Dec 012015

Melodic Tendency Post Pic

Have you ever wanted your lead guitar playing to sound less like noodling around a scale and more like musical phrases?

I know I have…

In this lesson, we are going to take a look at something I like to call melodic tendency. This can be heard when one note “pulls” to another, where the first note sounds unsettled or tense, and the second note sounds at rest, or resolved.

Generally, when we start learning to improvise, we use one single scale over a whole chord progression. We do this because we know that for a diatonic progression (where the chords all exist in one key) our single scale will contain all the available ‘correct’ notes so that the result should be somewhat pleasing to the ear.

But have you ever found that sometimes some notes just don’t work as well as you thought they might?

The reason for this is melodic tendency, which shows us that not all notes in a key are equal, all of the time. For example, you might be improvising or constructing a melody in E major. You’re playing happily over the progression with everything sounding great, then you get to that final note of the phrase (the one that’s supposed to raise the roof in a moment of deep musical expression), and you play an F#! And the whole thing comes crashing down around your ears.

“But that note is in the scale!” You tell yourself. “So it should sound right shouldn’t it?”

In this instance however, it clearly doesn’t, and you might be hard pressed to work out why. So this lesson will show you how to target the right notes, whilst using the “less right” notes to build tension and interest.

For now, we are going to work in the key of E major, playing over an E major chord. This will clearly highlight which notes you should be targeting, as well as familiarising you with the notes that add interest.

I’ve provided a short one chord backing track (or vamp) below, for you to try these ideas over:

Note: If you ever find yourself without a backing track you can always use the open low E string as a bass drone note. This works well, and allows us even more flexibility in our note selection in the future.

When using the open E, it’s good to start out using the E major scale with its root at the 7th fret on the A string, but if you are more confident with your scales you can use as much of the fretboard as you like.


The trick is to divide the scale up into two groups of notes:

One group consists of the three notes that make up the E major chord:

  • E
  • G#
  • B  

These are your Chord Tones, and are highlighted here in red so you can easily see which notes you should target:


The black notes are Non-Chord Tones and these are the notes that you will be using to add interest and tension to your melody.

Remember the locations of these notes relative to each other, as this concept can be applied to other keys, as well as different chords within the same key, but we’ll cover that in more detail later.

For now, we are going to play some examples highlighting exactly what we should expect to hear when we play a certain note over a certain chord.

First, over the backing track or your low E drone note, you should play the entire scale a few times to get used to the sound.  This is very important to develop your skills as a listener, as it will enable you to more accurately transfer the sound in your head to fretboard when the time comes.

Then when you are happy with that, using the diagram above, improvise using only the red Chord Tones.  You will notice that these notes all work and sit happily over the chord, but they do sound a bit simplistic and lack excitement.

Here’s an example using the Chord Tones only, played in order:

Next, improvise again, but this time using only the black Non-Chord Tones.  This should be an altogether less satisfying sound, with tension all over the place and not something you would likely be prepared to pay to listen to.

Here’s an example using Non-Chord Tones only:

Next, by putting the two ideas above together in a deliberate way, we can make use of tension and release to create some interesting and melodic phrases.  But instead of improvising a steady stream of random notes, we are going to use short 2, 3 or 4 note phrases that really help us to hear what’s going on.

Over the backing track or your drone note, you are going to deliberately play a Non-Chord Tone, and sit on it momentarily.  You’ll immediately notice how the tension builds the longer you leave it.  Now, to resolve the tension, you are going to move to a chord tone.  Bear in mind that, although technically you could play any chord tone and it would sound okay, if you move to the chord tone closest in the scale to your tension note, you will get the most satisfying effect.

Here’s an example:

This is what I call melodic tendency, and it’s a great way to give our ears something interesting and satisfying to listen to.  You’ll notice that usually there are two Chord Tones either side of the Non-Chord Tone you started with Experiment by playing the same starting Non-Chord Tone and listening to how it sounds when you move to each of the two Chord Tones.  Developing this sense of melodic movement will help you no end when improvising or composing melodies.

Once you feel ready, you can apply this simple but very effective concept to your own melodies.  Use the backing track provided, or record your own, and have fun trying to extend the tension of the Non-Chord Tones for as long as possible before you resolve to its neighbouring Chord Tone.

Before we move on, here’s another example of using concept to improvise over the E backing track. Listen out for the tense Non-Chord Tones and how they resolve to the more pleasant Chord Tones:

Ian O’Brien Music Extra:

Do you know what your guitar learning style is?

Discover yours today with our free ‘Guitar Learning Style Detector’ because When you know your unique guitar learning style, you can learn to play more easily by learning in line with your natural learning preferences.

Click here to download your free Guitar Learning Style Detector now

Changing It Up

This idea can be taken even further when you apply it over changing chords.  Be aware that the available chord tones within the scale will change with the chords, and that it may not be the same notes that you can resolve to.

For example, if one of the chords were to be A major, your available Chord Tones in the same E major scale would look like this (in red):


Notice here that one of the notes (the E) is the same over both chords?

This can be used to great effect by targeting that note just before the chord changes back to E major for a really strong and settled sound.  The following backing track moves from E to A and back again so you can experiment with this idea.  Take your time and don’t try to fill every second with notes; sometimes space can be just as effective.

Here’s the backing track:

…and here’s the example featuring the note E over the change:

Changing along with the chords requires a little more thought, but with practice, by always being aware of which chord you are playing over and its chord tones within the scale, you can choose the most appropriate notes to target for a really melodic sound.  This will lead to some great melodies you may not have thought of before, whilst sounding far better and more musical than just noodling around the major scale hoping to hit one of those magic sounding notes.

Yours in music,

– Michael

Michael Smith - Guitar Teacher





Ian O’Brien Music – Guitar Lessons Norwich –

If you have any questions or are curious about taking the next step with your guitar playing, Drop us an email or call us for a chat on: 07743964206. We’re here to help…

Talk To Us


 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>



Our Privacy Policy - Ian O'Brien Music - Guitar Lessons Norwich