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Minor scales – Natural vs harmonic vs melodic

treble clef with piano keyboard

There exists only 1 type of major scale, but there are 3 types of minor scales: natural minor, harmonic minor and melodic minor.

Why do we have 3 different minor scales?

How are the 3 types of minor scales formed?

What is the difference between harmonic and melodic minor?

How to use the different minor scales?

 

You will discover all of this here in this tutorial.

 

 

Natural minor – The C natural minor scale

I will here only briefly describe the natural minor scale, since you can have all the details of this scale in the lesson “How to form a natural minor scale“.

First of all: why is the natural minor scale named as such? This is because the natural minor scale is based on the major scale. For example:  the notes of the A natural minor scale are exactly the same as the notes of the C major scale, the A natural minor scale only starts on the A instead of on the C.

You can say that A minor is the relative minor of C major. Or, you can also say: C major is the relative major of A minor. So both scales share exactly the same notes, they only start on a different note.

Notice that A is the 6th note in the scale of C major.

In general, you can say: a natural minor scale can be found by playing the notes of a major scale starting on the 6th note of that major scale.

Or, in other words: you can find a relative minor of a major scale by going up a major 6th interval (or going down a minor 3rd  interval, the result is the same, you will arrive at the same note).

For example, to find the C natural minor scale, go a minor 3rd up from C to find its relative major scale, which is Eb major. C natural minor and Eb major have the same notes in their scales. So the C natural minor scale is:

C   D   Eb   F   G   Ab   Bb   C

(if you don’t know how to form a major scale, see my lesson “How to form a major scale“)

Below, a sound sample of the C natural minor scale:

 

Why do we need more minor scales?

Now, why only just the natural minor scale is not enough? Why do we need more than one simple minor scale?

To understand this, you have to look at the leading tone (also called leading note). A leading tone is a note that resolves to another note a semitone up (or down). In our case, the leading tone resolves to the root of the scale we’re in.

Let me illustrate this with the C major scale. Play the C major scale starting on C and go up till you reach the 7th note, the B. When you end your line on the B, it sounds as if something is missing, as if it’s not finished. You can solve this ‘problem’ by playing the next note a semitone higher than the B, which is the C (the root of our C major scale). What you did is resolving the B by playing the next note a semitone higher, the C.

The B is called a leading tone; it’s a semitone away from our resolution, the C, the root of our scale.

In all major scales, the 7th note is a semitone away from the root. So in a major scale, the 7th note is a leading tone. You can see that in the next figure where I show this with the C major scale. The ‘major scale formula’ (WWHWWWH) is the same for all major scales.

major scale formula

Now, the natural minor scale doesn’t have a leading tone since the 7th note of a natural minor scale is a whole tone away from the root; see for example the C natural minor scale (next figure): the 7th note is a Bb, a whole tone away from the root C. The ‘natural minor scale formula’ is WHWWHWW

natural minor scale formula

Since the natural minor scale has no leading tone, the harmonic minor scale was introduced.

(the next video explains more in detail what a leading tone is and how the resolution from a leading tone to the root sounds)

 

Harmonic minor – The C harmonic minor scale

The harmonic minor scale is almost equal to the natural minor scale. The only difference is the 7th note which is raised by a half tone. In that way, the ‘leading tone-problem’ is solved.

Let me illustrate this again with the C minor scale.

As we saw, C natural minor is:

C   D   Eb   F   G   Ab   Bb   C

Now, just raise the 7th note (the Bb) by a semitone to obtain C harmonic minor:

C   D   Eb   F   G   Ab   B   C

It’s as easy as that! When you want to know a harmonic minor scale: take the natural minor scale and raise the 7th note by a half tone and you’re done!

Notice the special interval between the 6th and 7th note of the harmonic minor scale: 3 semitones, which you probably recognized as a minor 3rd interval. This is quite special because till now we’ve seen only half tone and whole tone intervals between two consecutive notes of a scale.

This interval of 3 semitones gives the harmonic minor scale a very nice sounding effect. I would even say: an exotic effect.

Listen to the next sound sample of the C harmonic minor scale to hear this effect:

By the way: the 3 semitone-interval is in this case technically spoken NOT a minor 3rd interval, but an augmented 2nd interval, since we’re going from Ab to B (in C harmonic minor) and not from G# to B.

 

Look at the next figure to have an overview of the intervals between the notes of a harmonic minor scale and with the ‘harmonic minor scale formula’. You can clearly see the semitone -or half tone- interval (H) between the leading tone (the 7th note of the interval) and the root. The augmented 2nd interval is displayed as 1½ whole tones (=3 semitones).

harmonic minor scale formula

The exotic sounding augmented 2nd interval in the harmonic minor scale is however not always the wanted effect. And this is where the melodic minor scale comes into play.

