Weird Diatonic Tricks

by Tim Gillespie

What Is Not In A Key (or weird diatonic tricks).

For a long time I have been espousing the virtues of what is in a key. This has always been important and often overlooked. Keys are the basis with which we communicate to each other using musical instruments, at least in most of the world. In other geographic areas of the world they also use systems of musical tonal centers with which they communicate. It's the way the world of music works most of the time.

But there are serious deviations from this fixed note method and they happen all the time. When I was first learning how to diagram a song, I would either learn a song by hearing it and then trying to play it or by looking at sheet music. Looking at sheet music gives you a head start understanding the piece. You can look at the notation or chord charts and identify the key before you even pick up your guitar. For me this is easier but I have always respected guitar players that do it by listening a little and finding it on the fretboard. There is really something to say for ear development.

When I would look at notation I would often times see notes outside the key being used. When I would play them, they seemed to fit and actually to blend in with the other notes but they were outside the key. Today I see lots of people hit this point on the learning curve and throw up their hands. Why exactly some notes outside the key fit while others do not, can only be explained by looking at each individual instance, at least in my opinion. I think if you studied this, you might be able to classify these different events into categories, but that goes beyond this conversation. For now I think we should take a entry level look at this and develop an understanding of the types of reasoning you can use. There are a few ideas that may help you experiment. As usual these examples will be in the key of C, however we will need to borrow some notes from other keys and we will need to cycle into different keys, so we will step outside of the key of C too.

The first thing I want to show you is what is not in the key of C major. The first diagram is all the notes on the fretboard. The second diagram contains the notes in the key of C major. The third diagram contains all the notes not in the key of C.

In a sense this is the anti-key of C. These are the notes that will violate the key.

Remember there are twelve total notes available. We are just subtracting the key of C from the chromatic scale.

These five notes are what is left.

These are not five arbitrary notes. These notes form a recognized scale.

Remember that a diatonic scale contains seven notes so this is not a diatonic scale.

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We will discuss this scale in a few minutes.

But first a little more regarding notes outside the key.


If you are playing along in the key of C and you throw in some of these notes you will absolutely start to change the sound. If you are looking for an example you have to look no further than the C 7 chord and the C major 7 chord.

If you play a progression using the C major seventh chord and you substitute the C 7 chord, the Bb note will stand out as different.

When I first looked at the notes outside of the key of C, they seemed so foreign but they show up in songs all the time, I realize there are serious uses for notes outside the key.

It is very common to play a song in the key of C and this C 7 chord is used. Bb is not in the key of C but it is used with it all the time. The Blues is based on dominant chords and Blues players take advantage of this. A C 7 chord can also be called a C dominant 7th chord. I may write a column on this later.

Next we can take this example a little further. Lets look at what the anti-diatonic signature looks like for C major. We can derive the signature for the scale that was described above.


This is where things start to get confusing. The first diagram is the chromatic scale again. Every note is present. The second diagram is the notes in the key of C major. This is the standard diatonic signature. The third diagram contains the notes outside the key of C major.

If you subtract the notes in the key of C from the chromatic scale you get this third pattern.

Do you recognize it? This is a very standard pattern. You saw this pattern last week only then it was positioned for the key of C.

This third signature is the F# pentatonic signature!

If you decide to try to play outside the notes in the key of C, you are playing in the key of F# pentatonic.

Is this important? It could be. Somewhere out there are some bands that are looking for ways to be different. They want to break from the norm and break the rules. For these people this may be a strategy for defining their music and introducing true sophistication into their structure. Anything based on these notions would have to be carefully constructed to develop interesting statements and phrases. It takes true artistry to do this.

I do not work within this framework much. Usually I borrow a few notes to alter the scale or transfer into the chromatic scale. This is usually done while constructing a solo rather than while playing rhythm. So far I have just dabbled with these concepts. But it is interesting and it presents a situation where you can break the rules yet still function within the rules of diatonic keys.


Here in an example of what seems to be a scale that uses totally different notes, but it actually has two notes in common with C major!

The key of C contains only non sharped notes, C, D, E, F, G, A and B.

The C# scale contains only notes that are sharped, C#, D#, E#, F#, G#, A# and B#.

So it might seem logical that these two scales do not contain any of the same notes. In fact they do contain some of the same notes, only now they have different names.

E# in the C# scale is the same note as F in the C scale. Same for B# in the C# scale and C in the C scale. They are the same note, we are just using an enharmonic spelling to name the note.

Don't be fooled into thinking they have nothing in common, they do. You might be playing along in the key of C and then decide to raise the entire song one half step. Now you are playing in C# major.

Often times songs will jump a whole step for a few bars then switch back to the original key.

These are also ways of changing the key and keeping a consistent structure.

Now let's look at some other strategies for leaving a key and entering another one.

Have you heard people in a jam session play in a standard key and then take the progression and cycle through the circle of fifths with it? It can be a difficult experience if you are playing in a song and someone tells you to get ready to do this. It entails transcribing the exact progression into the next key and playing the chords in time. This is not easy but it is very easy to make a mistake. If the progression is difficult, the music may break down. For the next example we are going to borrow from this concept to break out of the key of C and transfer into another key.

