The Augmented Scale

…John Coltrane and Oliver Nelson brought [the augmented scale] to the masses in the late ’50s and early ’60s. In more recent years, tenor legend and bandleader Michael Brecker (who passed away in January of this year) made good use of the scale, and required that Mike Stern, John Scofield, Pat Metheny, and other guitarists who played for him over the years also know how to harness the pattern’s power.

–from “Secrets of the Symmetrical Augmented Scale” by Josh Workman, EQ online edition

If you want to lend a touch of mysterious, Eastern-sounding chromaticism, angularity, and symmetrical sequence to your solos, consider the augmented scale. I’ve dipped into this unusual, colorful scale from time to time, and lately, in spending more time exploring its sounds and possibilities, I’m becoming captivated with what it has to offer.

The augmented scale is a hexatonic scale–that is, it only has six tones. It is also, like the diminished and whole tone scales, a symmetrical scale. This means that the interval relationships between scale degrees are repeated to create a symmetrical pattern. In the case of the augmented scale, moving upward from the tonic, the scale intervals are: minor third, minor second, minor third, minor second, minor third, minor second.

Here’s what that looks like on the staff.

C augmented scale

There are a couple easy ways to understand the augmented scale. One way, using the C augmented scale to illustrate, is to think of approaching each note of a C augmented triad with its leading tone–i.e. the note B leads to C, D# leads to E, and F## ( or more simply, G) leads to G#. Note that while in this approach you begin with the note B, the actual tonic of the scale is C.

Another way to picture the augmented scale is to superimpose two augmented triads with roots a half-step apart, then organize the resulting tones linearly in a scale. In the case of the C augmented scale, you would superimpose C+ on top of B+. Again, the actual tonic of the scale is C.

A variation of this approach is to superimpose two augmented chords with roots a minor third apart from each other. To get a C augmented scale, you would superimpose Eb+ (same as D#+) on top of C+.

As is also true of the diminished and whole tone scales, the symmetrical nature of the augmented scale makes its root ambiguous. The repeated pattern of a minor third and minor second produces not just one, but three possible tonics separated by a major third. In other words, when you learn the C augmented scale, you’re also learning the E augmented and G# augmented scales. This means that when you’ve learned the C, Db, D, and Eb augmented scales, you’ve learned all the rest as well. Nice, eh? You get all twelve scales for only a third of the work!

There’s plenty more to say about the augmented scale, but I’m not going to try to cover it all here. Dig inside the scale and discover its possibilities for yourself. Here’s a simple pattern to help you get started. The pattern is in C (and E, and G#/Ab). Memorize it, then transpose it to Db, D, and Eb.

C augmented scale pattern

Oh, yes–lest I forget, you’ll want to know how to apply the augmented scale. I’m still working that out myself, but here are a few pointers. Use the C augmented scale with
* a C+ or CM7.
* a C7 or C+7, but watch how you handle the #7. The chromatic tones can be viewed as passing tones, or they can become upper extensions if you alter the chord.
* a B7(b9) or B7 altered chord.
* an Am, Am6, or Am#7 chord.

You can also use the augmented scale with “Giant Steps” the same way you’d use a blues scale with the blues. But that’s a separate post.

This scale doesn’t come easily, but it’s well worth acquiring. However, it’s a more advanced study. You’d be wise to make sure you’ve got your basic major and minor tonalities down, including your cycle of dominants and ii-V7-I patterns, before you go digging into the more abstract stuff. Just my opinion. Take it with a grain of salt as you find your own way. Whatever you do, keep practicing–and have fun!

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  1. [...] see whether any video tutorials existed that would allow listeners to get the actual sound of the augmented scale into their ears. I came across this excellent lesson by guitarist Geoff [...]

  2. [...] the same principle probably applies to this post on using the augmented scale over “Giant Steps” changes. I’m sure it has already been done, and I’m [...]

  3. [...] more information and exercises on the augmented scale, check out my posts on The Augmented Scale and Using the Augmented Scale with “Giant Steps.” You’ll also find these articles [...]

  4. [...] from my blog stats, there seems to be a lot of interest in the augmented scale. I’m not surprised. It’s a fascinating scale, and I’ve personally been having a [...]

  5. [...] As I’ve continued to spend time incorporating the augmented scale into my working vocabulary as a jazz saxophonist, I’ve made one recent discovery [...]

  6. Composer and Berklee educator Ben Newhouse has kindly referred to this article in a footnote of his own post on the augmented scale. His article is substantive and well-written, and I’m pleased to furnish its link as a further resource.

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