Scales & Piano Chords in R&B Music and How To Use Them To Write Killer Tracks

R&B (rhythm and blues) is one of the most popular musical styles around. Its signature style comes from a mix of influences, including blues, gospel and jazz. The main characteristics that will affect how your RnB songs sound are the piano chords, the scales and modes used in the composition stages. There are also other importances like the BPM, time signature and more, but we’ll cover them in later articles as this is pretty in-depth!

The meaning of R&B has undergone several changes over the decades. What started as a genre label for blues records in the 1950s, went on to represent British rock and roll bands of the 60s, such as the Rolling Stones and The Who, and then became an umbrella term for soul and funk records in the 70s. 

The version of R&B that you and I are likely most familiar with, is known as contemporary RnB. This more current form of the genre has been developed since the late 1980s, and what differentiates it from its predecessors is the way it combines the traditional features of rhythm and blues music with the more modern elements of hip-hop, pop, soul, and funk.

In this article, we’re going to teach you the music theory, focusing on chords, scales, and stylistic features, that you need to start writing and producing your own killer contemporary R&B tracks.

What Gives R&B its Signature Sound & How Can I Replicate it?

Achieving the R&B sound comes down to the type of scales and modes you use, your chord progressions, the voicing of your chords, the BPM, and time signature. Feel, vibe, and the way you play these chords and scales also have a huge effect on the sound.

To replicate the RnB sound, you’ll mostly be using extension chords, chord inversions, blues, jazz and pentatonic scales and even maybe greek modes. Modal interchange and other factors like slash chords and chord progressions can also help craft that signature R&B sound you’re looking for.

We’ll start with the scales by looking at the pentatonic and blues scales below. Then we’ll take a simple chord progression and show you how to give it a more R&B sound by using advanced techniques like extended, altered, and slash chords, even including modal interchange.

Finally, we’ll give you a few tips on how you can make these chord progressions and scales come to life and fit the playing style and feel of the genre.

The Best R&B Scales (Neo Soul, Nu Funk & More)

1. Pentatonic Scales

Pentatonic scales are arguably some of the most important scales to learn. Not only are they used frequently in R&B music, but they’re also used all the time in rock, funk, jazz, and pop.

Most scales, like the major and minor scales, are made up of 7 notes, however, pentatonic scales consist of 5 notes, hence the name pentatonic.

There are two types of pentatonic scales, the major pentatonic and the minor pentatonic. Both scales are technically the same as they’re made up of the same intervals, however, like modes, they both start from a different place within the scale and therefore have a different sound.

The Minor Pentatonic Scale

The C minor pentatonic scale has the notes: C – Eb – F – G – Bb

c minor pentatonic scale piano

You may have noticed that it’s like the C natural minor scale but with two notes (D and Ab) missing and that’s exactly right! If you have any natural minor scale and take away the 2nd and 6th notes, you’ll be left with the minor pentatonic scale in the same key.

Here’s another example:

First, is the G natural minor scale, which has the notes: G, A, Bb, C, D, Eb, F

Now, let’s take away the 2nd and the 6th so we’re left with: G, Bb, C, D, F

Those 5 remaining notes give you the G minor pentatonic scale! Compare it with the notes from the C minor pentatonic scale and you’ll see that the intervals are the same. This scale can be used whenever you’re in a minor key and will sound perfect when you need melodies and hooks for your r&b tracks.

The Major Pentatonic Scale

Have you ever played only the black keys on a piano and thought ‘Woah! That sounds so good’. Well, those black keys are the notes of the major pentatonic scale, or more specifically, the Gb/F# major pentatonic scale.

This is just like the minor pentatonic scale, since it consists of only 5 notes and fits perfectly in R&B music, however, this scale sounds better when you’re in a major key.

To make a C major pentatonic scale you need the notes: C, D, E, G, A

c major pentatonic piano

The two missing notes in this scale are the 4th and the 7th and, if you want to create any major pentatonic scale, all you have to do is take away those two notes from whatever major scale you have.

