The Altered Scale In Jazz: How To Get That Altered Sound In Your Jazz Solos

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If you want to improve your jazz soloing and incorporate the altered sound into your playing, you’ll need to learn how to use the altered scale! The altered scale works well over certain dominant chords, but it doesn’t work over others.

Do you know why?

Understanding the music theory behind why the altered scale works will help you become a stronger, more knowledgeable musician. But, more importantly, you’ll learn when not to use it over certain chords. There are other scales you can use to get certain sounds.

In this article, we’ll analyze the altered scale and other altered-sounding scales you can use over an altered dominant chord. By the end of this article, you’ll better grasp altered harmony and know some tricks to bring out the altered sound in your jazz improvisation!

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When The Mixolydian Scale Isn’t Enough

When first learning to improvise, jazz students connect diatonic chords with the appropriate scales that fit overtop. This is technically correct (but otherwise very vanilla) improvisation. Let’s explore that process before getting more advanced.

C Major Scale:

For example, the major scale has seven notes in it. You can build seven diatonic chords from these seven notes, each with its own corresponding scale (or mode).

C Major

You can build diatonic triads or diatonic seventh chords by taking the major scale and stacking thirds on each note in the scale. When you do this for C, you’ll get a Cmaj7 chord:

  • C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C
  • 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-1

C Major Chord Scale With Diatonic Chords and Corresponding Modes:

Diatonic Seventh Chords In The Key of C

When beginner jazz students encounter chords in a chord progression, they’ll relate the chords in any given key with the modes of the major scale that represent those particular chords.

Screenshot 2023 12 01 at 11.29.22 AM

For example, when practicing over a I-vi-ii-V chord progression, a jazz player can take the corresponding modes of each chord and plug them in where appropriate.

I-vi-ii-V chord progression with corresponding diatonic modes

This is all technically correct. However, these modes don’t contain many of the altered sounds and rich harmonies that make jazz improvisation unique. This is especially true for dominant chords, where seasoned jazz players can impose various altered harmonies over the dominant sound.

In such cases, the Mixolydian or Dominant Bebop scale isn’t enough to hit the altered tones commonly found in jazz. In most jazz tunes, the composer specifically implied certain altered tones that an improviser needs to be familiar with.

You won’t be able to create these altered sounds using the modes of the major scale. You’ll need some new improvisational material to hit these altered chord tones.

For a complete refresher on the major scale modes, check out our article on the seven major scale modes.

Introducing the Altered Scale (A.K.A. the Super-Locrian Scale, Altered Dominant Scale, or Diminished Whole Tone Scale)

When improvising over altered dominant chords, jazz musicians often use scale fragments from the altered scale to create tension in their lines and hit altered chord extensions.

The altered scale is also known as the super-Locrian, altered dominant scale, or diminished whole-tone scale. This scale is one of the modes of the melodic minor scale—the 7th mode, to be exact!

The altered scale (or the super-Locrian mode) is built off of the seventh scale degree of the melodic minor scale in the same way the Locrian mode is built off the seventh scale degree of the major scale.

C Melodic Minor Scale Harmonized in 7th Chords:

C Melodic Minor Scale Harmonized in 7th Chords with Chord Symbols and Roman Numerals

The 7th mode of the C melodic minor scale is the B super-Locrean mode or the B altered scale.

B Super-Locrian or Altered Scale showing notation, steps, and essential chord tones

We can break down the altered scale formula in a few ways to better understand altered scales.

Altered Scale Steps (W = Whole Step; H = Half Step):

  • H – W – H – W – W – W – W

Altered Scale Tones in Relation to the Root:

  • 1, b9, #9, 3, #11, b13, b7, 1

This means we can play the altered scale over any dominant chord with a b9, #9, #11 (b5), or #5 (b13). In a performance situation, it is probably more beneficial to think of altered scales as their own separate scales rather than doing the mental math of grabbing the 7th mode of a different parent scale.

C7alt chord showing all the altered extensions:

Altered Scale: C7alt chord symbol showing all the altered extensions: b9, #9, #11 (b5), and #5 (b13); close root position chord voicing
  • Chord tones: rt, 3rd, 5th, 7th
  • Altered notes: b9, #9, #11 (b5), and #5 (b13)

Now that we know how to build altered scales, let’s explore some altered scales in different keys:

C Altered Scale (Db Melodic Minor):

C Altered Scale with tones and steps

G Altered Scale (Ab Melodic Minor):

G Altered Scale with chord tones and steps

D Altered Scale (Eb Melodic Minor):

D Altered Scale with chord tones and steps

Try playing the altered scale in other keys!

For more about the melodic minor scale modes like the Lydian dominant scale or Mixolydian flat 6 scale, check out our post on how to use the melodic minor scale modes in your improvisation.

Other Jazz Scales That Have An Altered Sound

The altered scale hits the b9, #9, #11, and b13, but not every dominant chord will need these alterations. In cases where the chord symbols are very specific, you must also be very specific in your chosen notes.

Let’s look at the diminished scale and the whole tone scale and discuss when each is a better choice over the altered scale.

