July 28, 2020

About the Author: Sonja Joubert

Sonja Joubert is a master pianist classically trained by the late master Mr Josias Van Der Merwe and the late Adolph Hallis. She is also an excellent piano teacher with over 40 years of teaching experience specialising in both jazz and classical piano.

Today we will be discussing the jazz chords built on each of the steps of the major scale and how to implement these chords into your jazz repertoire.

In the article called “Jazz chords and knowing your intervals”, I discussed the basic scales, intervals and the combination of intervals and chords that form the four basic jazz chords namely the Major 7th, the Minor 7th, the Dominant 7th and the Minor 7th b5 chords.

In this article, I will be discussing the different 7th chords or jazz chords formed on each step of the major scale.  When building chords, you will be using the natural notes of the given scale.   We will be working from the major scale on which western music is built.

There are 12 possible major scales:

There are 12 possible major or minor keys, this is because of the 12 notes on the piano or keyboard. This means that any one of these twelve notes can be a tonal centre or home base. For our study, we will be using the C major scale and key. 

The C major scale:

The C major scale consists of 8 consecutive notes:

C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C

On each of these notes, we can build a seventh chord.  The note on which we build the chord is called the root or bass note of the chord.  E.g. Let’s start with the C on the piano as our root.

Building the chords on each note:

Building the chords is literally by playing one note, skipping one note, then playing the next.  It’s a “play one skip one,  play one skip one” action built on the available scale notes. As I already mentioned in our former article, a 7th chord consists of four 3rds stuck on top of each other.  It is called 3rds because of the interval or space used between notes played.  In other words, starting from C move up 3 notes landing on the E and again count up another 3 notes landing on the G and once again another 3 notes landing on the B note.  It means for example that the C major 7th chord will consist of the C, the E, the G and lastly the B note.  Each of these form an interval of a 3rd, for that reason we call it 3rds which are built on top of one another.

The numbering of the C major scale:

First number each step of the C major scale starting from C as number 1 moving up to number 8. On each of these notes, we will now build a 7th chord.  In the table beneath you will find the seventh chords that are naturally formed on each note of the C major scale, with its corresponding chord symbol.

Here are the chords found on the Major scale:

C Major Scale:

Chords of the major scale

Or as written below:

Chords of the major scale

Roman numerals and the chord symbols used:

Note that we use roman numerals for naming the chords in music.  The small numbers ii, iii, vi and vii are used to indicate a minor chord and the capital numbers are used for major chords within the 7th chords.

Note that the minor 7th is usually notated with a minus sign.  It can also be notated as “min 7”.

Sometimes the major 7th is indicated with a small triangle instead or the “maj7” wording.

The minor 7b5 is sometimes indicated with a small “o”, but that is usually used in classical music indicating a full diminished chord, not a half-diminished chord as is the case of the minor7b5 used in jazz playing. Very rarely you will find music notated with a small “o” with a slash through it indicating a half-diminished.

The following chords are found in every major scale:

  • Two major 7th chords:

The scale produces two major 7th chords namely the I major 7th built on the 1st note of the scale and then on the 4th note of the scale, the IV major 7th.

  • One dominant 7th chord:

The dominant 7th chord is built on the 5th degree of the scale.

  • Three minor 7th chords:

There are three minor 7ths formed on the major scale: on the 2nd degree the  ii-7,  on the 3rd degree the iii-7 and the 6th note the vi-7.

  • One minor 7th flat 5 chord:

The chord formed on the 7th step of the scale is a minor 7th flat 5 chord.

It would be best if you familiarize yourself with the scale you are using first, then build each chord on each consecutive note using the scale notes.  If the scale has sharps or flats, these need to be used in the building of your chords on each note.

How do I practise these chords?

A good way of internalising the chords of the major scale is by practising the chords in the diatonic circle of 5ths found in the particular scale.  This means that you will be playing the chords moving a distance or space of 5 notes down at a time. This distance or space is called an interval. In the diatonic circle of 5ths, we use the interval of a 5th available within the scale notes available.  Only using scale tones

The Circle of fifths:

There are two different circles of 5ths used in jazz playing which often causes confusion.

  • The “chromatic” circle of 5ths is used to locate the different major and minor keys following one after the other. We normally talk of the circle of 5ths for finding the different keys or different scales in music.  This circle of 5ths moves in an interval of a PERFECT 5th at all times. The perfect 5th always consists of 7 semitones.  Please see the article on “Knowing your jazz chords and intervals” where intervals are discussed in greater detail. 
  • The “diatonic” circle of 5ths.

In the diatonic circle, you also move in a circle using a 5th interval but you only use the 5th interval formed WITHIN the scale regardless of the type or 5th formed, whether perfect, diminished or augmented.  It’s quite simple.  It’s a movement of 5ths using only the scale notes – no other sharps or flats added to make it a perfect 5th.

