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Music Theory for Guitar - The Harmonized Scale

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Previous page: Music Theory for Guitar - Secondary Chords Next page: Music Theory for Guitar - Minor chord inversions

A harmonized scale means a scale where you have built a chord on each scale note. For understanding this, you need to know how a scale is constructed.

The word scale is derived from Italian, and means a ladder. And every note in the scale can be seen as a step in that ladder. But in most scales, the steps will not have the same length. A major scale is constructed of a series of whole and half steps. On a guitar, it is quite easy to illustrate. One half step is one fret, and a whole step is two frets. It is really amazing that such a simple series of whole and half steps has such a strong musical content, and how a change in sequence will change the musical quality.

A major scale is constructed like this:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7

From the root, there are the following steps:

Whole - whole - half - whole - whole - whole - half.

Basic chords are constructed as stacks of thirds, and a third is the interval covering two steps (from first to third note, second to fourth, third to sixth, etc.). A triad has thirds on top of each other. If you start from C, you add the note one third above, which is E, and then you add the note one third above the E, which is G.

A basic triad consists of the notes 1 - 3 - 5 in the scale. Notice that the first third consists of two whole tone steps from C to G, but the next is one half and one whole step from E to G. The first one with two whole steps is called a major third, and the latter with one whole and a half is called a minor third. The C-chord has a root note (C), a note one major third up from the root (E), and one note a minor third up from E (G).

If we move one step up the scale, and build a new chord the same way, we get the notes 2, 4 and 6=D, F and A. Since it is built on the second note of the scale, it is often referred to as the II chord. But look and listen: Now we have a root (D), and the next note is F, which is only a minor third up from the root, and then the last note (A) is a major third above the F. This creates a minor chord. And then a little more on notation: When it is a minor chord, it is often labeled with roman number constructed of lower case letters, giving us ii.

If an old roman should by accident land at the time around year 2000, he would probably not understand that way of writing roman numbers, but we don't care about the old romans. But beware: There are many ways to write chords, and some might use IIm instead of ii, where the lower case m means minor. You need to know this about chords: A major chord consists of root, a major third and then a minor third. A minor chord consists of root, a minor third and then a major third. You will notice that distance from root to the top (5th) note is one major and one minor third, or three whole and one half steps (7 half steps) in both cases. This interval is called a perfect fifth. And since both chords have a perfect fifth, we don't care about mentioning that interval when naming chords. So as a start it is enough to know that major chords has a major third from the root, and minor chords has a minor third.

Before going any further, listen carefully to the intervals and the chords. The perfect fifth is strong and stable, but doesn't have much character. In power-chords you play only the root and the fifth, giving you a sound that is neither major nor minor. You will often hear such chords played in hard rock, with Kinks' «You really got me» and Deep Purple's «Smoke on the water» as to classic songs. These chords are often labeled with a 5, for instance A5. In a strictly theoretical sense they are not chords, just intervals. A chord should have at least three notes. But as long as you know that they only have the root and the fifth, we do not care too much about labels. More on those chords later.

The major third is strong and stable, the minor third more mellow, maybe a bit darker and not as stable. It is the major third that gives the chord it's character. Do the following experiment: Play the notes E-B-E-x-E-B, the x meaning that your damp out the third string. You have a fifth from E, what could be the power chord E5. (But such a wide and open voicing of the chord does not give much power to it.) Now let the chord ring, and play a G# on the third string, first fret. Notice how the chord changes character. Then play a G on the open third string, and notice the difference. (Picture)
E5
(Picture)
E
(Picture)
Em

The only way to really learn the sound of the intervals, is to sing them over and over again. Play a note at random, and sing the note a given interval above or below. (When discussing chords, we only refers to intervals going up.) If you are not able hit the right note when you try to sing for instance a perfect fifth, then you have not learned the sound of the interval as good as you should. And accept that it might take some time you master this. My Ear training lessons can help you along.

You might object and say that a major chord, for instance C-major the way you play it, has more than three notes. But it is only doubling of notes, not any new notes. If you play a basic C-major chord as shown, you have two Cs, three Es and one G. Our Dm chord consists of the notes 2, 4 and 6 from the scale. But when we refers to notes in a chord, we count from the root of the chord, not from the root of the scale. So a Dm also have the notes 1 - 3 - 5, counted from the root of the chord (D). This is starting to get a bit complicated, but when you understand the principles, it is not difficult. (Picture)

Then it is time to continue our chord-building. The next chord will be an E-chord, with the notes E, G and B. Again there is a minor third from E to G, which gives us a minor chord, and this is the iii chord in C major.

The F-chord is a major chord, and the same is the G chord. These are our IV and V chords in the key of C.

On A we are back to minor, giving us Am as the vi chord. But on B we run into trouble. There we get a minor third from B to D, and then another minor third from D to F. This chord, with to minor thirds, is a diminished chord, often referred to as Bdim or B°. You will also notice that we no longer have a perfect fifth from 1 to 5 in the chord. It is two whole and two half steps, or six half steps. This is a diminished fifth. Note the restless and unstable sound of the diminished fifth and the diminished triad. The diminished fifth was once called The Devil's interval. More on this in the Tritone lesson.

