Thinking in Minor: Alterations

In the previous lesson I talked about using melodic minor arpeggios to change the sound of an underlying chord structure. This lesson will take that concept a step further and focus on identifying functioning and static dominant seventh chords and how to apply the melodic minor scale in various ways to control multiple degrees of tension. This will also lend itself to an easy way to control the “inside” or “outside” feel of your solo and move between certain chord changes.

The first thing we must do is define the difference between a static and a functional dominant seventh chord. A static dominant seventh is one that does not resolve. Static dominant sevenths are popular in long grooves or used for vamping a supporting chord structure over a period of time. Static dominant seventh chords are normally thought of as being in a major key. For example a D7 chord is normally thought of in the key of G major. In this context the D7 could be extended by adding the 9th 11th or 13th, but it would not sound as good altered.

An example of a static dominant seventh chord would be the following:

E7 | E7 | E7 | A7 | A7 | A7 |

The E7 and A7 do not resolve to another chord and do not provide functioning harmonic tension.

So that’s a static dominant seventh, what about a functioning dominant seventh? As you may have guessed functioning dominant sevenths resolve to other chords. Resolutions normally occur to the either the 5th below (or 4th above) or to a half-step below. Therefore a functioning D7 would resolve to either Gmaj7 or to C#maj7. Additionally you can alter a dominant seventh chord with flat and sharp 5’s and 9’s as well as add extensions. We are going to explore using the functioning dominant sevenths with alterations to control different degrees of tension.

An example of a functioning dominant seventh chord would be:

D-7 | G7 | Cmaj7 |

In this example the G7 provides a degree of harmonic tension following the D-7 which is released by the resolution to Cmaj7.

There are many ways to alter a functioning dominant seventh chord, here is a list of the possible functioning altered dominant seventh tones:

1, 3, 5, b7, b9, 9, #9, 11, b5, #5, 13

There are 11 in total, each with a unique sound and a unique amount of tension. Our melodic minor scales will apply the altered notes to the functioning dominant seventh chords to created altered tension.

Here’s an example of altered tension:

D-7 | G7alt(#5,b9,#9) | Cmaj7 |

The resolution is a little stronger in this example because the altered tension is more intense than the regular ii-V-I tension.

From the 11 tone altered scale (including all the possible alterations) we can extract 4 melodic minor scales to play over the dominant seven. Our main criteria is that the melodic minor scales do not include the major seventh tone of the functioning dominant seventh chord we are going to use for superimposing. We’ll use the same dominant seventh chord from the previous lesson and extract the possible melodic minor scales for the alterations of D7.

Thinking in Minor: Alterations - figure 1

Figure 1: Melodic minor scales with corresponding altered chord tones

You can see the different degrees of alteration by the number of altered tones used in the melodic minor scale.

Superimposing these melodic minor scales over the D7 chord will create various degrees of alteration, sounding more “outside” with more altered tones (so the A melodic minor scale will sound more “inside” and the Eb melodic minor will sound “outside” since they contain 1 and 4 altered tones respectively).

I find it’s easier to remember these scales in relationship to the dominant seventh chord rather than thinking of them as extractions from altered tones. For soloing if I want an altered but “inside” sound with a functioning dominant seventh (such as a ii-V-I) I think “melodic minor, up a 5th” or “melodic minor, up a 4th.” Either of these will give me the more “inside” sound in the spectrum of superimposed alterations. If the chord changes are:

E-7 | A7 | Dmaj7 |

I would be using the D melodic minor scale over the A7 (“up a fourth”) or the E melodic minor scale (“up a fifth”). Do you see what’s great about both of these? The D melodic minor lends itself nicely to resolving in the Dmaj7 by making a minor adjustment to my scale pattern, sharping the 3. Moving from the E-7 to the A7 with a root-center E Dorian scale only requires me to sharp the 7 to create the melodic minor scale. I only have to make a single half-step adjustments without changing my root position to flow between either pair of chords depending on where I start… Awesome!

For more “outside” playing you think either “up a half-step” or “down a whole-step.” Playing “down a whole-step” also provides more tension than the “up a forth” or “up a fifth” scales but not has much as “up a half-step.” It only contains two altered tones (the b9 and #9) for a given functioning dominant seventh chord but has a strong resolution to either a major or minor chord.

Going “up a half-step” over D7 would be the Eb melodic minor scale. This has 4 altered tones in it and provides a strong “outside” sound with a high degree of altered tension. That being said, this is probably one of the most frequently used techniques by jazz and fusion players to create an altered sound over a functioning dominant seventh. In fact using the melodic minor scale “up a half-step” from the root is often referred to as the “altered-scale” if you rearrange it so the root is the same as the dominant seventh. Do you think it’s easier to remember yet another scale form or just remember “melodic minor, up a half-step” ? I prefer the latter (it’s faster and more consistent to think this way for me).

You’ll find that thinking in terms of relative location and using the melodic minor scales will really open up your ability to control the tension in a phrase and let you move “inside” and “outside” freely. For example you could play a lick over a dominant seventh chord “down a whole-step” to start moving outside, work into “up a half-step” to really go out and then bring it back in by playing “up a forth” and move into your resolution. The same licks will work in all the different positions, but each one will provide a different degree of tension! Now you’re thinking in minor!

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  1. markperic

    Thanks for the lesson evan. I'm currently working on altered dominants and their application to 2-5-1 changes in major and minor keys. Do you think you could do a short article on the 2-5-1 with reference to the melodic minor scale application and also rhythm changes?
    Thanks heaps

  2. Mark, I'm glad you liked the lesson! I'm just finishing another one specifically tailored to your request for 2-5-1 changes and how to use altered chords with them. I'll have to make a separate lesson for rhythm changes – that's a big topic :)

  3. Mark, glad you liked the lesson! I'm just finishing one on 2-5-1's and altered harmonies with melodic minor applications as you requested. There will have to be a separate lesson for rhythm changes – that's a big topic by itself :)

  4. markperic

    Hi Evan, thanks for the reply. Can't wait to read the article!

  5. Hey Mark, the lesson went up ;) let me know what you think! Your name is in the title

  6. My mistake, the lesson is “Melodic 2-5-1 Mutation”

  7. Hey Mark, the lesson went up ;) let me know what you think! Your name is in the title

  8. My mistake, the lesson is “Melodic 2-5-1 Mutation”

  9. Arno

    Many thanks! I find this a rare example of complex material explained very well. (Only thing that eludes me is the reason for your criterium: why not include the Maj7 of the functioning dominant?).