In the diatonic circle of 5ths, you start from the 1st note of the scale and move 5 notes down – always landing on a scale note of that particular key.  (Note that the circle of 5ths we use here is not exactly the same as the circle of 5ths used for the different keys found in music where the 5th interval used is always a perfect 5th regardless of the scale).

How do I play the chords in the diatonic circle of 5ths?

Start by playing the C maj7 chord on the first note of the C major scale which is the C note. This is chord I maj7.  Then you have to count 5 notes down from the C note which will land you on the 4th note of the C major scale being the F note. Play the Fmaj7 chord. This is chord IV maj7.

Then count another 5 notes down from the F note,  landing you on the B note which is the 7th note of the major scale. Play the B-7b5 chord built on the B. This is chord vii-7b5

In this way keep on moving down an interval of a 5th until you reach the original home key note again which is C in this case.

The different chord bass notes in the C major scale will then be C then F then B then E then A then D then G and finally the circle is completed and you will end on C once again.  This will form a bass movement or a bass line on which your chords are built. The circle of 5ths uses scale steps number  1  4  7  3  6  2  5 and 1.  On each of these scale notes, we play the corresponding 7th chord. It forms a progression of chords called the 1  4  7  3  6  2  5  1  progression.

The Circle of 5ths found within the C major scale or key:

The I-IV-vii-iii-vi-ii-V-I  progression 

Or  1-4-7-3-6-2-5-1 progression.

If you play the corresponding seventh chords found in our above-given table on each of these scales steps  1  4  7  3  6  2  5  1  it forms a chord progression.  We call this movement of chords one to the other a chord progression.

The 1  4  7  3  6  2  5  1 progression is rather indicated in musical terms by using roman numerals:   I  IV  vii iii vi ii  V!

See the table below.

The I  IV  vii iii vi ii  V  I  Progression.

The I IV vii iii vi ii V I Progression

In the C major scale it will be as follows:

Cmaj7  –  Fmaj7  –  B-7b5  –  E-7  –  A-7  –  D-7   –  G7  –  Cmaj7

The above progression of chords is a well-known progression used to practise chords in the major scale.

Shaping the bass line of the 1 4 7 3 6 2 5 1 progression:

As mentioned above, the bass or root note moves in the circle of 5ths within the diatonic scale.  We call this movement indicated by the scale tones a bassline. The bass forms the grounding or foundation of chords. The bassline formed by the circle of  5ths in the C major scale is:  C  F  B  E  A  D  G  C – Each note is 5 spaces lower than the previous HOWEVER can not keep on moving a 5th interval down on the keys because

  • its first of all going to take you right down to the bottom of the keys on your piano and it’s not practical and
  • it will definitely not sound correct.

The actual bass notes used can be played an octave higher or lower for easier reach or better movement.  The best way is to jump down a 5th and then up a 4th which is an inverted 5th. So instead of jumping down another 5th you rather move upwards a fourth interval  It will be the same note that you intended to play, but just an octave higher.   This brings us to the well-known bass movement of 5 notes down and 4 notes up, 5 notes down and again 4 notes up.  This moving of the bassline is also often called the “ii V I bass movement”.

This bass movement can be played with the left hand as a bassline while adding the chords on top with the right hand.

  • Save the picture of the bassline to your memory.

It helps at first to practise the bass movement on its own which will be:  C  F  B  E  A  D  G  C.  This is played by your left hand on the lower part of the keyboard. It is a continuous ‘moving down 5 and moving up 4’ pattern.

  • As soon as you have the mental picture of the bass movement in your mind, play the chords which each bass note indicates.

How to practise the 1 4 7 3 6 2 5 1 scale progression with good voice leading

When practising chords in the circle of fifths, moving in root position from one chord to the next will sound rather jumpy and not smooth.

What is root position?

Root position is the original construction of the chord built from the root upwards with its consecutive 3rds stacked on top of each other.

In classical music, we often talk of playing a triad (three-note chord of 3rds) in either root position or 1st inversion or 2nd inversion. In Jazz, we do not really talk about inversions but rather of voicings.  It means that the root note could be moved and one of the other chord notes could be at the bottom of the chord structure. The chord is inverted and the order of notes are moved, but the chord is still the same chord in essence. This changing of the order of the chord tones is used to form interesting voicings.

Jazz voicings

In jazz music, the voicings of chords are extremely important –

  1. To create good chord sounds or rather, “interesting” chord sounds instead of the classical “old” style which is often said to be too “vanilla-ish”.
  1. To move smoothly between hands by making it easier to play as well as creating a smooth sound by not jumping all over the keyboard with your chord playing.  This smooth movement is called voice leading. 

In part 2 of this article on “Jazz chords formed on the major scale”, I will be discussing the use of voicings, how to create them and how to do good voice leading from one chord to another.  Do enjoy getting to know the basic setup of a major scale and its 7th chords formed naturally on each scale note.

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