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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Martin Cohen
 

Martin Cohen is a science and piano teacher. He is also a jazz musician and composer.

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