We said earlier, that the two pentatonic scales are technically the same but start on different notes. To show you how that works, we’re going to take our C minor pentatonic scale from earlier and compare it to the Eb Major pentatonic scale.

C minor pentatonic: C – Eb – F – G – Bb

Eb major pentatonic: Eb – F – G -Bb – C

Notice how the Eb major pentatonic has the same notes as C minor pentatonic but starts from a different place in the scale. This is the case for any two major and minor pentatonic scales that are also the relative keys of each other.

One final point to mention is the reason certain notes are missing from these scales. If you look at both you can see that neither has any semi-tones and instead, both are made up of whole tones and major and/or minor 3rd intervals. This is because semi-tones can sound quite tense and the scale sounds smoother without them. What’s more, taking outs those notes in particular means there are no tritones either.

However, in R&B music, sometimes these tenser semitones and tritones are exactly what you want, and that’s where our next scales come in handy.

2. The Blues Scale

The blues scale comes from…you guessed it…blues music.

We learned earlier, that R&B was influenced by blues music. Well, a lot of the time, the blues scale is used in R&B songs. Like the pentatonic scales, there’s both a major and a minor blues scale. The blues scale is also extremely similar to the pentatonics, so this section should be a piece of cake to learn!

The Minor Blues Scale

The minor blues scale is the same as the minor pentatonic scale but with one extra note.

Here’s the C minor blues scale: C – Eb – F – F# – G – Bb

c minor blues scale

The extra note is the F# and, in the context of this scale, it’s called the ‘blue note’ as it gives the scale its ‘bluesy’ sound. It also creates tension and flavour for a few reasons. 

  • Firstly, it makes a tritone between itself and the C note
  • Secondly, it’s a non-diatonic note as F# is not in the key of C minor, and, finally, it creates chromaticism within the scale.

To quickly, find the ‘blue note’ for this scale, first find the fifth of whatever key you’re in and then go down a semitone and that will give you the ‘blue note’.

The Major Blues Scale

Again, the major blues and the major pentatonic are the same just with an extra note added to the former.

Eb major blues scale: Eb – F – F# – G -Bb – C

Eb major blues scale
Eb Major Blues

I’ve used the key of Eb in my example again here, to show you how the notes of the major blues scale, are the same as the relative minor blues scale, but start from a different place (just like the pentatonic scales).

The blue note is the F# again (like in the C minor blues scale) but instead of being a semi-tone below the fifth, it’s a semi-tone below the third. This creates tension, as it means both the major and minor third are used in this scale.

When using either of these blues scales in your r&b tracks, try not to linger on the ‘blue notes’ for too long as otherwise, it can start to sound out of place. Instead, use them for quick things like trills, runs, and grace notes.

How To Write Smooth R&B Chord Progressions

Knowing the right scales to use is essential for achieving the R&B sound, however, the chord progressions you play these scales over, are equally important. A simple chord progression won’t always make the cut for R&B music, but there are a lot of techniques you can use to make your chords fit the genre.

We’re going to start with a simple chord progression of Fm, Bbm, Gm, and C– then, transform it into a more R&B sounding harmony, by applying some of the techniques we’ll share below.

1. Use Extended Chords

Most of us will know that to build a chord you need at least three notes, but you can go a step further than that, adding extra chord tones and creating what we call: extended chords. With extended chords, you can add 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, and even 13ths to your chords.

These are extremely easy to use and using MIDI chord formulas, you can write extended chords using the piano roll to make, rapid, professional chord progressions.

Here’s how our chord progression might look when adding extended chords to it:

Fm9, Bbm7add13, Gm7, C7

The extensions you add to your chords are completely up to you. Play around with the different variations, listen to the different colours they add and decide which to use based on what sounds best to your ears and gets you closest to R&B sound.

You’ll either see extended chords written like Fm9 or as ‘add’ chords like Bbm7add13. This difference can be confusing at first so here’s an explanation to clear things up.

An extended chord like Fm9 means you have your Fm triad and all the other extensions counting up to that number. In this case (because it’s the 9th), we’ll have the 7th and the 9th in the chord.

