Understanding Chord Tones

Recently we’ve gotten a few questions regarding chord tones: how to work on hearing them, how to aim for them in your lines, and how to connect them when you’re improvising over a chord progression. Understanding the sound and function of chord tones is important to your success as an improviser. However, it’s important to remember that chord tones are not the only aspect of improvising that you need to worry about. In fact, focusing only on these specific notes or ways to connect them when you improvise can lead you in the opposite direction then you’re aiming for.

Think of this ability to hear, understand, and utilize chord tones in your solos as yet another skill in your improvisational arsenal, one of many that you use daily to create the lines you’re hearing in your head. In other words, chord tones should just be one piece of the puzzle, not your only way to construct material to improvise with.

With this in mind, here are concepts to think about that will put you on track to understanding and using chord tones to your advantage. Along with each practice idea, I’ve included some links to some of our articles that will guide you through the process of acquiring these skills.

I) Adjusting your mental approach

While the focus of improvising should be the sound of the music, the way that you think about chords and their respective chord tones can have a huge impact on the way you play. The way that you visualize a chord directly affects the way that you’ll improvise over that chord.

This is what most people think of when they see a CMaj7chord symbol:

A major scale. It’s not really a surprise, because this is how theory and improvisation is taught everywhere. However, this mindset limits your musicality rather than enables it.

Instead of thinking about each chord as a scale, view each chord as, well…a chord. A stack of thirds built upon the root of the chord. With this mindset, there are no “right notes” and there are no “wrong notes.” Some of the chord tones are more consonant and have a strong tonal pull, while others are more dissonant and naturally want to resolve.

Each note has it’s own distinct sound. When you see a chord, try to think of it as a stack or line of chord tones:


In the example above, every note of the major scale is used, they’re just mentally organized so you can isolate each chord tone very quickly.

Play these on the piano to ingrain the sound, as well as the structural aspect of these chords. If you have no experience with the piano, then it’s time to review some piano basics. When you play these chords on the piano, you can visually grasp the logical structure of each chord and hear the sound of both the entire chord and the individual chord tone.

Go through every chord type at the piano: Major 7, V7, minor 7, diminished, Maj. 7 +5, etc. Play the basic voicing in the left hand (1, 3, 5 , 7) and play the individual chord tones one at a time with the right hand. If you do this exercise in every key, you’ll be able to think of any chord tone in any key when you’re improvising.

Visualizing Chord Tones

This can be a lot to tackle at once, so doing a some simple visualization exercises can be very effective with a concept like chord tones. Sometimes it just comes down to pure memorization. The reality of improvisation is that in a split second, you need to know the third of an F#-7 chord, the b9 of a G7 chord, the 13th of a C-7 chord, and so on.

For some ideas on practicing visualization, check out these articles:

II) Getting your ears up to speed

You may be able to intellectually understand the idea of chord structure and voice leading, but hearing these ideas is a completely different world. To truly be successful with this concept, you need to hear what you’ve mentally grasped.

This means doing some ear training exercises. Ear training is one of the most important skills to have as an improviser and ironically, it’s a skill that most players ignore. Don’t be a part of this mediocre majority.

All it takes is 10-20 minutes a day, and you can drastically improve your success with improvisation.

As I said before, we all can grasp the theory relatively quickly, however getting our ears up to speed takes a little work. If you haven’t already done so, take a look at these three articles on ear training to get a start on hearing the things that you want to play.

You can study the theory all you want, but until you get your ears involved and up to speed, you’re going to be running into the same problems over and over again. Start training your ear today and in a very short amount of time, you’ll be hearing the individual chord tones of every chord or progression that you play over.

III) Learn to hear in color

The final step and most important step in understanding chord tones is learning to hear in color. Now this might sound strange at first, but think about it for a second. You see the world in color, images, light and darkness. You don’t see with words, you see in color. It should be the same with music. We don’t hear triads or thirds or b9’s, we hear the actual sound that those musical terms are attempting to describe.

The problem that so many of us run into with improvising is that we are trying to improvise with terminology. Chord tones, resolutions, ii chords, V chords, altered scales, substitutions, etc. We have these words in our minds, we understand the theoretical concept on paper, but when it comes to applying them musically, we fall short.

The reason is we don’t recognize these concepts aurally, they only exist as words in our minds. To break out of this theoretical box, you need to deal with the actual sound of these concepts, not only the words.

The true aspect of understanding chord tones, comes when you can transform your understanding from a verbal standpoint to an aural one. The cool thing about chord tones is that each and every one has a very distinct color. The third has a certain color, the #11 has an immediately recognizable sound, a tri-tone has a unique dissonance.

Hearing in color just requires a simple shift in your mind. Take a look at this article and apply these concepts the next time you hear a chord:

With a little practice, both mentally and aurally, the concept and application of chord tones can become a usable part of your musical arsenal.

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