Undiminished Importance

October 9, 2013

By Dr. Steven Snyder

The diminished scale is a great choice for creating colorful melodies and lines on dominant seventh chords. It provides many opportunities for linear and arpeggiated use, and includes color tones that are central to the jazz improviser’s vocabulary.

There are at least five names that are used to identify this scale. It is most commonly referred to as the diminished scale, although this name does not specify exactly what interval content is referred to. Sometimes this scale is called the “whole half scale,” or the “half whole scale.” This name is derived from the alternating whole step and half step intervals in the scale. While this name offers some more specific information about how the notes in the scale are ordered, it still does not allow someone to positively identify which notes are in the scale. This is because starting with the whole step at the top of the scale and descending results in a different set of notes than starting with a whole step at the bottom of the scale and ascending. A similar problem results when referring to the scale as a half whole scale. Probably the least used name among jazz musicians is the one that I feel offers the most specific way of identifying which collection of notes are being referred to, and involves numbering pitches. C is 0. C# is 1. D is 2. D# is 3. The scales are then named by which two pitches a half step apart are appearing in the scale. [0, 1] is an octatonic scale that contains the pitches C and C# regardless of where the scale begins and ends, or to what scale the chord is being applied.

Example 1

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By using this integer notation method we can order the scales and chords into three scales that are each associated with four dominant chords. The pitch C is numbered 0, C# is 1, D is 2 and EH is 3. Each scale is identified by an interval of a half step using these four numbers. Octatonic scales are then classified as [0,1] (the group of scales which contains the notes C and C#), [1,2] (the group of scales which contains the notes C# and D), or [2,3] (the group of scales which contains the notes D and EH). [0, 1] will match the dominant chords C7, EH, F#7 and A7. [1, 2] will match the dominant chords C#7, E7, G7, BH7. [2, 3] will match the dominant chords D7, F7, AH7, B7.

The application of this scale to a dominant chord is one of the most typical choices a jazz improviser makes. The scale is consonant with a dominant sonority that features a H9, #11 and natural 13th as color tones. The scale must contain the H9 and root of the dominant chord in question to be a match. Thus, we can construct the scale staring with a half step from the root to the H9 and then alternating whole and half steps from there until the root is reached again at the top of the scale. Thinking about the scale in a descending format would mean starting at the root of the dominant seventh chord and beginning a descent down with a whole step first and then alternating half steps and whole steps until the root is reached at the bottom of the bottom scale. Another convenient way to think of the scale is that it is comprised of the first four notes of two descending mixolydian modes whose root notes are a tri-tone away from each other.

Example 2.

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Because each scale is consistent with four chords of the same quality, we can then think of the chords themselves as simply groups of notes that are extracted from the scale, and are applicable to any of the other chords in the group for which a diminished scale is consonant.

Example 3.

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Example 4.

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Here are a few examples of musicians using the octatonic scale during an improvisation. In the first two examples the soloist is using [0,1] over an A7 harmony. Both of these feature [0,1] in a scalar format.

Example 5.

Michael Brecker (Stunt – Rielatin’) “Bessie’s Blues” bar 80.

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Example 6.

Clifford Brown (EmArcy – Jam Session, Los Angeles, August 14, 1954) “It Might As Well Be Spring” bar 28.

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In example 7, the soloist is using [0,1] over a C7 harmony. In this case the scale has been divided into arpeggios of an A triad and a Gb triad in addition to a few small linear segments.

Example 7.

Eric Alexander (High Note Records – Alexander The Great) “Soft Winds” bar 40.

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Example 8.

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Example 9 is another way to practice grouping these chords together. This pattern borrows an idea from the bebop scale by inserting a half step between the root and dominant seventh of a chord.

 

Example 9.

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Practice tips for use with a ii-V-I

Start by grouping the four keys together that use the same octatonic scale for the V chords. C major (G7H9, #11, 13 ), EH major (BH7H9, #11, 13), F# major (C#7H9, #11, 13 ), and A major (E7H9, #11, 13 ) will all use the [0,1] octatonic scale for the dominant seventh chord. C#, E, G, and BH major will use the [2, 3]. D, F, AH, B major will use the [1,2]. This grouping begins to reveal a way to overcome some of the challenges of thinking in strictly vertical terms. The major scale (in its dorian mode form) is used over the ii, followed by the octatonic in use for the key’s V7, and then return to the major scale for the I chord. In four keys the octatonic scale will remain the same and the major scale for that key will be used to match the ii and I chords respectively. Practice running eighth notes, triplets or sixteenth notes consistently through all three harmonies while changing from the major scale to the octatonic and then back to the major scale.

It is also possible to apply all four of the dominant chords associated with an octatonic scale to a single V chord in a key (see example 7 above). Practice using arpeggios of BH7, DH7, E7 as well as G7 on the V chord of a ii-V-I in C. Then move to the key of EH and practice using DH7, E7, G7 as well as BH7 on the V chord of an ii-V-I in EH. Continue this until all of the V chords associated with an octatonic scale have been used in each of the four keys for that grouping. Then move on to the next octatonic scale and continue this practice pattern. Working this way will help to create a strong mental link between the three octatonic scales and all of the dominant chords to which they apply. Strive to seamlessly move through all three harmonies of the ii-V-I while maintaining a flow of eighth notes, triplets or sixteenths.

In the next examples, the line features an arpeggiation of one of the dominant seventh chords in the same octatonic grouping as the V chord in the progression. The remaining notes in the V chord measure are from the octatonic scale, leading to a resolution note on the I chord.

The following link provides another explanation prepared by Dr. Aleck Brinkman of the octatonic scale and the numbering system discussed in this article.

http://theory.music.temple.edu/~aleck/Courses/theory.IV/Notes/Octatonic.Notes.pdf

For further reading:

  1. Walt Weiskopf, Understanding The Diminished Scale: A Guide For The Modern Player (New Albany: Jamey Aebersold Jazz, 2012).
  2. Eric Alexander, Improvising with the Diminished Scale (New York: Skeef Music, 2012), accessed July 24, 2013, www.ericalexanderjazz.com/study_with_eric/eBook_detail/

Dr. Steven Snyder is professor of Jazz Studies at Morehead State University in Morehead, KY. He holds Bachelors and Masters Degrees in Jazz Piano Performance from the University of North Texas, and a DMA in Piano Performance (Jazz Emphasis) from the University of Texas at Austin. His work as an organist and pianist is documented on 16 recordings found on independent releases over the past 20 years.

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