 

Melodic minor – The C melodic minor scale

In order to have a minor scale with a leading tone but without an augmented 2nd interval between two consecutive scale notes, just take the harmonic minor scale and raise the 6th note of the harmonic minor scale by a semitone. The scale obtained in this way is called a melodic minor scale.

Let me illustrate this again with C minor. Take the C harmonic minor scale:

C   D   Eb   F   G   Ab   B   C

Now raise the 6th note (the Ab) by a half tone to obtain the C melodic minor scale:

C   D   Eb   F   G   A   B   C

In the next figure with the ‘melodic minor scale formula’, you can see that the melodic minor scale

  • has a leading tone
  • doesn’t have an augmented 2nd interval between two consecutive notes of the scale.

melodic minor scale formula

To find a melodic minor scale, you have 3 options:

  • Take the harmonic minor scale and raise the 6th note by a half step
  • Take the natural minor scale and raise the 6th and the 7th note both by a half step
  • Take the major scale and replace the major 3rd by a minor 3rd

Note that in classical theory the descending melodic scale is not the same as the ascending melodic scale: the ascending scale is the one you just saw here above, the descending scale is simply the natural minor scale.

In modern music (jazz), the ascending and descending melodic minor scale are the same.

To have an idea of how the melodic minor scale sounds, listen to the next sound sample:

 

The major and all the minor scales compared

In the next infographic, you can see an overview of the differences and similarities between the major scale and the natural, harmonic and melodic minor scale. At a glance, you can see the intervals between the notes of the scale (1, 2 or 3 semitones).

The examples are based on the scales with C as a root note, but this infographic applies of course to major and minor scales in all roots.

major minor infographic

 

When are the harmonic and melodic minor scales used?

Let me first show you how the harmonic minor scale could be used in a melody or in a solo.

Imagine playing a piece in the key of C minor. You would then normally (but not exclusively) play a melody or a solo with the notes of the C natural minor scale.

Now, let’s assume that the piece contains a G7 chord. The G7 chord consists of the notes G, B, D and F.

When you would continue to play in C natural minor over the G7 chord, the Bb in C natural minor could conflict with the B in the G7. So that’s where you could play C harmonic minor instead of C natural minor.

There are plenty of similar cases of when to use the harmonic minor scale; this is just one example.

 

So, what about the melodic minor scale?

The melodic minor scale forms the basis of melodic minor harmony on which are based a lot of scales often used in jazz (altered scale, half diminished scale …). So when a jazz musician improvises over a scale derived from melodic minor harmony, he will play notes from the melodic minor scale.

 

 

If you liked this lesson, or if you have any questions or comments, please leave a comment below.

 

 

 

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2

How to form a natural minor scale

First of all, why do I say ‘natural minor scale’, and not simply ‘minor scale’ (I also called a major scale just ‘major scale’ without any other specification)?

This is, because there exists only one type of major scales, but there are 3 types of minor scales:

  • the natural minor scale
  • the harmonic minor scale
  • the melodic minor scale

In this lesson, we talk only about the natural minor scale, in another lesson, I will talk about the other 2 minor scales.

The natural minor scale

When you know how to form a major scale, it’s very simple to form a natural minor scale. Before telling you the general rule, let me first show you this with an example:

In this example I will show you how to form the A natural minor scale. Well, as I promised, it’s very simple: the notes of the A natural minor scale are exactly the same as the notes of the C major scale, so only the white keys on the piano.

So the A natural minor scale is:

A  B  C  D  E  F  G  A

The only difference is the starting note, the root: A natural minor starts on an A, where C major starts on a C. And that’s all! Simple, isn’t it?

Since A natural minor and C major share the same scale (only another starting note), we say that ‘A minor is the relative minor of C major’ and ‘C major is the relative major of A minor’.

Now, every minor scale has its relative major scale, so the question now is: “How to find out which relative major scale belongs to a natural minor scale?”

Well, when you look at A minor/C major, you see that from A, when you go up a minor 3rd, you arrive at C.

So, when you want to find out –for example- what the C natural minor scale is, you have to go up a minor 3rd from C. A minor 3rd up from C brings us to Eb.

Eb major is the relative major of C minor and so they share the same scale. This means that the C natural minor scale is:

C  D  Eb  F  G  Ab  Bb  C

The other natural minor scales

As an exercise, you could now try to find out all the other natural minor scales. The best way to start is perhaps with our list of major scales. Then start with a certain major scale, find its relative minor, and start on the root of that relative minor scale and you’re done.