When you play in the key of C, you are using only the notes inside the key, C, D, E, F, G, A and B. That is where we will start. For this example we are going to use only notes inside the keys in question. In real life your choice of notes for chord and lead line production may not be so strict.

Think about this. The next clockwise (forward) stop on the circle is G major. G major is the dominant chord in the key of C major. The fifth degree in the key is the dominant position / chord. When you cycle forward out of C major, you do so through the dominant position. Every time you leave a key by going forward, you do so through the dominant chord which is the keynote for the next key.

If you cycle backwards, you go through the subdominant chord. Remember four degrees behind C is F. If you cycle backwards (counter clockwise), you go from C to F, the subdominant chord. Look at the circle to see this. There are two ways to travel!

So the first thing we do is construct a passage in the key of C. Here goes!

After we have established this progression, we may eventually need to do something else with it. In this example we are going to transfer to another key. When you cycle through the circle of fifths, you usually do so according to the rules you set up. You keep the progression the same (usually). This way a musician can pick up on the rules and construct the progression in real time. You don't have to stop to teach it to them. So we are now going to transfer to the key of G which is the next stop on the circle, if you go clockwise. The transposition looks like this.


Now in this progression we are using the same notes in the key of C except one. The F# note. If you are looking for accepted ways of transferring into different keys, this is one. This is an accepted way. Now you just have to decide if you like it or not.

By doing this we are moving the entire piece to a new key. This in turn will introduce a sharped note. We are very close to the same notes in the key of C only we have now changed things slightly by the substitution of an F note with an F# note. We are using entirely new chords but the degrees stay the same so the relationships are intact.

Lets take it one step further and look at the next stop on the circle, the D major key.


OK so now we have taken the next step in cycling away from the key of C. We are now in the key of D and consequently we have inserted another sharp. The key of D contains two sharps, C# and F#. Remember the last key, the key of G contains an F#. So we are gradually building on these introduced sharps and using the previous sharps as we build. We are changing the notes gradually.

If you keep doing this you will get farther away from the key of C until you hit the key of F# Major! This is as far away from C major as you can get. The next stop will be slightly closer. Let me show you what I mean.

Keep in mind the Circle of Fifths is a circle! Once you get 180 degrees away, you start to get closer to the point of origin. Same thing when you use this metaphor with music.

Notice the yellow bar across the diagram to the left. This diagram explains the progression of sharps or flats in the Circle of Fifths (you can look at it either way). Do you see we are 180 degrees way from C major?



Here is an interesting twist on this example.

When you get to F# major you are about as far away as you can get from C major. F and B are the only notes the keys of F# major and C major have in common. In the key of F# major these chords are called E# and B. B is the fourth degree in F# major and E# is the seventh degree. If you take these notes away (the fourth and seventh) you get the pentatonic scale for F# major. Remember the F# pentatonic scale shares nothing in common with C major diatonic.

This means if you were cycling through the Circle of Fifths and you get to F# major and then you transition to the pentatonic scale for F# major, you have just cycled the song to the point where you have nothing in common with the original progression of notes.

The jump from diatonic to pentatonic can mean a lot of different things. It could be just the lead solo rather than the chords. Or the progressions could be orchestrated to fit inside the pentatonic scale while still maintaining their diatonic origins. It can get complicated and very hard to follow. Just be aware there are lots of logical and orderly ways to move from key to key.

Do the other neighboring keys do the same thing? No! They don't. Without giving you too big of a headache, the B major scale (a neighboring key) contains the B and E notes,which are in the key of C. The B pentatonic scale contains the note B, which is in the C major scale. C# major (the other neighboring key) contains the notes F and C, which are in the key of C. And the C# pentatonic scale contains the F note, which is in the key of C major. There is overlap in any other key. F# major pentatonic is the only one that has nothing in common with C major diatonic.

Summary. Why Do You Care?

There are good reasons to explore these and other concepts. Anyone who has played in diatonic keys for many years, sooner or later looks for a way to spice things up. When that happens, you start a journey into the unknown, usually in an effort to do something different.

If you are comfortable with diatonic and pentatonic signatures, you can use these tools to explore the rules and concepts of music quickly. You can go into strange and complex concepts in order to change and twist your music.

You may not choose to go this far. I very seldom actually try to construct progressions or songs that go this far. But some people will choose to, and these methods of deviating from the norm can provides multiple avenues for exploration and change. It is quite possible you can find some simple but pleasing twists that you can apply to your music to help you create your own sound. And the farther it is from the norm, the more it may stand out. I think you have to judge this sort of thing, case by case.

Another reason to venture into the unexplored is for what it will do for your understanding. When you return to the simple world of single diatonic and pentatonic keys, things that were difficult before may seem simple by comparison. You become more comfortable with diatonic concepts and that is where we spend most of our time.

Next month we will scale this back to work with only one or two keys and only a few stray notes. Then we will examine how to structure songs.