Copyright (c) 1995 by Grant D. Green Last Modified: Oct 25, 1995
This lesson originally appeared on StickWire - the Official Chapman Stick Mailing List.
Reproduced here by permission. This article can be reprinted only in its entirety.

Theory On Tap
Lesson 8, Minor Scales

by: Grant D. Green

There are three different minor scales: the natural minor, the harmonic minor, and the melodic minor. All three are used, and they differ by only a few notes. All minor scales have the third degree lowered (as least as compared with the corresponding major scale), but differ in their treatment of the sixth and seventh notes.

A. Natural Minor

The natural minor is identical to the Aeolian mode. Thus, if you play a C major scale, but start on A, you've played the A natural minor scale:

  A    B    C    D    E    F    G    A
   \  / \  / \  / \  / \  / \  / \  /
    w    h    w    w    h    w    w
  (w = whole step, h = half step)

Note that this means that the natural minor modes will all match major modes: you've only shifted the starting point up a third.

To find the natural minor key, start with the major scale and lower the third, sixth, and seventh notes. An easy way to figure out the key signatures is to simply add three flats (or take away three sharps, or some combination) to the major key signature. Thus, if you start with C (no sharps or flats), C minor has three flats. The key of A major (three sharps) becomes A minor (no sharps), and D major (two sharps) becomes D minor (one flat). If you have less than three sharps, cancel out the sharps with an equal number of flats, and add any flats that are left over. Note that three flats is also the key signature for Eb major, and Eb is the minor third of the C minor scale (and triad). Thus, counting up a minor third from the root will give you the key signature for the minor key of that root.

Perhaps the easiest way to visualize this is to think of the Circle of Fifths. If you can find your key on the CoF, you simply count three keys in the "flat" direction to find the key signature for the corresponding minor key. It works the other way, too. If you have a known key signature (for example, five flats, Db), you can count *back* three keys (i.e., go 3 in the sharp direction) around the CoF and find the root for the relative minor (Bb minor).

Because C minor and Eb major have the same key signature, C minor is known as the "relative minor" of Eb major. Similarly, F# minor is the relative minor of A major, A minor is the relative minor of C major, G minor is the relative minor of Bb major, and so on. Try it! What is the relative minor for D major? What is the minor key that has one sharp in the key signature? (Answers at the end of the lesson.)

You can play the natural scale as shown below. I've put fingerings for both melody and bass together, but you may find it difficult to play both hands in the same area of the fingerboard. I suggest taking the right hand up an octave (12 frets up, or up 7 frets and over a string). As always on the Stick(R), you can transfer the pattern anywhere on the neck, to play a minor scale in any key.

  |---|-5-|-6-|---|-7-|---|-R-|---|-2-|-3-|  (2 octaves here)

The only problem with the natural minor scale is that it omits the "leading tone." In common practice (Baroque and Classical music), the leading tone is one of the most important notes of the scale. It even has its own abbreviation: LT. The LT is always a half step below the root (or octave) of the scale, and almost always resolves to the root. In fact, it is the LT (as the major third of the dominant V chord) that is responsible for the "dominant" sound of the V chord. If the seventh tone is lowered (as it is in the natural minor), you end up with a minor dominant V chord - almost a contradiction in terms. It just doesn't provide the same feeling of resolution (cadence) that a major V chord does. Try playing:

   Am   Dm   Am   Em   Am
and then contrast it with
   Am   Dm   Am   E    Am

playing E major this time. (The Am-Dm-Am is just to get your ear set in the key of A minor.) Makes a difference, doesn't it? As long as the root (I) chord is minor, the whole key will tend to sound minor, whether the V is minor or not. However, making the V minor destroys some of the resolution feeling of the cadence, so common practice composers weren't entirely satisfied with it. So, they developed...

B. The Harmonic Minor

The harmonic minor scale has the same key signature as the natural minor, but has the seventh note restored to its original (major) position. Thus, the A harmonic minor scale is:

  A    B    C    D    E    F    G#   A
   \  / \  / \  / \  / \  / \  / \  /
    w    h    w    w    h    w+   h

  (w+ = augmented second)

This made many composers happy: it restored the LT, which was important to their melodies, and it restored the major V (not to mention the dom V7), which was important to their harmonies and cadences. (Perhaps I should mention that an authentic cadence is V-I in common practice, not to be confused with the IV-I "plagal cadence" [think "Amen"] or the V-VI "deceptive cadence." OK, maybe I *shouldn't* mention it.)

Here's a fingering chart for the harmonic minor:
  |---|-5-|-6-|---|---|-7-|-R-|---|---|---| (2 octaves again)

I should point out here that you can play the harmonic minor scale starting on different notes to get the equivalent of modes, just as in the major scale modes. Does anyone use them? Sure. They're good for some of the altered jazz chords. Do they have their own names (like Dorian)? I have no idea.

Notice the stretch from 6 to 7? The interval is an augmented second. It is not considered a minor third, even though both have 3 half steps, and are "enharmonically" the same. If you play an augmented second and a minor third in isolation, they'll sound identical (at least, they will on modern instruments, or anything tuned in equal temperment). The common practice composers considered augmented intervals too dissonant to use (it does sound a little funny, doesn't it?), so they had *another* problem. The harmonic minor provides all the right scale tones for constructing the triads, but bollixed up the melodies with that odd augmented interval. So, composers decided to keep the harmonic minor for figuring out chord progressions, but for melodies they would use...

C. The Melodic Minor

Since composers were unwilling to lose their LT, and didn't like the augmented leap from 6 to 7, there was only one thing to do: raise the sixth back to where it is in the major scale. The key signature stays the same: its just that now the sixth and seventh notes have naturals (or sharps) where they have flats or naturals in the natural minor. The third is *always* lowered. (If you raise the third again, you end up with a major I triad, so you're completely back to the major key.)

  A    B    C    D    E    F#   G#   A
   \  / \  / \  / \  / \  / \  / \  /
    w    h    w    w    w    w    h

This makes the sixth a major sixth. Unfortunately, this makes the scale lose quite a bit of its minor character. Try playing it:

  |---|---|---|---|-4-|---|-5-|---|-6-|---| (The 6th is about equally
  |---|---|---|---|-R-|---|-2-|-3-|---|---|  convenient/inconvenient in
  |---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|  either 6 or (6) fingering)

However, since you don't *really* need that leading tone when you're going *down* the scale, there's no real reason to raise the seventh when descending. And if you don't have to raise the seventh, you don't have an augmented second between the sixth and seventh, and don't have to raise the sixth either. But if you lower the sixth and the seventh, you're right back to the natural minor.

That's right.

The melodic minor scale has two different forms (at least in classical music): one for going up, and a different one for going down. The ascending melodic minor is the one immediately above, with the raised sixth and seventh. The descending form is the same as the natural minor at the top. Jazz sometimes (usually?) uses the ascending form for both directions. Of course, it can be hard to tell, as one often throws a few extra notes in the scale anyway. ;-)

And, of course, you can start the melodic minor scale on any note, and play the corresponding modes.

Do all these different minor scales have different chords associated with them? Yes. But that's for next time.

  • "Harmony" by Walter Piston (5th ed., 1987)

The relative minor of D major is B minor. E minor has one sharp (corresponding to G major).

Many thanks to Rick Bellinger, who proofread all this and provided many helpful comments and suggestions.

Grant D. Green

Lessons: Intro | 1 | 2 | 3 - Part I| 3 - Part II| 4 - Part I| 4 - Part II| 5| 6| 7| 8 9| 10| 11| 12|
Copyright © 1995 by Grant D. Green
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