This gives us the notes: F – Ab – C – Eb – G

f minor 9 piano chord diagram
Fm9 Chord

On the other hand, an ‘add’ chord like Bbm7add13 means we have our Bbm7 chord with the 13th added, but not the extensions in between.

Giving us the notes: Bb – Db – F – Ab – G

B flat minor 7 add 13 chord piano

2. Use Slash Chords

A typical chord, such as a C major chord, would have C as the bass note. With slash chords, however, we can have a note, other than the root, as our bass note. It can be another note within the triad, like a C/E chord which means your left hand would play an E in the bass rather than a C. Or, you can play the chord in your right hand and have one of the extensions mentioned above as your bass note.

Here’s the same progression with slash chords added: Fm9/Bb, Bbm7add13, Gm7, C7/D

For our Fmadd9 chord, we’ve put an 11th (Bb) in the bass as 11ths sound best in the bass for minor chords. For major chords, 9ths in the bass are better and that’s why our C7 chord now has a D in the bass.

c7/d chord piano

Next time you create a chord progression, have a go at using a note other than root as your bass. Start with other notes from the basic triad and then move on to trying 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths. There’s no right or wrong here, so experiment and pick what sounds best to you and the sound you’re trying to achieve.

It’s all about trial and error!

3. Try Using 2-5-1 Chord Progressions

This is another R&B technique that comes from jazz music and it’s something you may already be familiar with. If not, a 2-5-1 progression is simply a chord sequence that goes from the 2 chord, to the 5 chord, returning to the 1 chord. This progression then repeats.

2-5-1 progressions sound great because they easily allow for smooth voice leading and catchy melodies. Using them in your chord progressions will quickly get you closer to the R&B sound.

Luckily, our chord progression already includes a 2-5-1. It’s in the key of F minor, which means our 2 chord would be a G diminished and the 5 chord would be a C minor.

Here are our chords again so you can see the 2-5-1:  Fm9/Bb, Bbm7add13, Gm7, C7/D

But wait, didn’t I just say that the 2 chord in the key of Fm should be a G diminished, and the 5 chord a C minor? So, why do we have Gm7 and C7/D chord here? 

Don’t worry, our next technique on the list will clear that up for you!

4. Use Borrowed Chords (Modal Interchange)

This is one of my favourite harmonic techniques and it’s something I use all the time in my own writing. The fancy name for it is modal interchange but we’re going to refer to it as borrowing chords, as it’s an easier name to understand. 

Using borrowed chords means that you take a chord that belongs to another key (or mode), then you put it in your chord progression, while still staying in your original key and ensuring to return back to it.

So, while it’s true that, G diminished, and C minor are diatonic chords in the key of F minor – we’ve actually borrowed the Gmin7 and C7/D chords from other keys/modes! The Gmin7 chord is being borrowed from the key of G minor, and the C7/D chord is being borrowed from the key of F major.

So, we’ve already used borrowed chords in our progression, but I want to take it one step further and use another borrowed chord. So, I’m going to change our Bbm7add13 to a Bb7add13.

Here’s how the progression looks now:  Fm9/Bb, Bb7add13, Gm7, C7/D

B flat minor 7 add 13 chord piano

It’s only a slight change, but changing the Bb chord from minor to major changes the colour of the chord and the overall progression drastically by giving it a Dorian feel. Dorian is a mode that is used a lot in R&B music, which is why the major Bb chord is more suitable here.

5. Use Altered Chords

This is another technique that mainly comes from…you guessed it…jazz music! This one is quite advanced but it can add crunch and tastefulness to your chords.

An altered chord is a chord where you’ve changed one or more of its notes by moving it either up or down a semitone. The most common note changes in an altered chord are, the 5th and the 9th, where you can either sharpen or flatten both. This leads to a lot of variation.

For our chord progression, I’m going to change our C7/D chord to C7#5#9.

And… that looks really confusing. So, let’s break it down.

We’re familiar with 7th chords now so we know a C7 would have the notes C-E-G-Bb. We also know that the major 9th in a C chord is the note D, so we can add that on too. But we’re note quite there yet, because the new altered chord says #5#9. Thi means that the fifth in our chord G needs to be raised (sharpened) by a semitone to become G#, and the same thing needs to happen to the 9th, which becomes D#.

