Basic Training: The Diminished Scale

Dr. Steven Snyder is professor of Jazz studies at Morehead State University

Undiminished Importance

Getting familiar with the diminished scale and dominant chords 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 improvisor'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. C3 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.

C (0)  C# (1)  D (2)  E# (3)

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 amd Eb 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#), or (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 Eb). (0, 1) will match the dominant chords C7, Eb, F#7 and A7. (1, 2) will match the dominant chords C#7, E7, G7, Bb7. (2, 3) will match the dominant chords D7, F7, Ab7, B7.

The application of this scale to a dominant chord is one of the most typical choices a jazz improvisor makes. The scale is consonant with a dominant sonority that features a b9, #11 and natural 13th as color tones. The scale must contain the b9 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 b9 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.

C, Bb, A, G, F, E, D, C / Gb, Fb, Eb, Db, Cb, Bb, Ab, Gb

Top Half of C Mixolydian  / Top Half of Gb Mixolydian

C, Bb, A, G                       / F#, E, Eb, Db

Because each scale is consistent with four chords of the same quality, we can 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.

(0,1) Octatonic
C, Db, Eb, E, G, A, Bb

(1,2) Octatonic
Db, D, E, F, G, Ab, Bb, B

(2,3) Octatonic
D, Eb, F, F#, Ab, A, B, C

The following arrangements of notes was often used by John Coltrane, and is derived from the octatonic scale.

Example 4.

C, Bb, Eb, Db, A, G, C, B / F#, E, A, G, Eb, Db, F, E

There's so much more...

I learned a lot from this article. I have subscribed to Jazzed magazine but if you're interested in reading Dr. Snyder's entire 2013 article, you can view it online, here.

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All the best,

"Jazz washes away the dust of every day life." -- Art Blakey
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