6. The topping

6. The topping


The topping is what fits well with the base.

The (harmonic) base is the chord tones. What fits well with the chord tones?

In essence, the topping in your melody is any note that isn’t a chord tone that sounds well with the chord tones. What’s sounding well? In essence that’s being harmonious. Not causing a harmonic conflict; which can be easily heard and even felt by most people – it will sound ‘wrong’.

This is the most accurate description of topping. And it needs no theoretical knowledge. The topping can be heard and felt.

A chord has a certain sound, using a topping in your melody will add color but not sound ‘wrong’. Base will not add color.


You’ll be getting more music theory from now on. Relax. Read through it. Don’t struggle with it. In the final chapter you’ll discover how easy it can be when the developer of this method demonstrates the principles. You can always return to the music theory to study it more later 🙂

The theory presented on this page is for people who also play an instrument and/or really like to know the ‘mathematics’ behind this concept. If you’re not one of them, you could still be able to do it just by ear combined with some good old ‘musicality’ 🙂

Wanna know what notes can be used as topping? I don’t blame you.

It’ll save you a lot of searching ? Luckily, it’s quite easy. When you understand chord symbols.

Topping is triad + 1 (a whole tone up)

  1. unless it’s already a chord tone or a semitone above a chord tone: in any octave*
  2. #4 or #11 only (or at least mostly) on major chords with #5, ∆ or b7
  3. ∆ (maj7) can be used to taste as topping on any chord without a b7 > rule number 1!
  4. b9 has its own topping: b10 (or #9 if you wish)
  5. if you happen to run into a major chord with ∆,#5  – won’t be often – then the topping of #5 isn’t #6 but 6. These super modern chords defy the rules – thank your modern composers for that 🙂

*When ‘c’ is a chord tone then ‘d’ is topping UNLESS

  • ‘d’ is a chord tone as well and/or
  • ‘d flat’ or ‘c sharp’ is a chord tone as well (because ‘d’ is a semitone above ‘d flat’ or ‘c sharp’).


Relax. In practice it’s simple. Most of the time. Like 90%.

In short: chord is Cm (c,e flat,g), topping is Dm (d,f,a) – a whole tone above the triad; the 1,3,5 of a chord in any flavor (major, minor, diminished or augmented).


Some people will prefer something a bit more tangible. They prefer theory. Or more concrete information or more background stories. These ‘toggles’  – more to follow – are for them. Just click the + sign or the ‘title’ to open them.

This ‘toggle’ also contains examples of the above ‘formula’ applied on chord symbols!!!

Don’t be afraid

  • the topping ‘options’ that are already chord tones aren’t wrong – they just don’t add any tension or color


No, no scales here. But a scale that fits a chord is basically chord tones plus topping (and sometimes the occasional spice we’ll encounter in the next chapter).

The topping formula samples

Chord + topping (usable/effective topping is bold)

C (c,e,g) + D (d,f sharp,a) but f sharp is #4/#11 only to be used on chords with ∆ or b7 – a  can be used as topping

C6 (c,e,g,a) + D (d,f sharp,a) but ‘a’ is a chord tone and f sharp is #4/#11 only to be used on chords with ∆ of b7 – – a  can be used as topping (but it’s not in the chord so the #4 rule still applies!)

C7 (c,e,g,b flat) + D (d,f sharp,a)

C∆ (c,e,g,b) + D (d,f sharp,a)

Cm (c,e flat,g) + Dm (d,f,a) –  can be used as topping

Cm6 (c,e flat,g,a) + Dm (d,f,a) but ‘a’ is a chord tone –  can be used as topping

Cm7 (c,e flat,g,b flat) + Dm (d,f,a)

Cm∆ (c,e flat,g,b) + Dm (d,f,a)

Co (c,e flat,g flat) + Do (d,f,a flat) –  can be used as topping

Cm7b5 (c,e flat,g flat,b flat) + Dm7b5 (d,f,as)

These were the dominant and easily ‘calculated’ chords.

Now some other chords that are less frequently used. No use trying to list all chords, there are simply too many combinations possible.

C+ (c,e,g sharp) + D+ (d,f sharp,a sharp) – a ∆ cannot be used as topping as ‘b’ is a semitone above ‘a sharp’

C7b9 (c,e,g,b flat,d flat) + D (d,f sharp,a) but ‘d’ is a semitone above ‘des’ and ‘c’ a chord tone – a b10 can be used as topping

C7#11 (c,e,g,b flat,f sharp) + D (d,f sharp,a) but ‘f sharp’ is a chord tone

C7b13 (c,e,(g),b flat,a flat) + D (d,f sharp,a) but ‘a’ is a semitone above ‘a flat’ (which is also why ‘g’ (5) isn’t used in this b13 chord either)

Cm11 (c,e flat,g,b flat,d,f) + Dm (d,f,a) but ‘d’ and ‘f’ are chord tones

Cm13 (c,es,g,b flat,d,f,a) + Dm (d,f,a) but ‘d,f,a’ are chord tones


C7alt(c,e,b flat,d flat,e flat,f sharp,a flat) + D (d,f sharp,a) but ‘fis’ is in the chord already and ‘d’ and ‘a’ are a semitone above ‘des’ and ‘as’. In altered chords basically everything is changed.

The scale that fits is the major scale of a semitone up, yet with a b3 instead of a 3: which makes it a minor scale; melodic minor!

So Db major with a b3 instead of 3 is Db melodic minor: d flat, e flat, f flat (=e), g flat, a flat, b flat, c > on C7alt.

Chord instruments

If you happen to improvise on a chord instrument and are looking for ways to add color to chords: you can use the same principles.

Use all topping options, or just one or two. It’s your party!

And you can put all chord tones in any order, as long as;

  • no b9 intervals are formed – other than the one between the 1 and the b9 (if the chord has one) itself;
  • the 1 or alternative bass note (slash chords) is used as the lowest note – by you or a bass player.

So that’s the topping. I don’t know about you, but I could really use some spice right now.

But before we’ll do that, let’s listen to what topping sounds like first. It adds color. It’s more distinct/noticeable. You can clearly hear it. It stands out against the background formed by the chord. But it doesn’t create a ‘painful’ harmonic conflict.

Topping has more effect on ‘simple’ chords (with no 9’s, 11’s or 13’s). That’s because these 9’s, 11’s or 13’s are like topping that has been added to the chord. In other words, these chords are already very colorful and it becomes harder to stand out. Luckily, in the next chapter, you’ll get a powerful tool for that.

In the fourth bar, a #4 is used on a basic major triad. It sounds weird/conflicting – in this example, in this context. However, in the next bar, it is used as a topping on a chord with a b7: much better: a proper topping!

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