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©2000 James Walker

Experienced jazz improvisers take advantage of the seemingly endless possibilities afforded by the diminished scale.  However, many jazz students are not exposed to these possibilities.  This lesson on the diminished scale is meant to offer different ways to conceive of the scale - ways which may not be obvious at first glance.  (October's lesson will deal with practical applications of the materials discussed here.)

Basic Construction

The diminished scale is constructed intervallically with alternating whole and half steps.  (Note: many jazz musicians also refer to a "half-whole" diminished scale, which begins with a half-step followed by a whole-step, especially when dealing with certain dominant chords; technically, however, the scale begins with a whole step.  And look for more about diminished scales and dominant chords in the next lesson.)

Db diminished scale

The pitches above could also be analyzed as a Db diminished seventh arpeggio, with approach tones a half step below each chord tone.  (Many musicians find this to be a simpler way to conceive of the same material.)

The diminished scale is a symmetrical scale, constructed from a repeated sequence of intervals (major second, minor second).  Due to this symmetry, one quickly sees that in fact, there are only three different diminished scales; each of the three scales may be definted in terms of four different roots:

three basic diminished scales

In other words, the Db, E, G, and Bb diminished scales use the same eight pitches.  The same is true of the D, F, Ab, and B diminished scales, and of the Eb, Gb, A, and C diminished scales.  (Do not read any special significance into the fact that the scales above are written out with Db, D, and Eb as the roots, respectively.)


If one looks more closely at the way the diminished scale is constructed, one will find that all of the intervals between a minor second and an octave (inclusive) may be found in the scale.  Some of these intervals occur four times in each scale.  (The intervals are shown beamed together in the following examples; all of the examples below are derived from the Db diminished scale, and some enharmonic spellings are incorporated to show the intervals more clearly):

m2, M2, M3, P$


...other intervals occur eight times in each scale:

m3, tritones

maj 6ths, octaves

Chord Structures

As with intervals, a number of triadic and seventh chord structures may be derived as well:


major and minor triads

seventh chords:

These intervals and structures provide the basis for a great variety of melodic materials available in the diminished scale.  October's lesson will demonstrate even more variations on these materials, and will show how they can be applied in jazz improvisation.

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