What are Chord Tones? (The Ultimate Idiot’s Guide)

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Most music students are familiar with chord shapes and scale patterns. Chord tones take a back seat until the intermediate stages of learning.

If they do appear, it’s in the form of arpeggios and technical exercises to “improvise better” over changes.

As a bass player, I was hooked on chord tones early. It is a vital part of our training as they define the harmony of a chord.

Even for non-bass players, visualizing and summoning chord tones is essential if you want to improvise at your peak when the time is right.

In this article, we get into chord tones and how to use them effectively to construct solos.

What are Chord Tones?

A chord consists of three or more individual notes played simultaneously. Chord tones are the ‘individual notes’ that make up any triad or chord. 

Or, more technically, you can state, “Any note that is part of a functional chord (implied or expressed) is called a chord tone.”

Let’s look at that in a more palatable context.

For instance, we sound the Cmaj7 chord when we simultaneously play C, E, G, and Bb. C, E, G, and Bb are the chord tones of the Cmaj7 chord.

If you play these notes one at a time over the corresponding chord, you will “define the harmony” of the Cmaj7 chord.

Are Chord Tones The Same As Arpeggios?

Even though the two musical terms are connected, chord tones are not the same as arpeggios.

An arpeggio is a musical technique of playing chord tones in an ascending or descending manner, often for embellishment or soloing.

Conversely, there are many ways to use chord tones to create melodies or write solos for a musical piece.

How Many Tones Are There In A Chord?

Every chord is formed over one note (the root or tonic), but you need a minimum of three notes to build a chord.

Therefore, a chord can have three or more chord notes (factor) and chord tones

What Are Nonchord Tones?

Notes that don’t belong to a chord are called non-harmonic or nonchord tones.

Nonchord tones are used for tension and embellishment, depending on how they fit into a harmonic context.

Remember, you don’t always have to play melody notes that agree with the chords. Nonchord tones are excellent ways to add movement, color, and tension.

But music students should focus on learning and internalizing chord tones during the beginner and intermediate levels of learning.

Chord Tones and Chord Qualities

Every musician should have a solid understanding of chords, and it’s hard to do that without understanding the quality of chords.

Chords take seed in the form of a triad – three notes (1, 3, and 5) of a diatonic scale. Triads have four qualities – major, minor, diminished, and augmented.

But a chord can have seven tones – 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, and 13.

Through various permutations and combinations, a chord can have additional qualities – major, minor, diminished, half-diminished, augmented, altered, and dominant.

A musician can build a solid foundation for improvisation by learning the relation between chord tones and chord qualities.

To do this, start learning the common chord qualities (major, minor, aug, dim) and proceed to the erudite qualities (altered, half-diminished) as you progress.

How to Visualize Chord Tones

You can build depth in your improvising by using chord tones, but it’s hard to use them if you can’t visualize them.

By visualization, I mean seeing and hearing the notes mentally and feeling them on your instrument. So how can you master chord tone visualization?

One way to do it is to practice exercises based on the circle of fifths.

Grab your instrument and play major seventh chords using the circle of fifths. Start by visualizing the root and third notes with every chord change until they are ingrained in your mind. Continue with the 5, 7, 9, 11, and 13.

Take your time with the first exercise – circling through the major seventh chords. Once you’ve got the chord tones solid on major sevenths, move to dominant seventh chords. 

The dominant has only one note different (flat seventh), and the minors are just as easy to take up after that.

Do this for 15 to 30 minutes daily or as per your capacity. As you practice, pay attention to two things – a) how to play them on your instrument, and b) how a chord tone sounds against the harmony.

Over time, you’ll be able to visualize chord tones and have them at your fingertips.

The next stage is to play them once per chord change through tunes you already know.

Alternatively, you can play over an I-IV-V chord progression until you can comfortably visualize chord tones in pairs.

The Chord Tone Soling Approach

For the longest time, musicians and music teachers have favored the chord-scale approach to soloing over chords in progressions.

The idea is simple – any chord you play over is diatonic to a particular scale. You can use that scale to create melodies or improvise.

It’s effective, no doubt, but chord-scale soloing often results in meandering aimlessly around the scale to the next highest/lowest note.

It yields repetitive sounds and motifs that do very little for the chord progression. Moreover, breaking the habit is hard once you are locked into the mindset.

Thinking “chordally” is a refreshing way to reinvent your improvisation.

It means you stop approaching soloing by thinking, “I can play X-scale over X-chord.” Instead, you develop improvisation skills by learning to shape a melody using only chord tones.

It always sounds effective because it works with chord progression.

Another advantage of chord tone soloing is you can play across the fretboard, ascending and descending with synergy.

Secondly, you use bigger jumps because the smallest distance between notes is a minor third interval. These melodic leaps result in really creative or catchy melodies.

Chord Tones on Bass Guitar

Chord tones are doubly important for bass players. That’s because defining and outlining chords (or the harmony) has always been the traditional role of the bass.

Playing nonchord tones (2nd, 4th, or 6th over a major7) does not support the chord sound and may even clash with the vocal melody.

It doesn’t mean you don’t need scales, but a bass player can benefit from learning chord tones before scales.

There are musical frameworks when using nonchord tones that make perfect sense. But in general, underemphasizing chord tones never sounds right in groovy bass lines.

Practically, bass players can approach the subject through numerous YouTube lessons or courses.

Mark Smith from Talkingbass emphasizes the importance of chord tones in his teaching.

Advanced bass players learn chord tone soloing from instructional books like ‘Fingerboard Harmony for Bass’ by Gary Willis, Chord Tone Soloing for Bass Guitar, and ‘A Comprehensive Chord Tone System for Mastering the Bass’ by Jeff Berlin.

Wrapping Up

There are three things, although clichéd, that help – develop your ear, listen to how the virtuosos use chord tone soloing (Charlie Christian, for example), and get better at using them by, well, using them.

This journey ends when you can instantly name, visualize, and play chord tones over any chord.

It can take a while to identify each chord note and sound. So, break down this task into smaller goals.

Use nonchord tones for a change of flavor For those who persevere, the rewards and many and bounteous.