, for the other 11 minor triads, with appropriate transpositions of the relative scales and modes. So when you practice a minor triad arpeggio, think of the many different harmonic contexts that it may occur in. Elaborate the chord notes with those various melodic possibilities. Try this exercise to get you started:

Ex 5

min-arpeggios-elab

Now try those last two bars against a Gm chord. This effectively heightens the chord of Gm to Gm 13(#7) through melody alone.



END

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