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I've been working on a number of traditional jazz tunes in minor keys, and they often resolve V7 > i

During the V7 chord when improvising I feel pretty confused as to what notes to use. I end up mostly playing the 2nd interval of the V scale flat and the 3rd normal. This "seems" strange to me, but sounds good to me. Except not always. And that's confusing.

For example in the key of A minor, when playing E7 chord I play an f♮ (which is diatonic to Am) not an f#, but I play the g# (which is not diatonic to Am). I end up with a "scale" that goes e f g# a b c... and this but jump from f to g# doesn't make "sense" to me. Whatever that means (but I like the way it sounds).

I feel like I'm missing something in my understanding. Also it seems when the E7 is played for longer periods (2 or more measures), the f♮ starts to sound odd and the f# sounds better.

Can someone talk intelligently about what's going on here?

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As Laurence has correctly said, it's a result of the augmented second interval between F and G♯.

An additional way to improvise over the V7 chord in minor is to use what we call the half-whole octatonic scale. To create a half-whole octatonic scale, you simply alternate half steps and whole steps:

enter image description here

One of the reasons this works so well is because the V7 chord is included in the scale (as you see with the red pitches above). Furthermore, the ♭9 (in this case, F♮) is also included.

There is also the whole-half octatonic scale, but that scale is not as ideal above the V7 chord; see if you can figure out why!

  • Would those also be known as diminished scales? – Tim Aug 19 '18 at 7:18
  • @Tim Yep, these are also called diminished scales. But I prefer the "half-whole" and "whole-half" terms just because it makes it clear how to construct them. – Richard Aug 21 '18 at 1:13
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Your best scale is the Mixolydian b9 b13

The V7 in minor

But you have other options as well

Best other chord-scales to use on a V7 in minor

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You've discovered the Harmonic Minor scale. Yes, the F - G# interval is pleasantly astringent. But F# - G# is smoother. You've also got an option of using the complete Melodic Minor scale witch uses F# - G# going up, G nat - F nat coming down, often overlooked in 'jazz theory'. And don't forget the E7#9 chord, which uses both the leading note G# AND its 'blues' brother G nat.

(Funny that it sounds like a b10, and we usually notate it as G nat not F double-sharp, but you'll get lynched for calling it E7b10 :-)

  • Yes, I looked this up in Wikipedia and it seems the harmonic minor is good fit for the V7 chord, for what I"m hearing in my head, even though the natural minor is what fits best over the i chord in my head. I'll play around with the harmonic minor over the i and see how that sound. It seems that that "leading tone" makes it want to resolve, so maybe only when that's about to happen... – pixelearth Aug 19 '18 at 5:31
  • Yes, that's why it's called 'leading tone', it wants to resolve to the tonic. In an E7 chord G# combines with D - which wants to resolve to C, the third of the tonic chord - to form a tritone, the driving force of functional harmony. Just about any scale that contains G# and D will work over E7. (But DO try to improvise melodies, not just play scales.) – Laurence Payne Aug 19 '18 at 12:04
  • "Lynched for calling it ♭10" :) – user45266 Oct 23 '18 at 17:16
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A simple way to look at notes to use over a minor piece is to understand that there are more than one minor scale. Natural, harmonic and melodic. Not going into reasons here, but they all contain the same first five notes, in Am - A B C D E but all put together, the remains of them include - F F# G and G#. Knowing this means you have a bit more choice of notes to play, especially on the V part of the piece.

So, there's your F and F#. Actually, the F# may sound better as it's part of the E major scale - which after all will fit over E, or E7, the V of Am. But, the F also fits in a way, as often a dissonance is used to resolve to a 'nice' part of the song, and dissonances are often one semitone from the target chord. Thus, using F over the E chord produces what we call a b9, or 7b9, resolving th the E note of the Am chord which generally follows. Try it.

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You shouldn't associate the word "understanding" primarily as the ability to label music-related phenomena with words found in theory books, particularly when it comes to improvising solos over chords. Don't be too theoretic. "Understanding" should primarily mean the ability to find patterns for handling situations in practice.

To get this practical understanding in your example case of Am and E or E7 chord, try to get a feeling of what other chords or tensions the notes F, F#, G, G#, A might imply. Do the following:

  • Establish the key Am by playing e.g. Am - Dm - E7 - Am.
  • Play an E major triad chord and let it ring.
  • While hearing the E major chord and being in an "A minor mood" (having established the key), play different triad chords an octave higher, on top of the sounding E major: F major, D major, D minor, Dm6, B7, G major
  • Do the same, but instead of playing the notes for the F, G etc. chords at the same time, play them as slow arpeggios.
  • Pay attention to the different role of each individual note in each chord, and how the notes and chords mix together with each other.
  • Try playing the notes G and G# on top of the E major. Can you feel how you're flirting with "major or minor or something else"?
  • Do the same exercises, but play only E as a single bass note and then flirt and play around with the chords on top of it.
  • Do the same, but play the "overlay chord" arpeggio notes in a different order, and create progressions with the overlaying chords.

After doing this enough times, do you feel that you're developing a sense of how each individual note affects the harmony? Can you feel how a particular note implies particular chords?

(How does this practical approach to "understanding" feel to you?)

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