The Half-Whole Diminished Scale

Altered scales won’t cut it over certain dominant chords. When circumstances are just right, you’ll want to use the diminished scale instead.

The diminished scale is unique in a few ways:

  • 1. The diminished scale is symmetrical.
  • 2. The diminished scale has eight notes (octatonic).
  • 3. The diminished scale only has two modes.

You can think of diminished scales as being made of two diminished chords stacked on top of one another a half step apart. Below, you’ll see a C diminished chord and a Db diminished chord. When we notate these two diminished chords as a scale, we get the diminished scale.

Breaking up the half-whole diminished scale into two diminished chords.

The step formula for a diminished scale is either:

  • H-W-H-W-H-W-H-W, or
  • W-H-W-H-W-H-W-H

Because of this symmetry, there are only two modes—one which starts on the half step and the other which starts on a whole step:

  1. The half-whole diminished scale (best over a dominant seventh chord)
  2. The whole-half diminished scale (best over a diminished chord)

The half-whole diminished scale works best when playing over dominant chords because it contains a minor 7th interval and several altered notes from an altered dominant 7th chord.

C7alt(♮13) chord showing altered extensions and essential tones:

  • Chord tones: rt, 3rd, 5th, b7th
  • Extensions: 13
  • Altered Extensions: b9th, #9th, #11th (b5)
C7alt(♮13) chord symbol showing labeled chord extensions; close root position chord voicing

The Only Difference Between the Altered Scale and the Diminished Scale

You can use the altered scale and the half-whole diminished scale over a dominant 7th chord to bring out those altered extensions when you play jazz. However, there is one notable difference you need to be aware of!

  • Altered scales have a b13 (b6) interval in them.
  • The half-whole diminished scale has a natural 13 (natural 6) in it.

Though the distinction seems subtle, sonically, the difference is great. A dominant seventh chord with a b13 or #5 sounds completely different from dominant chords with a natural 13th. In jazz theory, a V7 chord with a b13 or #5 alteration usually resolves to a minor chord (though not always).

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The Whole Tone Scale

You can use the scale when the altered or diminished scales just won’t cut it. Whole-tone scales are similar to diminished scales in that they are symmetrical. However, instead of alternating half steps and whole steps, the whole tone scale is only made of whole steps.

This feature gives the scale a “dream-like” quality. It’s often used in cinema when a character is having a flashback. Only six notes are within the octave, making it a hexatonic scale.

Here is a breakdown of the characteristics:

  • 1. Whole tone scales are symmetrical.
  • 2. Whole tone scales are made of whole steps.
  • 3. They only have six notes.
Whole Tone with chord tone breakdown.

The scale formula is easy to remember as it’s all whole steps! W-W-W-W-W-W

This scale is useful for any dominant chord voicing with a #11 (b5) or a #5 (b13). Note, this scale doesn’t hit the b9 or the #9! It has a natural 9 in it. This scale won’t work well over chords with b9s or #9s.

You won’t want to use it over standard altered dominant 7th chords or chords that specify a b9 or #9.

For more on jazz scales, check out our article on the 16 most important jazz scales you need to know.

How To Use Altered Notes in Jazz Improvisation

Before digging into this section, we need a little disclaimer:

Scales help you construct melodies, but scales are not melodies in and of themselves! Therefore, when improvising, you aren’t improvising scales; you are improvising melodies!

With that out of the way, let’s do a brief recap on the two scales we’ve discussed

Altered Scale Recap

C Altered Scale with altered scale step formula
  • The altered scale is the seventh mode of the melodic minor scale. If you play the G altered scale, you are playing Ab melodic minor.
  • You can play the altered scale over any dominant chord that has any four altered extensions: b9, #9, #11 (b5), or b13(#5).

Diminished Scale Recap

C half-whole diminished
  • Diminished scales are symmetrical, eight-note scales made from two fully diminished chords spaced a half step apart.
  • There are two types of diminished scales: the half-whole diminished and the whole half-diminished
  • The half-whole diminished is great for playing over dominant chords with altered extensions. The whole-half diminished only works over diminished chords.

Check out this article for more on the diminished scale.

Whole Tone Recap

Whole Tone Notated with chord tone and steps.

These scales are symmetrical, six-note scales that are made of whole steps.

Only use these scales on chords that specify a #11 (b5) or #5 (b13). Due to the natural 9, this scale will clash with alt. chords or chords that specify b9s or #9s.

Different Altered Chords You’ll Encounter (When to Use Altered Scales or Something Else)

C13(b9) is the preferred nomenclature for a chord that uses harmony from the half-whole diminished scale. It has a natural 13th (or natural 6th).

C13(b9) chord contains notes from half-whole diminished

C7alt or C7(#9,b13) is the preferred nomenclature for an altered chord that uses melodic minor harmony or the altered scale.

C7alt chord contains notes from the altered scale

You may see other more descriptive nomenclature, but the more specific you get, the harder it is to read them on the fly! Use C13(b9), C7alt, and C7(#9,b13) if you are notating chords.

So why even bother writing C13(b9,#9,#11) if no one wants to read that? Doing so tells you what notes are in the chord and in the scale! C13(b9) is the shorthand version.

