Blues Guitar Institute

How to Harmonize a Scale in 4 Simple Steps

harmonize-a-scaleHave you ever wondered why some chords just seem to be made for each other?

It’s no accident that G, C and D sound like they were born to be together.  The reason for their nice little relationship lies locked inside harmony.  You could focus a lifetime of study on harmony.  But, I like to know just enough music theory to become a better guitarist.

Knowing how to harmonize a scale and really internalizing that knowledge will help you get better and help you understand why certain chords sound great when played together in a progression.

What Learning How to Harmonize a Scale Can Do for You

Harmonizing a scale is the bedrock of chord theory.  It sets the rules that are held to almost unbreakable standards.  Most chord progressions in songs you hear in your favorite songs have their foundation rooted in the harmonized major scale.

OK, so it’s important.  But you may be asking yourself “what will this do for me?”

By the way, I hope you are asking yourself that.  I don’t think you should spend time learning anything that won’t help you improve your guitar playing.  There is no merit in knowing music theory just to know it.

The benefits of knowing this little piece of music theory are tremendous.  For me, learning how to harmonize a scale helped me

  • know the key of a song,
  • know the correct chords for any given key, and
  • learn songs by ear more quickly.

Use These 4 Steps to Harmonize a Scale

Let’s harmonize the C Major scale together.  When you break this down into small sequential steps, harmonizing a scale is really not that difficult.  The key is to learn how to do it so well that eventually skip straight to the answer without going through the steps.  To get to that point takes practice.  I find that building this from the ground up on paper is a great way to practice harmonizing a scale.

Here’s how to do that.

Step 1 – Start with the scale

Write the notes of the C major scale on a sheet of paper from left to right.  Like this:

C   D  E  F  G  A  B

Step 2 – Rewrite the scale

Directly under that, write the scale again.  This time, instead of starting with the first note in the scale, start with the second note.  You will end up with this:

C  D  E  F  G  A  B
D  E  F  G  A  B  C

You just added the second harmony to the C Major scale.

Step 3 – Repeat beginning with each note in the scale

Continue the pattern from Step 2 with each of the remaining notes in the C Major scale.  You will end up with this:

C  D  E  F  G  A  B
D  E  F  G  A  B  C
E  F  G  A  B  C  D
F  G  A  B  C  D  E
G  A  B  C  D  E  F
A  B  C  D  E  F  G
B  C  D  E  F  G  A

 You should end up with a grid or chart like this with a total of seven rows and seven columns of notes.

Step 4 – Number each sequence

 Simply number each row of notes from 1 to 7, like this:

1.    C  D  E  F  G  A  B
2.    D  E  F  G  A  B  C
3.    E  F  G  A  B  C  D
4.    F  G  A  B  C  D  E
5.    G  A  B  C  D  E  F
6.    A  B  C  D  E  F  G
7.    B  C  D  E  F  G  A

You now have a harmonized scale and you can clearly see each layer of harmony for the C Major scale.  This little chart is incredibly powerful and we will build on this in several ways as we study chords and scales.

Put This Into Action

If you aren’t too familiar with Interval Theory, or just need a review, check out this quick guide to intervals.

Also check out this video from Andrew at Creative Guitar Studio for a great explanation of intervals.  One of the best theory teachers around.  It will come in super handy as we start to squeeze some use out of the harmony chart we just created.

So, back to our harmony chart…

We can use the chart to tell us what chords will fit nicely in the key of C Major.

To do this, we only need to focus on line 1, line 3 and line 5.  Since the root, third and fifth are so important, let’s highlight them in our chart to really focus on those intervals.

1.    C  D  E  F  G  A  B
2.    D  E  F  G  A  B  C
3.    E  F  G  A  B  C  D
4.    F  G  A  B  C  D  E
5.    G  A  B  C  D  E  F
6.    A  B  C  D  E  F  G
7.    B  C  D  E  F  G  A

Now look at the columns in the chart, (from top to bottom).  If you select the notes in the 1st, 3rd and 5th rows from the first column you get the notes C, E and G.  These are the notes to a C Major chord.  So, a C chord sounds good in the key of….C.

Well that makes sense!!   🙂

Now let’s move to the second column.  If you pull out the notes from the all-important 1st, 3rd and 5th harmony lines you have D, F and A.  These are the notes to a D minor chord.  So, what does that tell us?

If you want to play a D chord in the key of C, try a D minor chord.  It should fit nicely with any other chords in the key.

If you move through the columns from left to right, the chords you derive will be:

C Major,  D Minor,  E  Minor,  F Major,  G Major,  A Minor,  B Diminished

Using this harmonized scale chart will help you identify the chords that belong to the key.

These chords are engineered to sound good together.  So if you are writing a song in C, build your progressions from these chords.  If you are trying to figure out a song in C, chances are that the chords will be one of these.  Knowing this helps you focus on just a few relevant chords rather than an infinite number of possibilities.

Practice Harmonizing a Scale

Since we looked at this with the C Major scale, take a minute and go through the 4 steps using the A Major scale.  When you can derive each of the chords belonging to a given key, take a minute and congratulate yourself.  This is no small accomplishment!

Spend some time really getting inside this.  Knowing how to harmonize a scale is the jumping off point for practically all chord theory.

Use the Harmonized Scale

Take the A Major scale chart and pull out the chords just like we did with the C Major chords.  From this group, write a quick progression and put this theory to use!

When you are ready, there are two ways I can help you:

Back Porch Blues Course:  A proven system to fingerpicking the blues.  This step-by-step course guides you through building fundamental fingerpicking skills.  Plus, you’ll learn three levels of a delta blues style performance study to put your new skills into action.

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