Therefore, a C7#5#9 chord would look like: C-E-G#-Bb-D#

c7#5#9 chord piano
C7#5#9 Chord

This chord may look strange at first, especially the mix of both sharps and flats, but it will definitely add flavour and give an R&B sound to your chord progressions. It’s also important to notice how this particular chord contains both, the major, and minor third of C, which is what gives it so much crunchiness and tension.

Be careful not to overuse altered chords. Too much can become gimmicky and can make the music too harmonically ambiguous (which isn’t what you want for R&B). 

Here’s the chord progression in its final form: Fm9/Bb, Bb7add13, Gm7, C7#5#9

How to get the right feel and playing style for RnB music 

We’ve learned the scales, the harmonic techniques and we’ve got our chord progression, but it’s still not enough. A massive part of the R&B sound is having the right feel & playing style for the genre. You can play these scales and chords as much as you like, but if you don’t get the stylistic features down, then you won’t have a completely authentic R&B sound. Luckily, we’ve got three stylistic features of R&B, which should help you get the right feel for the sound.

1. Use Closed Voicings

This is one about the way you arrange the notes in your chords. When you voice your chords there are two approaches you can take.

  • One is open voicing, where the chord tones are more spread out.
  • The other is closed voicing, where the chord tones are more packed together giving you a denser sound.

The latter is more commonly used in R&B, so if you have an extended chord with a lot of notes, don’t worry if those notes are tightly packed together, as this will help you achieve a thick, warm sound (which is great for RnB).

open vs closed voicing RnB

2. Add Some Swing 

Adding some swing is another great technique (again from jazz) that can make your R&B tracks sound more authentic. 

Usually, we play straight rhythms meaning our 8th notes, for example, are all equal in length and are counted as ‘1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and’. When swing added, every second 8th note is slightly delayed, which gives it a triplet feel.

This is quite hard to explain in words, so we’ve put audio examples down below to compare the difference between the two.

Drum beat without swing
Drum beat with swing

3. Keep It Laid-Back

One thing for sure about R&B music is that it’s not rigid. Instead, it has a more laid-back and chill vibe to it and we need to make sure we achieve that in the way we produce our tracks.

A simple way to get a laid-back feel, is to make sure that not everything is snapped precisely to the grid within your DAW. If your track sounds too rigid and quantised, try dragging parts slightly to the right or left of the beat.

In Ableton, you can highlight notes in your MIDI track or on your audio channel and hold “alt” using the “arrow” keys to slightly offset where the notes strike. This allows you to inject swing into your beats and give it a much more laid-back vibe.

Listen again to the drum beat with swing audio above and hear how some of the drum hits are slightly behind the beat, giving it a laid-back feel.

What Are The Most Common R&B Chord Progressions?

To end things off, here’s a list of common R&B chord progressions you can use. Have a look through them, try them out in various keys, and apply some of the techniques we’ve covered to spice them up. 

Maybe you’ll create your next R&B banger from one of them.

Here’s the complete list of common R&B chord progressions:

  • Fmaj7 – Cmaj7
  • Fmaj7 – Am7
  • Dm7 – G7 – Cmaj7
  • Fmaj7 – Am7 – G7
  • Dm7 – Am7 – Bbmaj7 – Gm7
  • Dbmaj7 – Cm7 – Cm7 – F
  • Cmaj7 – Am7 – Fmaj7 – G7
  • Am9 – Dm9
  • Gm7 – A7#5) – Dm7 – G
  • Fm9 – Cm9
  • Gm – Eb – Cm7 – D
  • Bm7 – Gmaj7 – F#aug7
  • Em9 – Cmaj9 – Am9 – B7#9
  • Fmaj7 – Em11 – Am9 – Am/F#
  • F#maj11/13 – Bm9 – C#m7
  • Cmaj7 – A7 – Dm7 – G7
  • Cm7 – Fm7 – Bbmaj7 – Ebmaj7 – Abmaj7 – Dm7 – Bdim7
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