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What is the altered scale: a comprehensive guide

altered scale

The altered scale, a term that resonates with intrigue and sophistication in the world of music theory, stands as a cornerstone for jazz and contemporary musicians. At its core, the altered scale is a variation of the traditional major scale, but with a twist – it’s modified to include certain altered notes, which gives it a distinctively rich and complex sound. This scale is not just a set of notes but a gateway to creative expression.

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Historical context and evolution

Tracing its roots back to the early days of jazz, the altered scale has evolved significantly. Originally emerging as a tool for improvisation, it allowed musicians to explore new sonic territories. Over time, this scale has woven its way through various genres, becoming a staple in the repertoire of many accomplished musicians. Its use in jazz, particularly in the hands of legendary artists, has cemented its place in music history.

The anatomy of the altered scale

The altered scale, also known by its more technical names like the “altered dominant scale” or “super Locrian,” is derived from the seventh mode of the melodic minor scale. It’s characterized by its unique combination of altered fifths, ninths, and sometimes the thirteenth. This structure gives it a distinct sound, often described as tense or mysterious, making it a favorite in jazz and fusion music. When we talk about, for instance, the “G altered scale” or the “C altered scale,” we refer to scales where these alterations are applied to the G or C major scales, respectively.

Examples with the C altered scale

To illustrate, let’s consider the C altered scale. In this scale, the notes are C, D♭, E♭, E, G♭, A♭, and B♭. Notice the alterations: the flattened second (D♭), the flattened third (E♭), the augmented fourth (E), the flattened sixth (G♭), and the flattened seventh (A♭). These alterations give the C altered scale its unique color and feel, differentiating it from the standard C major scale.

Variations and their musical implications

Each variation of the altered scale brings its own flavor to a musical piece. Musicians often use these scales to create tension and resolution, especially in jazz improvisation and soloing. The altered notes in the scale interact with the underlying chord progressions in a way that can evoke strong emotional responses from the listener.

The short summary of the video

Here are the key points of the video:

  • Altered scale basics: The altered scale is integral to jazz piano, primarily used over dominant seven chords. It’s unique because it alters every possible note except for the essential notes of the chord, like C, E, and B in a C dominant seven.
  • Simplification technique: Bradley suggests thinking of the altered scale as a D melodic minor scale. This approach simplifies understanding and improvisation, emphasizing the altered notes effectively.
  • Application in progressions: The altered scale shines in 2-5-1 progressions, creating a sophisticated jazz sound. It contrasts starkly with more consonant chords, adding complexity and depth to the music.
  • Chord voicings: For chord voicings, the recommendation is to voice in fourths, starting from the major third of the chord. This method aids in resolving the chord appropriately, adhering to jazz piano conventions.

Understanding the altered scale’s nomenclature

The altered scale is known by various names, each reflecting a different aspect of its musical character. Some musicians refer to it as the “altered dominant scale,” highlighting its common use over dominant 7th chords. Others might call it the “diminished whole tone scale” due to its construction – a blend of a diminished triad and a whole tone scale. The term “super Locrian mode” is also used, emphasizing its relationship to the Locrian mode but with further alterations.

While the altered scale shares similarities with scales like the diminished whole tone and super Locrian, it’s important to understand their distinctions. The diminished whole tone scale, for instance, starts like a diminished scale but then proceeds in whole tones. The super Locrian mode, on the other hand, alters almost every note of the traditional Locrian mode. These subtle differences contribute to each scale’s unique sound and application in music.

Constructing the altered scale: practical tips and techniques

Constructing an altered scale can be an intriguing process. The key is to start with a major scale and then apply specific alterations. For instance, in creating an altered scale, you typically raise or lower certain piano notes by a half step. This process involves altering the 5th, 9th, and sometimes the 13th degrees of the scale. Understanding the “altered scale formula” is crucial here – it’s about knowing which notes to alter to achieve that distinctive sound.

A practical approach to constructing altered scales is to use the melodic minor scale as a starting point. For example, the G altered scale can be derived from the Ab melodic minor scale, starting on its seventh degree. This method provides a structured way to approach the altered scale, ensuring that the alterations align harmonically with the underlying chords.

Harmonic applications: chord progressions and altered scales

Integrating altered scales into chord progressions is a hallmark of advanced musical composition and improvisation, particularly in jazz. These scales are typically used over dominant 7th chords to create tension before resolving to a more stable chord. For instance, in a II-V-I progression, the altered scale can be played over the V chord, adding color and complexity before resolving to the I chord.

what is the altered scale

Analysis of chord symbols associated with altered scales

Understanding chord symbols is crucial when applying altered scales. A chord symbol like G7♯5♯9 suggests using the G altered scale, as it contains both the sharp fifth and sharp ninth alterations. Musicians adept in jazz often read these symbols as cues for employing altered scales, using them to enhance the harmonic richness of their performances.

Creative implementations: using the altered scale

The altered scale finds its most expressive and versatile use in jazz, a genre that thrives on improvisation and harmonic complexity. Jazz musicians often use the altered scale to add tension and color to their solos, particularly over dominant chords. The trick lies in knowing when to introduce the scale for maximum effect, typically in moments where tension can be resolved in the following chord or phrase.

Consider a jazz lick using the C altered scale over a C7 chord. The lick might start with a strong C note, followed by a flurry of altered notes like D♭ and E, before resolving to an F, the root of the next chord in the progression. This not only creates a sense of movement and tension but also showcases the scale’s ability to bridge chords in a progression seamlessly.

Altered scales across different modes

The concept of alteration can be applied to various modes, creating unique sonic landscapes. For instance, an altered Lydian scale might include a raised fifth, adding an unexpected twist to its traditionally bright sound. Similarly, altering the Mixolydian or Dorian scales can infuse them with a new level of harmonic complexity, making them more intriguing for advanced compositions and improvisations.

In a jazz context, altering these modes can provide fresh avenues for improvisation. For example, a guitarist playing over a Dorian mode might introduce altered notes to add tension, especially in a modal jazz piece where traditional harmony is less defined. These alterations can turn a standard modal passage into a captivating and challenging improvisational landscape.

The art of mastering the altered scale

To master the altered scale, consistent practice and exploration are key. Start by integrating the scale into familiar chord progressions, experiment with different variations, and listen to how jazz masters use it in their solos. Remember, the beauty of the altered scale lies in its ability to surprise and captivate, both the player and the listener.

In the landscape of modern music composition, the altered scale continues to be a source of innovation and expression. Its ability to convey complex emotions and musical ideas makes it an indispensable tool for composers and improvisers alike. As you continue your musical journey, embrace the altered scale as a gateway to deeper musical understanding and creativity.

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Author of this blog post:

Edward Bond

Eddie Bond is a multi-instrumentalist performer, composer, and music instructor currently based in Seattle, Washington USA. He has performed extensively in the US, Canada, Argentina, and China, released over 40 albums, and has over a decade experience working with music students of all ages and ability levels.

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