Now we have built one chord on each note of the C-major scale, and we have only used notes within the C-major scale. It gives us the following chord: C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, B° and then back to C again. The scale with these harmonies is known as the harmonized scale. If you are reading about the harmonized scale in other books or in magazines, it will often be written as a series of different 7th chords. That means that the chords has been extended to four-note chords. This gives a more jazzy sound, but it also makes the basic harmonic content a little less clear. So we will stick to the triads, and come back to four-note chords later. Chords that uses only notes from the scale is called diatonic chords. You have probably played all chords but the B° in C-major songs. If you use a diminished chord, it is often a dim7, but more on that chord later.

As an exercise for better understanding of chords and for better knowledge of your fingerboard, play the harmonized scale horizontally up the neck, on string 5, 4, and 3. By playing horizontally, we mean staying on the same string(s) and going up and down the fingerboard, instead of going across strings. When you move across strings, you play vertically. When you play the chords this way, you have the root on 5th string, the third on 4th string and the fifth on 3rd string.

(Picture)

Listen to the harmonized scale (MP3).
It is recorded in two versions: As written with block chords, and with a combination of arpeggios and chords, which will make it easier to hear the individual notes.

I will ask those of you who do not read music, or are bad sight readers, to take another look at the chords written in standard musical notation: Three notes stacked nicely on top of each other. No notes are overlapping, no space between the notes, and no accidental #'s (sharps) of b's (flats). This picture tells the one who can interpret the language, that these are all diatonic chords (only scale-notes), and that they are all played in root position. (More on root position and inversion in the lesson on inversions.) Chord diagram tells you where to put your fingers. A tab also tells you how to move your fingers (and in that respect it is better than standard notation) and which strings to play. But neither of them tells you about the music. Only standard musical notation will do that. Even without ambitions of being a new Tommy Tedesco, you should take the time to at least get basic reading skills. (But I will use tabs and chord diagrams in addition to music in all these lessons).

For playing this harmonized scale horizontally (up and down the fingerboard, not crossing to other strings), you need three basic closed chord shapes. (Closed=no open strings). You can read them out of the tabulature, but here you have them as traditional chord boxes:

(Picture)
(Picture)
(Picture)
Major
Minor
Diminished

You can do the same in other keys. I G-major, the chords are G, Am, Bm, C, D, Em, F#° and G, and they can all be played on 6th, 5th and 3rd string:

(Picture)

The chord shapes are the same, just moved across to the next set of three strings.

Listen to the harmonized scale (MP3).
It is recorded in two versions: As written with block chords, and with a combination of arpeggios and chords, which will make it easier to hear the individual notes.

(Picture)
(Picture)
(Picture)
Major
Minor
Diminished

We do the same on the other sets of three adjacent strings: On 4th, 3rd and 2nd string, we can play the harmonized F-major scale like this:

(Picture)

When going to the second string, we can no longer use the same fingering. There is a fourth (two and a half steps=5 frets) between strings 6-5, 5-4, 4-3 and 2-1. But there is only a major third (two whole steps=4 frets) between 3rd and 2nd string. When moving the chords across, we must compensate for that by going one fret higher on the second string. This gives us the following chords:

(Picture)
(Picture)
(Picture)
Major
Minor
Diminished

Listen to the harmonized scale (MP3).
It is recorded in two versions: As written with block chords, and with a combination of arpeggios and chords, which will make it easier to hear the individual notes.

And finally in Bb-major on the top three strings.

(Picture)

Again we have to compensate for that smaller interval between third and second string. The relation between the top and bottom strings will not change. The distance is still a major third + a fourth. They changed order, but that does not affect the result. (The distance is still reduced compared to distance between for instance 5th and 3rd sting=two fourths.) But the interval between the bottom and the middle string has been reduced from a fourth to a major third, and again we must compensate by going one fret higher than on 3rd string. One might wonder why one do not have the same interval between all strings. But you see that the fingering generally is easier on the top strings, so the standard tuning is not without purpose.

The fingerings for the top three strings, are:

Major
(Picture)
(Picture)
Major
Minor
Diminished

Listen to the harmonized scale (MP3).
It is recorded in two versions: As written with block chords, and with a combination of arpeggios and chords, which will make it easier to hear the individual notes.

As ear-training, sing the harmonized scale. Break the chords in arpeggios. Sing the note first, and play it afterwards to check if you got it right. An arpeggiated harmonized scale in G- major can be like this:

Harmonic scale, G, arrpeggiated

Listen to the arpeggios (MP3)

Now it might be time to ask so what? The harmonized scale is boring. And this might be true. But if you know the harmonized scale, and understands how it is constructed, then you can figure out the basic chords in any major key. Some chords are more important than others, and you probably know already know that the I, IV and V chords are the most important in blues, rock and pop, and that the progression is sometimes referred to as the Three Chord Wonder. But if you are trying to figure out the chords for a song, and the I, IV or V chord does not sound right, it might be an idea to check out some of the other chords in the harmonized scale. We can extend our table of chords for all 12(13) keys, to cover the harmonized scale in triads:

I ii iii IV V vi vii°
C-major C Dm Em F G Am
G-major G Am Bm C D Em F#°
D-major D Em F#m G A Bm C#°
A-major A Bm C#m D E F#m G#°
E-major E F#m G#m A B C#m D#°
B-major B C#m D#m E F# G#m A#°
F#-major F# G#m A#m B C# D#m E#°
Gb-major Gb Abm Bbm Cb Db Ebm
Db-major Db Ebm Fm Gb Ab Bbm
Ab-major Ab Bbm Cm Db Eb Fm
Eb-major Eb Fm Gm Ab Bb Cm
Bb-major Bb Cm Dm Eb F Gm
F-major F Gm Am Bb C Dm

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