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By day I'm a propeller-head geek. I design software for electronic components for a major automotive supplier. When I'm not earning a paycheck, I enjoy playing music -- primarily jazz and classical but I dabble in other genres as well. I also compose, arrange, and play with electronic gadgets and toys. My other hobbies include photography, colored pencil drawing, genealogy, model railroading, and crosswords.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The Whole-Tone Scale and Augmented Chords

In my study of jazz improvisation pedagogy, I've noticed a relative scarcity of instruction related to the whole-tone scale and the augmented chord that derives from it. There is quite a bit of information on the lydian-augmented scale, which is the 3rd mode of the ascending melodic minor scale, but even here there is a lack instruction on how to apply the scale in context. It seems to me that most of the literature focusing on scales does not go far enough in explaining the application of such scales in the context of the entire structure of real songs. In other words, it's easy enough to see that particular notes of a scale (i.e. the intervalic distances from the tonic) correspond with a particular chord (especially its altered extensions) but what are the possible functions of a scale or chord related to the surrounding changes in a song?

The augmented scale has intrigued me since I first learned about it in junior high school. I was taking saxophone lessons from a guy that got me interested in jazz improvisation. I had learned to write and play all of the major and minor scales (both melodic and harmonic) from memory and I wondered what other scales existed that I might have to memorize, hoping there were none. That's when my instructor embarked on several lessons in scale and chord construction and the limitless possibilities of sound using only the 12 tones of our Western chromatic scale. The first thing he showed me was that scales could have fewer or more tones than 7 (the number of tones in the majors and minors) and proceded to write out the formula for constructing a whole-tone scale : 1-1-1-1-1-1 (he always wrote scale formulas in terms of the intervals between successive notes, so a major scale would be written 1-1-1/2- 1-1-1-1/2). When he asked me to play a whole-tone scale starting on C, I was blown away by how accustomed I had become to diatonicity. My fingers had a hard time finding F# and G#. The B-flat (as I thought of it, instead of A#) was not as foriegn because I was used to playing the mixolydian modes, with their flatted sevenths. What really intrigued me about the whole-tone scale was that there are really only two of them (and only 4 augmented chords).

I've been trying to figure out how to use the whole-tone scale and the augmented chord in my improvisation ever since my first revelation. One of the first things I discovered is that the augmented 5th naturally resolves upward to become the major 3rd of the next chord. So a C+ chord naturally moves to F major. In other words, an augmented chord functions like V7 leanding to I. This is useful for the end of a song that ends on the V because V+ will naturally lead to Imaj, and this is can be heard almost as a signature in many older R&B and do-wap songs. It's fun to put a V+7 at the end of a blues progression. The disonance of the whole-tone scale can be suspended for a greater length of time in this situation because the tension is usually the greatest here and the listener expects a resolution on the downbeat of the next chorus. A III-VI-II-V-I turnaround offers an opportunity for whole-tone utilization because the III, VI, and II are really just substitutes for the V and the whole sequence functions as single dominant leading to the tonic. Playing a line on the whole-tone scale I+ just before the change to IV can add a sense of playing "outside" or ""sideslipping" but this opportunity comes and goes quickly as the tension and resolution of a I-IV near the beginning of the chorus does not have the urgency of a V-I progression. I've been trying to think of a way to keep the dissonant energy of a whole-tone line going from the final V of a blues chorus, through the I at the start of a new chorus, all the way to the IV in the 5th bar but I've not been successful in pulling this off (yet).

I've had quite a bit of success playing whole-tone patterns in modal playing, especially "one-chord" tunes where playing outside is almost a requirement to break the monotony. In a recent extended solo on Chain of Fools (known euphemistically by our band as Chain of Chord, or sometimes just Chord), which is in C minor, I managed to build the tension up through the use of chromaticism and a neopolitan minor scale to 8 bars of whole tone figures on E-flat. This had the effect of adding a flatted 9th to an ascending C melodic minor while omitting the root. A few obtuse counter-figures from the rhythm section really polished off the effect.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yo. I am looking into this. My comment is that the whole tone scale and the augmented triad are a good split before a major 7th chord or dom7 if it splits the target chord root. In other words, just like a neopolitan "aug 6th" resolves to what is actually the pitch (octave reduced) between a maj 2nd ( an inverted minor 7th ... geeks), I thought I would just use the whole tone to split any future target tone. It is really just playing outside, but with the consistent element of having some #of consecutive whole tones surround a predicted, by the listener, resolution tone. There are only two whole tone scales. E.g. in the key of C, the notes F# & G# are examples of notes falling outside of the chords diatonic to C, including C maj 7, but are in C whole tone. On the other hand, a clearer indication to your listener that harmony is moving, drifting, just passing through, is to use the G7 based whole tone that has F G A B C#, etc. Now I realize this is opposite of playing diminished scales off the flat 9 of the G7. But basically I agree that the 2 entire whole tone scales can work, 1 as the V7, the other as its complement and target, ala the G based one is V7 or IV7 (in relation to these roots each has a b7 too) and the C based one is equivelent to I7 in blues. Now, when I resolve to major 7 or dom 7, the more clear choice sounds to me to be to precede that target chord with the non-root-related whole tone scale. Your ear may be different but in my mind the other way is almost intriguing too, but more unclear to an audience possibly.