Remember, the altered scale and diminished are made of almost the same notes! The big difference is the 13th! In the altered scale, the 13th is flat. In the half-whole diminished, the 13th is natural.

C7#11 Chord Showing One Altered Note

The whole tone sound only works over chords that specify a #11 or #5 with a natural 9. When you see a natural 9, the diminished and altered scale won’t work!

Licks You Can Play Using The Diminished and Altered Scale  

Let’s look at some licks you can incorporate into your playing:

Half-Whole Diminished Resolving To A Major Tonic Chord (ii-V-I):

Major ii-V-I Lick that incorporates the diminished sound

Altered Scale Resolving To A Minor(Maj7) Tonic Chord (ii-V-i):

Minor ii-V-i lick that incorporates the altered scale over the dominant chord

Whole Tone Resolving to a Major Tonic Chord (ii-V-I):

Major ii-V-I lick using whole tone sound over dominant chord

Be sure to take these licks into different keys!

Check out other licks that use the altered scale and the half-whole diminished scale. Also, here’s a PDF of this lesson’s diminished and altered scale and chords: Altered vs. Diminished Scales.

A Final Word On How To See The Altered Scale

The altered scale is like a hybrid scale combining aspects of diminished and whole-tone sounds. The first half of the altered scale is diminished, while the last half pulls from the whole tone scale.

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  2. Exceptions. Notwithstanding subsection (a) above, nothing in these Messaging Terms will be deemed to waive, preclude, or otherwise limit the right of you or Learn Jazz Standards to: (i) bring an individual action in small claims court; (ii) pursue an enforcement action through the applicable federal, state, or local agency if that action is available; (iii) seek injunctive relief in aid of arbitration from a court of competent jurisdiction; or (iv) file suit in a court of law to address an intellectual property infringement claim.
  3. Arbitrator. Any arbitration between you and Learn Jazz Standards will be governed by the JAMS, under the Optional Expedited Arbitration Procedures then in effect for JAMS, except as provided herein. JAMS may be contacted at www.jamsadr.com. The arbitrator has exclusive authority to resolve any dispute relating to the interpretation, applicability, or enforceability of this binding arbitration agreement.
  4. No Class Actions. YOU AND Learn Jazz Standards AGREE THAT EACH MAY BRING CLAIMS AGAINST THE OTHER ONLY IN AN INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY AND NOT AS A PLAINTIFF OR CLASS MEMBER IN ANY PURPORTED CLASS OR REPRESENTATIVE PROCEEDING. Further, unless both you and Learn Jazz Standards agree otherwise in a signed writing, the arbitrator may not consolidate more than one person’s claims, and may not otherwise preside over any form of a representative or class proceeding. You agree that, by agreeing to these Messaging Terms, you and Learn Jazz Standards are each waiving the right to a trial by jury or to participate in a class action, collective action, private attorney general action, or other representative proceeding of any kind.
  5. No Class Actions. YOU AND Learn Jazz Standards AGREE THAT EACH MAY BRING CLAIMS AGAINST THE OTHER ONLY IN AN INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY AND NOT AS A PLAINTIFF OR CLASS MEMBER IN ANY PURPORTED CLASS OR REPRESENTATIVE PROCEEDING. Further, unless both you and Learn Jazz Standards agree otherwise in a signed writing, the arbitrator may not consolidate more than one person’s claims, and may not otherwise preside over any form of a representative or class proceeding.
  6. Modifications to this Arbitration Provision. Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in these Messaging Terms, if Learn Jazz Standards makes any future change to this arbitration provision, you may reject the change by sending us written notice within 30 days of the change to Learn Jazz Standards’s contact information provided in the “Contact Us” section below, in which case this arbitration provision, as in effect immediately prior to the changes you rejected, will continue to govern any disputes between you and Learn Jazz Standards.
  7. Enforceability. If any provision of these Messaging Terms is found to be unenforceable, the applicable provision shall be deemed stricken and the remainder of these Messaging Terms shall remain in full force and effect.

Changes to the Messaging Terms

We reserve the right to change these Messaging Terms or cancel the messaging program at any time. By using and accepting messages from Learn Jazz Standards after we make changes to the Messaging Terms, you are accepting the Messaging Terms with those changes. Please check these Messaging Terms regularly.

Entire Agreement/Severability

These Messaging Terms, together with any amendments and any additional agreements you may enter into with us in connection herewith, will constitute the entire agreement between you and Learn Jazz Standards concerning the Messaging Program.

Contact

Please contact us with any inquiries or concerns at [email protected]

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Get our FREE "The Altered Scale In Jazz: How To Get That Altered Sound In Your Jazz Solos" chord chart and our entire library of 200+ jazz standards!

Chord Chart

DOWNLOAD THIS CHORD CHART

Get our FREE "The Altered Scale In Jazz: How To Get That Altered Sound In Your Jazz Solos" chord chart and our entire library of 200+ jazz standards!

Chord Chart

DOWNLOAD THIS CHORD CHART

Get our FREE "The Altered Scale In Jazz: How To Get That Altered Sound In Your Jazz Solos" chord chart and our entire library of 200+ jazz standards!

Chord Chart