For example: start with the Db major scale. What’s the relative minor of Db major? Well, now you have to go down a minor 3rd!

A minor 3rd (3 semitones) down takes us to Bb (not A#, because in the scale of Db, it’s a Bb).

Another way to find the relative minor of a major scale is to look at the 6th note in the major scale: remember that the relative minor of C major was A minor. Well, A is the 6th note in the scale of C major.

OK, try to see if you can find the other natural minor scales. You will find the solutions just here below:

Tables with all the natural minor scales

First, the table with sharps:

Major scale Relative minor Natural minor scale Number of sharps
C Am A  B  C  D  E  F  G  A 0
G Em E  F#  G  A  B  C  D  E 1
D Bm B  C#  D  E  F#  G  A  B 2
A F#m F#  G#  A  B  C#  D  E  F# 3
E C#m C#   D#  E  F#  G#  A  B  C# 4
B G#m G#  A#  B  C#  D#  E  F#  G# 5
F# D#m D#  E#  F#  G#  A#  B  C#  D# 6

Followed by the table with flats:

Major scale Relative minor Natural minor scale Number of flats
C Am A  B  C  D  E  F  G  A 0
F Dm D  E  F  G  A  Bb  C  D 1
Bb Gm G  A  Bb  C  D  Eb  F  G 2
Eb Cm C  D  Eb  F  G  Ab  Bb  C 3
Ab Fm F  G  Ab  Bb  C  Db  Eb  F 4
Db Bbm Bb  C  Db  Eb  F  Gb  Ab  Bb 5
Gb Ebm Eb  F  Gb  Ab  Bb  Cb  Db  Eb 6

 

Notice that the D# natural minor scale (6 sharps) and the Eb natural minor scale (6 flats) are the same scales, only written differently (they are enharmonic equivalent).

 

Now, it’s important to practice the natural minor scales. I advice you to do the exercise below.

Place the notes of a natural minor scale on the piano

 

Please tell us what you think of the natural minor scale lesson and the exercise by leaving a comment below.

 

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The circle of fifths

The circle of fifths (also called cycle of fifths) gives us a handy overview of the different scales and how they are related to each other.

How to form the circle of fifths

In the lesson ‘How to form a major scale’, I explained that starting from the C major scale, every time we take a major scale a fifth higher, the scale gets one extra sharp note. And, starting from C major, every time we go a fifth down (or a fourth up, which is basically the same), we get one more flat note in the major scale.

We could now display all the roots (starting notes) of the major scales in a row with C major (no sharps, no flats) in the middle. At the left of C, all the major scales with flats. Every step to the left would mean a fifth down (or a fourth up) and thus an extra flat note in the scale. At the right of C, all the major scales with sharps. Every step to the right would mean a fifth up (or a fourth down) and thus an extra sharp note in the scale.

Gb      Db      Ab      Eb      Bb       F        C        G        D        A        E        B        F#

It is important to realize that the most left scale (Gb) and the most right scale (F#) are actually the same scale, since Gb and F# are the same note, only written differently: they are enharmonic equivalent.

So that means that we could display this row with scales in a circle, as follows:

circle of fifths major

At the right side we have the major scales with sharps, on the left side the major scales with flats.

Every step clockwise in this circle (this would correspond with a step to the right in our row above) means a fifth up (or a fourth down). And every step counterclockwise a fifth down (or a fourth up). That’s why we call this circle the ‘circle (or cycle) of fifths’. Since a fifth up corresponds with a fourth down and vice versa, this circle is sometimes also called the ‘circle (or cycle) of fourths.

The minor scales in the circle of fifths

Since a natural minor scale has exactly the same notes as its relative major scale, we can also put the natural minor scales in our circle of fifths. So, for example: since the A minor scale and the C major scale share the same notes, we can put them in the same place in the circle of fifths:

circle of fifths major minor

And see here our circle of fifths, which gives us a quick overview of the number of sharps and flats in every major and minor scale, plus an overview of relative minor/major relationships.

Why would I need a circle of fifths?

As mentioned above, the circle of fifths gives a good overview of sharps/flats and relative minor/major.

The circle of fifths is among other things very handy for example in transposing a song (I’ll come back on this in a later lesson).

The circle of fifths also quickly shows us why the major scales that start on a black key on the piano are mostly written with flats instead of with sharps. Let me illustrate this with the Eb major scale, which has 3 flats.

