The natural minor scale, which I covered in the last lesson, is a nice alternative to the major scale when you want a sadder, mellower kind of sound. It has a weaker resolution to the tonic, which can be just what you’re going for. Some people though, back in the day, decided they liked the sound of the minor scale, but wanted a little bit more of a strong resolution. They played around a bit, and what they came up with was the harmonic minor scale. That’s what I’m going to cover today.
If you play enough chords for long enough, you’ll notice that certain chords seem to lead into others. This is related to the buildup and release of tension, and is a topic I will cover in more detail in future lessons. But one of the strongest chord transitions is from the fifth chord to the tonic chord. If we’re in A natural minor, that means from E minor to A minor. However, going from minor to minor, it’s still not all that strong. But if we change the E minor to an E major, it’s a much stronger transition. The E major “leads to” the A minor. And if you turn it into an E7, it’s an even stronger transition. In future lessons, I’ll explain why this is, but for now if you don’t believe me you can just listen for yourself:
The difference is even more noticeable when the chords are played as part of a larger song.
So lets take the natural minor scale and modify it so it has an E major chord instead of an E minor. As a reminder, these are the notes in the A natural minor scale.
Now to get an E major, we need the notes E, G#, and B, so we take the G and turn it into a G#, giving us:
And there we have it, the harmonic minor scale. You’ll really hear this used a lot more than the natural minor in rock, folk, and blues music, because we like that strong resolution to the Am.
How to play it
As you might expect, playing a harmonic minor scale is very similar to playing a natural minor scale, except with one note changed. Here’s one way to play an A harmonic minor scale.
This shape covers the whole height of the fretboard and two octaves. Again, play this up and down enough times to learn it, watching some HBO as necessary, to keep from going crazy with boredom. Then just play around for a while, and see what kind of melodies you can come up with.
- Find more ways to play an A harmonic minor scale using the Scalerator.
- See how to play a C harmonic minor scale using the Scalerator.
Here are the three-note chords you can create from a harmonic minor scale. You’ll notice that in going from the natural minor to the harmonic minor, changing that G to a G# affects more than just the E chord. The C goes from major to augmented, and the G major changes to a G# diminished. Also, you can play either F major or F minor.
|i||ii (dim)||III (aug)||iv||V||VI||vii (dim)|
|A minor||B diminished||C augmented||D minor||E major||F major||G# diminished|
And once again, the same pattern of minor and major chords holds no matter what harmonic minor scale we use. In this case, it’s minor, diminished, augmented, minor, major, major, diminished. I’ve highlighted the chord types that are different from the natural minor.
Harmonic minor scales and keys are used a lot. One example most people know is the old folk hymn Go Down Moses. Here are the chords for that, in the key of E minor. You’ll notice it uses both a Bm and a B7, so it’s going back and forth between the natural and harmonic minors. This is a common technique. When writing or improvising, you get to pick and choose which one you want to use for a given part of the song. Notice how the B7 really sweetly sets up that Em.
This is also a fun song to sing, if you like to hit those looow notes. Try playing the guitar in a bass-strum, bass-strum kind of pattern. It’s a religious song, but it’s well-known enough as a folk song that it doesn’t have to be played in a religious context.
Em Bm Em When Isreal was in Egypt land, B7 Em "Let my people go." Em Bm Em Oppressed so hard they could not stand, B7 Em "Let my people go." Em Am B7 Em Go down, Moses, Way down in Egypt land B7 Em Tell old Pharoah, "Let my people go." ...
And of course, the song keeps going.
Well, hope you had fun. Tune in next time for the melodic minor!