Discover the Power of the Dominant Diminished Scale

A masterclass from the June 2015 issue of KEYBOARD.
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My “Quartal Chords in Motion” article in the June 2014 issue of Keyboard presented an overview of various types of chordal (including quartal) structures that move across the keyboard. Now, we’ll dig deep into voicings and lines created exclusively from scale tone triads. All this digging has unearthed a discovery of sorts, which will be revealed as you play on. As a bonus, this online version of the article contains two extra exercises (Ex. 8 and Ex. 9) that didn’t appear in the June 2015 print issue.

1. Diminished Basics

The diminished scale is an eight-note scale that alternates whole steps and half steps (ascending). The dominant diminished scale in Ex. 1 alternates half-steps and whole-steps (ascending). The dominant diminished scale is actually a mode of the diminished scale. Start the diminished scale from the second degree, and you have a dominant diminished scale. Another way to visualize the diminished scale is that it’s two diminished seventh chords separated by a whole-step. (The dominant diminished scale can be thought of as two diminished seventh chords separated by a half-step.)

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2. Scale Tone Triads

Ex. 2 illustrates how the four main triads in the C dominant diminished scale are built from C, Eb, Gb and A—which are all minor thirds apart. Another point of interest is that both the dominant diminished scale and diminished scales can only be transposed three times before duplicating notes.

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3. The Tritone Scale

Ex. 3 demonstrates how combining the notes of the C major and Gb major scale tone triads from the C dominant diminished scale results in a six-note scale known as the tritone scale. Combining the opposing tritone triads in the C dominant diminished scale (Eb major and A major) creates another tritone scale.

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4. Linear Patterns

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Ex. 4a illustrates a linear pattern derived from the C tritone scale, outlining the two tritone triads.

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Ex. 4b illustrates a linear pattern derived from the C dominant diminished scale using all four scale tone triads.

5. Triad Workout

Ex. 5a shows a C major triad over a Db in the bass. Db is a scale tone, and the flatted ninth in the C dominant diminished scale. This structure can be used as a C7b9 chord voicing. 

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Ex. 5b transposes the C major triad up an octave, and fills the intervallic distance between both hands by doubling two of the notes from the C major triad in the left hand for optimal spacing.

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6. Triads in Motion

Ex. 6a contains the left hand structure from Ex. 5b, while arpeggiating the four major scale tone triads in the right hand, moving both hands up in minor thirds. Note that triads are in the first inversion.

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In Ex. 6b, the four scale tone triads are in the second inversion, with both hands move down in minor thirds.

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7. Triad Substitutions

Ex. 7a reveals our discovery. In place of the left-hand diminished structures, you can play scale tone triads. These are in second inversion, which is the preferred inversion for this application. Also notice the right-hand and left-hand triads are separated by a minor tenth (an octave plus a minor third).

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Ex. 7b is similar to 7a except the distance between the right- and left-hand triads is a tritone up an octave.

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Ex. 7c has the right-hand and left-hand triads separated by a sixth.

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Ex. 7d has triads that start a minor tenth apart and expand in contrary motion minor thirds. You can keep going until you run out of keys!

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8. Triad Variations

In Ex. 8a, we alternate playing the two outer notes of the triad inversion with the inner note. This creates a pivot to the next triad.

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In Ex. 8b we arpeggiate the triads for a melodic application.

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9. Dominant Diminished Concepts in Action

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Ex. 9 uses the chord changes of the venerable jazz standard “I Got Rhythm” (aka “Rhythm Changes”) to plug in the dominant diminished scale tone triad pairs and hear them in a functional context. Most of the chords are changed to dominant seven flat nine for this exercise. Preceding the triads are the roots of the chords of the progression, to help identify the function of the triadic voicings. The exceptions to the dominant diminished triads are the F min7 in bar 5, the Ebmaj7+4 in bar 6, the C min7 in bar15, and the Bbmaj7+4 in bar 16. These are all constructed using scale tone triad pairs from the Dorian (minor 7) and Lydian (major7+4) modes of the major scale.

Practice Tip

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“You can quickly augment your dominant diminished scale applications, as this scale is a mode of limited transposition. Just transpose each example up in half steps two times, and you’ve covered all keys,” says pianist, composer and longtime contributor Andy LaVerne, who has performed with artists like Frank Sinatra, Stan Getz and Chick Corea. His latest projects include the book Chords In Motion, the DVD Chords & Lines In Motion, the CD I Want To Hold Your Hand, and a series of instructional videos online at mymusicmasterclass.com. Andy is Professor of Jazz Piano at SUNY Purchase in New York, and the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut, and on the faculty of the Aebersold Summer Jazz Workshops. Find out more at www.andylaverne.com