Eb is enharmonic equivalent with D#, so let’s look how the D# major scale looks like. First of all, in the circle of fifths, from F# I will go on clockwise to C#, G# and then to D# (so every step a fifth up). You can see that D# major has 9 sharps (wow!).

circle of fifths D# major 9 sharps

Let’s, for fun, see how the D# major scale looks like (see also the lesson ‘How to form a major scale’):

From D#, a whole tone (W) up to E#

From E#, a whole tone (W) up to F## (or Fx)

From F##, a half tone (H) up to G#

From G#, a whole tone (W) up to A#

From A#, a whole tone (W) up to B#

From B#, a whole tone (W) up to C## (or Cx)

From C##, a half tone (H) up to D#

So the D# major scale is:

D#  E#  F##  G#  A#  B#  C##  D#

As you can see: a total of 9 sharps (don’t count the D# twice)!

Compare this with the Eb major scale:

Eb  F  G  Ab  Bb  C  D  Eb

Now, my question to you is: “Which scale do you prefer, the Eb major scale, or the D# major scale?” I think I know the answer… 🙂

 

Please tell us what you think of this lesson by leaving a comment below.

 

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How to form a major scale

For piano players, the C major scale is the easiest major scale because it starts on C and consists of all the white notes up to the next C. So, the notes of the C major scale are: C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C  (this looks as if the scale has 8 notes, but since the C is played twice, the scale consists of 7 different notes).

Let’s now look at the intervals between its consisting notes:

  • From C to D: whole tone (W)
  • From D to E: whole tone (W)
  • From E to F: half tone (H)
  • From F to G: whole tone (W)
  • From G to A: whole tone (W)
  • From A to B: whole tone (W)
  • From B to C: half tone (H)

So the intervals between the consecutive notes of the C major scale are:

W W H W W W H  (see figure)

intervals in major scale

Since all major scales sound the same way, this structure is valid for all major scales. That means that the only difference between all major scales is their root (starting note). So we can use this structure to find out all the other major scales. Let me illustrate this with some examples:

The D major scale

Let’s apply our ‘formula’ (W W H W W W H) to find the scale of D major.

  • From D, a whole tone (W) up to E
  • From E, a whole tone (W) up to F#
  • From F#, a half tone (H) up to G
  • From G, a whole tone (W) up to A
  • From A, a whole tone(W) up to B
  • From B, a whole tone (W) up to C#
  • From C#, a half tone (H) up to D

So, the notes of the D major scale are: D  E  F#  G  A  B  C#  D

Now, why did I call the 3rd and 7th notes F# and C# and not Gb and Db? Well, this is because we have to apply one of the following 2 rules (you can choose which rule to apply, since one rule implies automatically the other):

  • Don’t use the same letter for 2 consecutive notes
  • Don’t leave a ‘gap’ between 2 consecutive notes

Let me explain those rules:

Don’t use the same letter for 2 consecutive notes: Imagine that in the D major scale, I would have used Gb instead of F#. The first 4 notes of the scale would then have been: D  E  Gb  G …

In this case, the letter G is used twice (even if the first has a flat sign), so this is against our first rule.

In the same way, you can show that you have to use C# instead of Db.

Don’t leave a gap between 2 consecutive notes: Again, imagine I would have used Gb instead of F# in the D major scale, so: D  E  Gb  G …

Now, between E and Gb, there’s a ‘gap’ because we miss the letter F. We have therefore to use the letters in the order as they appear on the white keys of the piano keyboard.

The F major scale

When we apply our formula to find the F major scale, we get:

  • From F, a whole tone up to G
  • From G, a whole tone up to A
  • From A, a half tone up to Bb
  • From Bb, a whole tone up to C
  • From C, a whole tone up to D
  • From D, a whole tone up to E
  • From E, a half tone up to F

Did you notice that the scale of F major has a flat note (the Bb), not a sharp? It cannot be an A# (just apply one of the rules mentioned above and you will see that the 3rd note in the scale of F major is a Bb, not an A#).

So, the scale of F major is:  F  G  A  Bb  C  D  E  F

The other major scales

With our formula (WWHWWWH), you can now find out yourself the other major scales. Since there are 12 different notes, that means that there are also 12 major scales.

When you do the scales in the order as listed below, you will see that each time you will get one more sharp in the scale. Starting from the C major scale (0 sharps), move on to the G major scale (1 sharp), then the D major scale (2 sharps, as you have already seen before), etcetera, till you reach the scale of F# (6 sharps). And don’t forget to apply one of the 2 rules (don’t repeat letters & don’t leave gaps). At the end of this lesson you will find the right solutions.

