Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why Augmented Scales Kick Butt

Because of the seemingly innocuous combination of half-steps and minor thirds!
It's one of those symmetrical scales that I just love, although I know nature abhors perfect symmetry, and true beauty (like those lovely Japanese gardens) operates on the principle of slight asymmetry. But for composers, symmetry in the context of tonality is very useful when you don't want the pull of a tonal center. It frees you up to think of other ways to pull in the audience.

Most of us flutists know some symmetrical scales:
1) Chromatic = half steps repeated
2) Whole Tone = whole steps repeated

Then you may know, especially if you have studied Jazz:
3) Octatonic (a.k.a. Diminished) = either repeating half step/whole step or whole step/half step

And the subject of this blog entry:
4) Augmented scales = either repeating half step/minor third or minor third/half step

You find these scales in music by Dutilleux, Gaubert and if I'm not mistaken Jolivet. That minor third makes things sound sort of "harmonic minor-ey", pentatonic or bluesy, depending on the context.

But my point is not that they just sound cool, they kick butt because they are seriously challenging to play smoothly! Why?
1) The half steps go naturally quicker than the minor thirds
2) The scales with A#/Bb also have F#/Gb, so you can't use the Bb thumb with good conscience!

Just try them out!
(3 pages, pdf)


  1. Interesting. I always knew this as the 'augmented' scale, never occured to me that it was a symmetrical six note scale. I prefer to use the term 'hexatonic' for any scale which contains six pitches, just as to my mind what we usually call 'the' pentatonic scale should really be 'a' pentatonic scale.

    Once wrote a passage of a string piece using this scale, came out sounding *a lot* like Bartók, although I've never particulary noticed it there. When I played jazz trumpet, I never found a whole lot of use for it...

  2. Thanks very much! It turns out you are absolutely right. I took the term Hexatonic from an article I read in Flute Talk magazine and had a niggling thought that this term was pretty generic. A little research thanks to your prompting sorted that out! So I'll change the title from "Hexatonic Scales..." to "Augmented Scales..."
    These scales don't get a whole lot of milage in the classical repertoire either, but they make great studies.
    Thanks for posting!