Chord Symbols Can Tell You More Than You Think!

Weekly Newsletter #46

June 23, 2022

When you see a chord symbol like C7b9, or Ebmaj7#11 what information can you acquire? 

Did you know that every chord symbol can derive a scale that corresponds directly to the harmony of that chord? 

Yes, it’s true! When you see a chord symbol you can use that information to formulate the scale that the chord comes from, which allows you to have a much greater understanding of that chord. 

However, it also allows you to see a chord symbol and instantly convert it into a scale for soloing or improvisation purposes. 

Reading Chord Symbols 

A chord symbol actually tells you a lot of information. It tells you whether the chord is major or minor, what kind of a seven it has, whether it’s suspended or not and in many cases what kinds of extensions or alterations there are. 

To read chord symbols fluently, and to learn to convert them into scales you must be able to glean all that info at just a glance, especially if you are reading a lead sheet while playing. 

Let’s take a chord like C7b9 as an example. Right away, the very first thing you must do is reduce this down to its simplest form by ignoring all but the smallest chord symbol within the entire symbol itself. 

If you got rid of everything but the letter “C” you would have stripped this symbol of all it’s potentially confusing information. Now a C chord is very easy to understand, it’s a 1-3-5 with the root note C; just a major chord. 

If you add the “7” back in you’d be looking at C7, which is a C major triad with a dominant 7 attached. Knowing that a dominant 7 is a major triad with a b7 we can now think of this chord as 1-3-5-b7, or C-E-G-Bb. 

Finally, we’ll add the b9 to our chord analysis. A b9 is exactly what it sounds like…a flat second of the root note. Spelled out it would look like: 1-3-5-b7-b9 or C-E-G-Bb-Db. 

Let’s try another one. 


1) Eb is just an Eb major triad = 1-3-5 or Eb-G-Bb 

2) A “maj7” is then added to the triad = 1-3-5-7 or Eb-G-Bb-D 

3) We then add a #11 = 1-3-5-7-#11 or Eb-G-Bb-D-A 

This process can be replicated for any chord symbol you see. Always reduce it down to its simplest element and build it back up from there. 

Finding The Corresponding Scale 

Taking a chord symbol and deriving a scale from it is actually easier than you may think. 

As you can see, the chord tones from a chord symbol yield at least three notes, but often many more. In the examples above you have 5 notes for each chord. 

Since most scales are 7 notes, you’re really only two notes away from figuring out the entire corresponding scale. 

Let’s go back to the C7b9. The notes are C-E-G-Bb-Db. 

If we put them in alphabetical order starting with C we would have: C-Db-E-G-Bb. 

In music theory it is common that each letter be represented once in most scales. Knowing that we are missing two letters in this example means we need to find the missing notes. 

We need some form of an F and some form of an A. I say “some form” because we don’t know if it will be a flat, sharp or natural, we just know that we need an F and an A. 

Essentially this chord symbol is a C7 + the b9 extension. If we ignored the b9 momentarily we’d be left with a C7. 

Now, most often a C7 corresponds directly with a mixolydian mode, which is a major scale with a b7. This is the series of notes you get when taking the fifth chord of a major scale, which is a dominant 7 chord. 

If that were the case, the C7 would equal a C mixolydian scale: C-D-E-F-G-A-Bb or 1-2-3-4-5-6-b7. 

If we then go back and replace the 2 with the b9 (2 and 9 are synonymous) we would end up with: C-Db-E-F-G-A-Bb or 1-b2-3-4-5-6-b7. 

Now we have found a scale that corresponds directly with the chord symbol. No it’s not a very common scale, and perhaps it is even a mode of some exotic scale (I’ll leave that to you to try and figure out). 

However, it is hardly the only option. When finding a scale that matches a chord symbol you are in a sense, free to take some liberty. 

Finding Multiple Scales 

The scale we decided upon is the most basic or “default” version of the scale and was derived from the 7th chord reduction of the chord symbol (C7), and then the b9 extension was added back in. 

However, there are often multiple scales you can associate with a chord symbol, and they depend on the musical effect you are trying to achieve. 

In this case we are looking for an F and an A to plug in to the five chord tones in order to make up a scale that we can use to solo. 

That means we could either flat or sharp either of those two notes to create a scale that would fit our chord symbol, but that might be more or less useful for our musical situation. 

If we took an F# and an Ab we would have the following scale: C-Db-E-F#-G-Ab-Bb or 1-b2-3-#4-5-b6-b7. 

This may or may not fit the musical purpose you want to achieve, but you won’t know until you test it out. 

Finding Extra Information 

So far, we’ve been treating these chords as though they were in a vacuum, but if you have more than one chord you can use the information from those chords to derive a scale that would fit over more than just a single chord symbol. 

If you took the progression C7b9-Fmaj7 you would collectively have enough information to formulate the entire scale that can be used to solo over both chords. 

Following the aforementioned processes you would end up with the scale F-G-A-Bb-C-Db-E. 

The reason I began this scale on F is because F is clearly the tonic and C7b9 is the dominant of F, making F the root note and C the fifth of the scale. 

This scale we ended up with is actually the same one as the “default” scale we decided upon earlier. 

However, if the Fmaj7 were another chord, it’s very possible you would end up with a different result. 

The main theme of this process is that it is quite simple to derive a scale from a chord symbol(s). It doesn’t need to always be a seven-note scale either. 

You can easily create a scale in which there are multiple versions of the same letter note (A# and Ab for example). Since this is merely a scale that you will be using to conceptualize the notes you’ll be soloing with, you can take liberties that might not be available to you elsewhere in music theory. 

Simple follow the method of breaking down the chord symbols to their smallest forms and building them back up, adding in the notes one at a time. 

From there find the missing notes and then, get creative! 

-Max Rich