Ok, stick with me for one more minor scale type, then it gets easier. I promise! This lesson builds on previous ones, so if you haven’t read my other scale lessons, now’s a good time:
And now the melodic minor scale. I think you’ll begin to understand why the natural minor is called the natural minor. It’s the one that’s based on the major scale, and is considered more pure. The other two, the harmonic and melodic minors, were reached by tweaking around with the natural minor. The harmonic minor raised the seventh note in the scale so we could have that strong major V chord (that is, the chord based on the fifth note of the scale). The melodic minor makes one more alteration.
One nice benefit of raising that seventh note is it creates a half-step from the seventh note to the tonic an octave up, as opposed to the whole-step we’d have with the natural minor. People liked this half-step, because it makes the tonic seem more final, more of a completion of the scale. As an example, try playing a major scale, but stop on the seventh note. You’ll probably feel like you need to fill in that last note in your mind in order to feel more melodically satisfied. That seventh is called a leading tone, because it “leads to” the tonic.
So raising the seventh creates a nice leading tone, but it also causes a new problem, and that is the interval between the sixth and seventh notes. In the key of A harmonic minor, that would be between F and G#. This is an interval of an augmented second, also called a minor third. (This might be a good time to review my Intervals lesson if you haven’t read it.) To the powers-that-were at the time, this seemed like too big of an interval, almost as if there were a note missing. To solve this, they decided to raise the sixth note as well. In A, that would mean changing the F to F#. But wait, won’t that just cause some kind of chain reaction of interval adjustments and mess up the whole scale??? Don’t panic. It’s ok. Remember the half-step between E and F. So now it’s just a whole step between E and F#, which is acceptable. So that’s how the melodic minor scale came to be. Here is the interval pattern. You’ll notice there are no unhappy minor thirds:
And here are the notes in the A melodic minor scale.
“But why does it say ‘(ascending)’ in both of those tables?,” I can hear you asking. “Why, Eddy, why?” Okay, well, you know that leading note, the seventh? It only really matters if you’re going up the scale, leading to the tonic note at the high end. So in their infinite wisdom, the scale-masters of the day decided the melodic minor scale would use one set of notes while going up, or ascending, and another while going down, or descending. So what I showed above is technically the “ascending melodic minor”. The good news is that the descending form is just the natural minor scale, which we’ve already covered. You can review the natural minor now, if you like.
Honestly, though, the difference between ascending and descending is not a big deal. It’s really only applicable to classical music. If you’re playing a melody or improvising in a key, you’ll most likely pick one scale and stick to it. You can play an ascending melodic minor going down if you want, and the scale police are not going to show up and take you away. In fact, in jazz, they just talk about a melodic minor scale, and make no distinction between ascending and descending. Basically, you get to pick and choose. Still understanding the concepts of the leading note and the harmonic progression from V to i, and knowing how these scales came about can help with your decision.
How to play it
Here’s one way to play an A melodic minor scale (ascending).
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 CSPAN 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 melodic minor (ascending) scale using the Scalerator.
- See how to play a C melodic minor (ascending) scale using the Scalerator.
Here are the three-note chords you can create from a melodic minor scale.
|i||ii||III (aug)||IV||V||vi (dim)||vii (dim)|
|A minor||B minor||C augmented||D major||E major||F# diminished||G# diminished|
The pattern of chord types is no matter what harmonic minor scale we use. In this case, it’s minor, minor, augmented, major, major, diminished, diminished.
When to use it
The only way to decide when to use the different types of minor scales is to practice. It’s really a matter of taste. You may decide that the melodic minor scale should be used for melodies and the harmonic minor scale should be used for constructing chords, based on their names. You can use the ascending melodic minor when going up, and the natural minor when descending, just as their creators intended. Those are perfectly reasonable conclusions, but don’t limit yourself by that.
Practice improvising with a harmonic minor scale over a natural minor chord progression. Practice the other way around. Practice switching between different scales. Practice them all over the neck of the guitar. You’ll notice some notes sound good over some chords, and others sound weird or wacky. The best approach is to record yourself playing a minor key chord progression, play it on repeat, and just go to town with soloing on top of it. That can be a lot of fun, too. Don’t forget, having fun is why you play!
To save you some trouble, I’ve recorded one to start with. Here is a backing track you can use to practice. This is a chord progression derived from the E harmonic minor scale. It just repeats the chords Em, Am, and B7, two measures each. The recording contains the progression twice in succession. You can put this on repeat and practice playing around with the E melodic minor scale, the E harmonic minor scale, and the E natural minor scale over it. Pay attention to the different sounds that come from playing each scale over each chord.
That’s it for the difficult minor scales. Not too bad, eh? Later on, we can tackle pentatonic scales, which I think you will find much easier.