Combining scales and chords

Here are three exercises that benefit all musicians regardless of their preferred style or approach to making music:

1. Scales

2. Chord drills

3. Scales and chords together

The last two columns offered interesting ways to practice the first two. Now, here's a way to combine scales and chords into one activity.

Scaling the chords

Ask your students to put their scales to work by improvising a scale-based right-hand part over a left-hand diatonic chord progression. If they are shy about making their own music, guide them through these steps to jump-start their creativity.

• Prepare by playing a scale in the right hand over left-hand chords.

Teacher tip: Consider improvising simple half-note roots/fifths bass line to accompany your students. 

• Next, apply random direction changes while continuing the step-wise eighth notes without pause. (Note that the first two written measures are provided only as examples. Yours will sound different.) 

Teacher tip: Tell your students not to worry about how it sounds at this stage. The idea is to experience making spontaneous right-hand choices while maintaining preset chords in the left—like patting your head while rubbing your tummy.

• Then, mix in longer note values to provide occasional pauses.

• Now, add skips and leaps while maintaining the random direction changes and intermittent long notes of the previous steps. 

Teacher tip: At this point, your students are already improvising whether they realize it or not. What are melodies, if not notes of different lengths moving in different directions and separated by variously sized intervals? However, encourage them to explore their artistry further in the next step.

 • Finally, throw out the rules and just make some nice music.

More tips:

• Avoid overthinking dissonance/consonance, chord tones, fingerings, and the like. Just let it flow, trusting hands and ears to find their own way.

• An automated drum groove or accompaniment makes it more fun.

• Don't stop. Pausing to fix unintentional notes breaks the flow.

• Be sure to play this exercise in several keys.

More progressions

Here are some other handy progressions for this activity:


C | G | Am | F | C | G | F G | C |

Canon chords

C | G | Am | Em | F | C | F | C |

Minor primary chords

Am | Dm | Am | E | Am | Dm | Am E | Am |

(For minor keys, improvise with the natural minor scale on most chords. Play harmonic or melodic minor over E chords.)

Minor canon chords

Am | E | F | C | Dm | Am | Dm | E |

Until next time, enjoy your creative music-making journey 

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