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Gareth Montanarello

Altered Dominants & 12 Tone Rows

Updated: Sep 20

So I recently realized that you can pretty much play all 12 notes over a dominant chord and it will sound good. 11 of the 12 are chords tones or some kind of extension:


Chord tones (1, 3, 5, b7): Bb, D, F, Ab

  • Unaltered Extensions (9, 11, 13): C, Eb, G

  • Altered Extensions (b9, #9, b5/#11, #5/b13): Cb, C#, E, F#

The only missing note is the major 7th, but there is a dominant-friendly scale that has that note, the Bebop scale.

Various scales used over dominant chords.

This got me thinking that if we already have ways to play all 12 notes over a dominant chord, why can't we use 12 tone rows to create new kinds of outside, altered lines in our improv?


So I tried it...


...and I failed several times because shocker, it's kinda hard to keep track of 12 notes without repeating any, but I eventually came up with some lines that I thought were cool.


Here's the first one:

I tried to create something that sounded like a cascading flurry (not furry) of notes with a general sense of direction rather than a disjunct row thrown on top of some dominant chords (but that might be cool too!), and I think I succeeded. The row appears twice, in its "prime" form over the Bb7 and in transposition over the Eb7, with a Bb7 arpeggio between the two appearances for a bit of harmonic grounding. I wasn't sure how I felt about having the major 7th of each chord appear on a strong beat in each row, but after some thinking and listening, I decided it didn't matter. Weird dissonances are inevitable when dealing with 12-tone rows.


Here's the second one:

In both measures: A whole tone for the first 2 beats, Bb whole tone for the second two. The row is backwards and transposed down a 1/2 step in the second bar.

This line was born out of the need to group notes in such a way that keeping track of 12 pitches could be more of a passive endeavor than an active one. I did this by breaking the 12 notes into 2 whole tone scales. The row in the first measure gets repeated backward in the second measure. I also tried to play around with note groupings (groups of 2, displaced 3's) in the middle of the line, too.


The obvious benefit of working with whole-tone scales here is the fact that there are only two of them and between those two, all 12 notes are represented. Each whole tone scale is also made of two augmented triads a whole step apart, so splicing the two together gets you four augmented triads with roots each a half-step apart. I still can't pull 12 tone rows out of thin air, but chunking the notes into these 3 or 6 groupings is certainly getting me closer.

Whole tone scales also have a handy modal feature that makes them great for creating lines that span dominant chords moving in fourths (or fifths, for that matter). If you play a whole tone scale beginning on the root of a dominant chord, you can play the same scale starting up or down a half step when the chord changes and have access to the same intervals as when you start the scale on the next chord's root.

The same thing happens when moving in fifths:

There are definitely a lot of options to explore here. Another idea worth working with is making 12 tone matrices out of your rows and integrating those into your improv, too.

And since I've been thinking about doing a proper YouTube channel for at least 2 years, here is my first video! I'm currently at zero subscribers so please like it and give me a follow!