Order for the major scales with sharps:

C major (0 sharps)

G major (1 sharp)

D major (2 sharps)

A major (3 sharps)

E major (4 sharps)

B major (5 sharps)

F# major (6 sharps)

Notice that in the list above, we go up a 5th in every step. So, starting with C major, every time you go up a 5th, the major scale gets one more sharp.

When done, then go to the list of major scales with flats.

Starting with C, every time you go a 5th down, you will get one more flat in the scale. So the list for the major scales with flats is:

C major (0 flats)

F major (1 flat)

Bb major (2 flats)

Eb major (3 flats)

Ab major (4 flats)

Db major (5 flats)

Gb major (6 flats)

Btw, instead of saying a 5th down, I could also have said a 4th up, this is explained in the lesson characteristics of intervals.

You might have noticed that the two lists have together 14 items. That’s strange, because there are only 12 different notes, so also 12 different major scales. Well, as you can see, the C is repeated, so this eliminates already 1 item. When you look well at both lists, you can also see that the last item in list 1 is exactly the same as the last item in list 2: F# and Gb are enharmonic equivalent notes. So they are exactly the same note, only written differently. When you found the right notes for both major scales, you will see that they consist of exactly the same notes, but written as their enharmonic equivalents.

All the major scales (solutions)

It’s time to check if you found the right major scales, so first the table with the major scales with sharps:

Root

(first note)

Notes of the major scale
C C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C
G G   A   B   C   D   E   F#   G
D D   E   F#   G   A   B   C#   D
A A   B   C#   D   E   F#   G#   A
E E   F#   G#   A   B   C#   D#   E
B B   C#   D#   E   F#   G#   A#   B
F# F#   G#   A#   B   C#   D#   E#   F#

And now the table with the major scales with flats:

Root

(first note)

Notes of the major scale
C C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C
F F   G   A   Bb   C   D   E   F
Bb Bb   C   D   Eb   F   G   A   Bb
Eb Eb   F   G   Ab   Bb   C   D   Eb
Ab Ab   Bb   C   Db   Eb   F   G   Ab
Db Db   Eb   F   Gb   Ab   Bb   C   Db
Gb Gb   Ab   Bb   Cb   Db   Eb   F   Gb

 

Compare the F# major scale from the first table with the Gb major scale from the second table: both scales are exactly the same, the notes are only written differently.

Note also the E#, which is enharmonic equivalent with F, and the Cb, the enharmonic equivalent of B.

Other enharmonic equivalent scales

You might have asked yourself: “Why are the Gb and F# scales listed as enharmonic equivalent scales and not for example Db and C#, or Ab and G#? Why are only the ‘flat scales’ listed?”

You will understand this better with the circle of fifths, but the short answer is: “Of course, you can make the C# major scale, the G# major scale and so on, but they have so many sharps (even double sharp notes), that they become difficult to handle.” What would you prefer? The Ab major scale with 4 flats, or the G# major scale with 8 sharps? I think the choice is not so difficult…

 

It’s of very big importance to know well your major scales. It will help you with all the other music theory if you can quickly come up with the right scale in all the 12 different keys. For that purpose, it’s important to practice a lot. The exercise below is an excellent way to practice your major scales.

Place the notes of a major scale on the piano

 

I hope that you learned a lot in this lesson about major scales and that the exercise helped you to quickly master the scales in all 12 keys.

Please tell us what you think of this lesson and the exercise by leaving a comment below.

 

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What are scales? Major scale vs minor scales

What are scales? How can you hear the difference between a major scale and a minor scale?

What are scales?

Let’s start with the first question: what are scales?

A scale is a set of notes (usually 7 different notes) that you can play in ascending order, descending order or in any other order.

You can define a certain scale by the intervals between its consisting notes.

As you will see later, the scale determines the mood of the music.

The difference between a major scale and a minor scale

As I said before, a scale sets the mood of the music. Below, you can listen to the C major scale played in ascending order over a C major chord.

And now, here below, listen to the C (natural) minor scale played in ascending order over a C minor chord.

Did you hear the difference? The major sound is much happier, the minor sound is more sad, tragic or melancholic.

Notice that both scales start on a (low) C and end on a (high) C and consist of 7 different notes (you hear a sequence of 8 notes, but the C is played as the first and lowest note and as the last and highest note, so twice). So the only difference between both scales are the intervals between their consisting notes.

 

I hope you liked this mini-lesson about the difference between major and minor harmony. Please tell us what you think of this lesson by leaving a comment below.

 

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