Lesson 2
Improvisation on the Major scale

  1. Scale-tone Triad Chords
  2. The I - VIm - IIm - V Chord Progression
  3. Hey There ! (Song)
  4. Improvisation - Rhythm Patterns 6 to 10
  5. Where's Woody ? (Song)
  6. The Woodshed
  7. Major scale Ruler
  8. Quiz and Quiz Answers
  9. Practice Materials

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Im 2.1 - Scale-tone Triad Chords

Let us start with a look at the first 4 bars of the song 'Hey There !' in this lesson.

The chords involved are :

C = C E G     Am = A C E     Dm = D F A   and   G = G B D

I have written each chord underneath the melody line.

Audio 2.1

Note that I have rearranged the chord tones for each chord so that these chord voicings progress smoothly from one chord to the next. Always try to avoid large skips in any chord progression.

If you analyse the notes of the melody and all four chords, you will quickly come to the conclusion that they all belong to just one scale, the C major scale.

This is no coincidence. C, Am, Dm and G all are chords that can be formed using notes from the C major scale only. They are so called scale-tone chords of the C major scale.


By stacking three alternate notes of the C major scale on top of each other, seven scale-tone chords can be formed. One on each note of the scale.

Audio 2.2

The same principle work for the major scale in every key.

The chord qualities remain the same for each scale note number.

I is always major IIm is always minor, VIIo is always diminished.

For the F major scale.

Audio 2.3

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Im 2.2 - The I - VIm - IIm - V Chord Progression

When we arrange the four scale-tone chords from 'Hey There" :

Audio 2.4

in the order they feature in the song, we get :

This is the famous I - VIm - IIm - V Chord progression. It features in numerous songs.
Famous examples are :
Blue Moon
Heart and Soul
I Got Rhythm
Since I fell for You
Stormy Weather
These Foolish Things
Time after Time
Try a little Tenderness

and many more

J.S.Bach used it in his famous 'Prelude Nr.1' of his Album 1 for the Well Tempered Clavier (with some variations in chord qualities), and so did George Gershwin in 'I Got Rhythm'. Other famous examples are 'Heart and Soul', 'Oleo', 'Anthropology'.

In many cases 4-note chords are used (I - VIm7 - IIm7 - V7), but all chord tones till belong to the same major scale. In some cases mini modulations (to another key) are created by making the VI or the II chord a dominant chord (VI7, II7).
A famous example of this occurs in J.S.Bach's Prelude Nr.1. His lengthy chord progression includes :

C - Am7 - D7 - G
I - VIm7 - II7 - V

The important thing to remember is that over the unaltered I - VIm - IIm - V progression you can improvise using one and the same scale.

Audio 2.5

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Im 2.3 - Hey There ! (Song)

Hey There uses the I - VIm - IIm - V chord progression for the entire song.

Most I-VI-II-V tunes use two chords in the bar : | C Am | Dm G | etc.   In 'Hey There' I have spread them out, one chord each bar, except one bar before the end where I used 2 (Dm G) so that the song ends on the C chord.

The 'Hey There' format is different to that of A Happy Day from Lesson 1.
'Hey There' is only 16 bars long, half of the most common song length. But you could repeat the melody, using perhaps a more elaborate backing (strings) the second time.

There are quite a number of 16 bar songs. Famous examples include :
Blue Bossa     Cantaloupe Island     Careless Love     Doxy     St.Thomas     Summertime    
Watermelon Man
(a 16 bar blues), and many more.

The element of repetition features again strongly in 'Hey There' (especially rhythmic repetition).

The format can best be described as A B A C

In this case each section is only 4 bars long.   The first four bars represent the A-section, which is repeated in bars 9 to 12.
Bars 5 to 8 and bars 13 to 16 are both different and represent respectively a B-section (not a bridge) and a C-section.

Audio 2.6

Hey There ! : Swapping 2s.

  1. 1st chorus (16 bars) : I play the first 2 bars of each 4 bar phrase, you play the following 2 bars.

  2. 2nd chorus (16 bars) : You play the first 2 bars of each 4 bar phrase, I play the following 2 bars.

    Improvise using the C major scale only.

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Im 2.4 - Improvisation - Rhythm Patterns 6 to 10

'Hey There' uses chords that are all scale-tone chords of the C major scale.   You can therefore improvise over this song using notes of the C major scale throughout.

However it is still most important to keep track of the chord progression while you improvise. so that you can emphasise important chord tones in the improvised line. This brings the improvisation much more in focus as it properly reflects the chord changes.

Also think about, and experiment with, tones that are common to two or more chords.
Look for example at what is going on in the first 4 bars of the 'Hey There' melody :

Audio 2.1

The 'c' emphasised in bars 1 and 2 represents the root of the C chord, then becomes the 3rd of the A minor chord. This creates musical interest without doing much with the melody at all.

The 'e' and 'c' in bar 3 extend the D minor chord from a triad (D F A) to a Dm9 chord (D F A C E).
The root 'd' at the end of bar 3 becomes the 5th of the G chord in bar 4.

So with just a few 'strategic' chord tones a whole story is created. Try to work out yourself what happens in bars 5 to 9.
The above clearly demonstrates how important chord knowledge and awareness of the chord progression is (both in composition and improvisation).

Practise 'Hey There' in the following ways, using the play-along midi file track provided :
  1. Play the melody until you can play it from memory
    (Keyboard and guitar players also learn to play the chords from memory)

  2. Play sustained chord root tones until you can play them from memory

    Audio 2.7

  3. Play all chord tones in crotchets (1 beat notes).

    Audio 2.8

  4. Improvise over the song's chord progression using scale-tones of the C major scale only.
    Emphasise and sustain especially chord tones of the relevant chord.

To overcome the problem of getting lost in the song, start with using 2 bar rhythm patterns.
Use those from Lesson 1 plus the additional five shown below. You can split the patterns in 2 bar halves and use them on
their own or combine them with any other half.

Audio 2.9

On Audio 2.6 I first play the melody of 'Hey There !', and then one chorus
improvisation with scale-tones only, using Rhythm Pattern 8.

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Im 2.5 - Where's Woody ? (Song)

Remember the famous cartoons of Woody the Woodpecker, and the signature tune for it ? 'Where's Woody ?' uses the opening motif of it, almost that is. So naturally one wonders : Where IS Woody ?

Audio 2.10

Where's Woody uses the same chord progression as 'Hey There !'.
Again a I - VIm - IIm - V progression, but this time in the key of F.

So go for it folks, find Woody, he's got to be SOMEWHERE !!!

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Im 2.6 - The Woodshed

Keep working on the major scale in all keys.
First priority are the major scales in A, D, G, C, F and Bb. Then add the others : Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, B, E

In addition to the scale exercise in Lesson 1, start practice on this combined scale and chord routine :

Audio 2.11

In words : play each scale up to the 9th and back down the major 9th chord (four times in all), then sustain the tonic note for two bars. This gives you time to think about the next scale / chord combination.


Also practise the above exercise in reverse : major 9th chord up, then the scale down.

Audio 2.12

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Im 2.7 - Major scale Ruler

The Major scale Ruler is an easy to use device to help you find the notes of
the major scale and major 9th chord in any key. Use the strips below to find the notes of the major scale in any key.

    Align the Tonic note of the required major scale on the letter strip

  1. with the '1' on the Major scale strip


For example, to find the A major scale and Amaj9 chord :
  1. align A on the letter strip

  2. with 1 on the Major scale strip


Now read :

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Im 2.8 - Quiz

  1. What is a scale-tone chord ?

  2. How many scale-tone (triad) chords are there in any major scale ?

  3. Can a major triad chord be a scale-tone chord of more then one major scale ?
    If so : in how many ?

  4. Can a minor triad chord be a scale-tone chord in more than one major scale ?
    If so : how many ?

  5. Is there a triad chord quality that belongs to one major scale only ?

  6. Is there a triad chord quality that is NOT a scale-tone chord of the major scale ?

  7. What is a major 9th chord ?

  8. Spell out the major 9th chord in A, D, G, C, F and Bb.

  9. Fill in the missing note(s) from these major 9th chords :
    1. G   ?   D   F   A
    2. F#   A#   ?   E#   G#
    3. Bb   ?   F   A   ?
    4. D   F#   ?   C#   ?
    5. Eb   G   ?   ?   F

  10. Place the following I - VIm - IIm - V chords in their proper order :
    1. Gm - F - C - Dm
    2. G - Dm - C - Am
    3. F - Bb - Cm - Gm
    4. Bm - D - A - Em
    5. Ebm - Abm - Gb - Db

  11. Spell out all scale-tone triad chords(in ascending order) of the major scales of G and Bb.


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Im 2.9 - Practice Material

Hey There ! Lead sheet Bb & Eb Scores Melody & Improvisation
Swapping 2s Play-along
Where's Woody ? Lead sheet Bb & Eb Scores Melody
Rhythm Patterns 1-10 Notation Demo 1-5   6-10
The Woodshed Major scales Keyboard : 1 - 2 Play-along
Ruler Major scale Ruler

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Copyright © 1997-2007 Michael Furstner.