Harmonic Minor Scale (Contexts, Applications & Examples)

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  • Be sure to check out our post all about the different types of minor scales.
  • Learn how to build the harmonic minor scale in any key
  • Recognize the harmonic minor scale in action

The harmonic minor scale is so-named because of its role in shoring up functional harmony in a minor key. The raised scale degree 7 in the harmonic minor scale makes strong dominant-function chords possible because of the tendency of the raised 7th to resolve upwards by step to the tonic.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the theory behind the harmonic minor scale, including both how to build it and how to use it, before listing some examples of its use in popular music.

P.S. Why not consider sharpening your knowledge on the two other minor scales while you’re here…?

Breaking Down The Harmonic Minor Scale

Though the harmonic minor scale shares a great deal in common with the other two heptatonic minor scales, its distinction allows it to serve a unique function in music written in minor keys. The natural minor scale is the Aeolian mode without any modifications. The melodic minor scale can be thought of as a natural minor scale that has been modified to account for the approach to and departure from tonic, in that it features raised scale degrees 6 and 7 to create a tendency toward the tonic in the ascending scale (approaching tonic), but not in the descending scale (departing tonic). These differences are intended to inform the writing of strong melodies, hence the name melodic minor.

The harmonic minor scale is a different animal, in that its use is primarily geared towards harmony, and the interval that results from the raised 7th poses a challenge in the melodic context. The flip side of raising scale degree 7 is that it creates an augmented 2nd between scale degrees 6 and 7. The harmonic minor scale is the only scale that features this incredibly distinctive interval, and whether or not musicians choose to avoid this sound informs how they use the harmonic minor scale when writing in melodic contexts, as we will see in the examples at the end of the article.

The Formula

Just like every other scale, the harmonic minor scale can be encapsulated in a formula and moved all around the even-tempered 12 pitches of our pitch system so that any starting note can be expanded into a harmonic minor scale. Simply begin with the starting pitch (the tonic, or scale degree 1) and add the pitches above it spaced out according to the formula.

The formula for the harmonic minor scale is:

W – H – W – W – H – W½ – H

In tones and semitones, that would be:

– – – – – T½ – S

whole-step, half-step, whole-step, whole-step, half-step, augmented 2nd, half-step.

As noted above, the W – h – W – W – h – W1/2 – h formula can be applied to any starting pitch to create a harmonic minor scale. The B Harmonic Minor scale is B, C#, D, E, F#, G, A#, B.

The Augmented 2nd

The augmented 2nd, composed of three half-steps, is the most recognizable feature of the scale. Depending on who is describing it, this interval might be described in a number of ways, many of which connoting a sense of “foreign-ness.” The fact is, multiple factors have contributed to western ears hearing three semitones separating two scale degrees as “not from around here.” To understand these factors we will have to take a trip back in time.

Counterpoint pre-dates chordal harmony in Western Art Music. Before there were three voices forming triads there were two voices moving independently of one another. The musical practices of medieval composers were reflected often in those of the Renaissance who imitated musical elements that they liked and dispensed with those upon which they felt they could improve.

This process continued over the course of hundreds of years until counterpoint and voice-leading were essentially formalized in the Common Practice Period as a set of best practices taken from careful study of the works of the period written by composers such as J.S. Bach, W.A. Mozart, and Beethoven, to name just a few.

I tell you this so that I can tell you that the augmented 2nd is one of the intervals that did not make the cut as one of the best practices. In fact, students of counterpoint are taught to this day to avoid a melodic augmented 2nd by approaching the leading tone from above and resolving it upwards by step.

The question we’re left with is, which came first? Was there something inherently foreign about the augmented 2nd to the medieval composers who avoided it in their music? Or has the tradition of avoiding the augmented 2nd, handed down through time like a dark family secret, stigmatized the interval so thoroughly that it has developed an inescapable connotation?

Though harmonic textures have grown lusher and melodies ever more varied, and though the popular music of today oscillates between borrowing from and eschewing the formal musical traditions of the past, the impact of the Western Art Music traditions remains omnipresent in popular music.

Examples & Applications Of The Harmonic Minor Scale In Popular Music

The most prevalent role for the harmonic minor scale is in building functional harmonies. As a result of this and the distinctive sound of the augmented 2nd, it is fairly common for a tune to be influenced by the harmonic minor scale, particularly in its chord structure, but for the melody to steer clear of the definitive harmonic minor scale indicator: the augmented second between scale degrees 6 and 7. The four examples below will help to illustrate the range of influence the harmonic minor scale might have on a tune.

Odessa Bulgarish – Traditional Klezmer Tune Performed By Amsterdam Klezmer Band

We’ll open with a tune that really leans into the harmonic minor sound. Klezmer music, as a genre with roots in Jewish musical traditions from across Eastern Europe, does not tend to shy away from the augmented 2nd in the same way that Western European traditions do.

The rules taking shape in formal musical spheres in Salzburg and Vienna in the 18th century held no sway over the composers of the tunes that make up today’s Klezmer canon.

The Odessa Bulgarish (or Bulgar from Odessa) is a Bulgar, which is a particular form of Yiddish music from present-day Moldova.

Though the melody in this (and most, if not all) recordings of this tune is ornamented in the Klezmer style, there is a harmonic minor scale hidden beneath the ornamentations, as is made clear by the augmented 2nd between scale degrees 6 and 7.

Girl – The Beatles

The opening melody in “Girl,” from the 1965 Beatles album Rubber Soul, flirts back and forth between natural minor and harmonic minor. The phrase first heard in “All about the girl who came to stay,” though, is decisively informed by the harmonic minor, with a descending augmented 2nd in the melody. The fluidity of the song’s tonality helps to establish a sort of unsettledness that goes a long way towards accentuating the ambivalence expressed by the lyrics.

Bury A Friend – Billie Eilish

The melody in Billie Eilish’s “bury a friend” features a raised scale degree 7 at the end of the phrase that is repeated twice to make up the chorus of the song. The approach to raised 7 is stepwise from above and the resolution is back up to tonic as well. This is the most common treatment of the raised 7 in minor in popular music, if it occurs in the melody at all, but in approaching raised 7 from above and departing it upwards as well, the listener never gets a chance to hear the augmented 2nd between scale degrees 6 and 7. In this way, we miss out on the most easily identified aspect of harmonic minor in the melody and the harmonic minor scale is used in its most common role as a means of shoring up a strong dominant-function chord in the harmony.

Havana – Camila Cabello

This is our example of a tune that is informed by harmonic minor but that completely disavows the harmonic minor in the melody. Though there is a strong dominant 7th (V7) chord, which requires a raised scale degree 7 in a minor key, the only scale degree 7 that ends up in the melody is the un-raised 7th, suggesting the natural minor is at work in the melody even as the harmonic minor influences the harmony. This un-raised 7th is sung to the “Ooh” before “I knew it when I met him” in the pre-chorus before the arrival of the V7 chord, so it does not clash with the raised 7th there, thus it indicates that the harmonic minor scale in this case is used strictly for informing functional harmony and not for developing the melody.

A Scale With Some Real Flexibility

As demonstrated by our four examples, there is a wide range of influence the harmonic minor scale might have on a song, whether it be restricted to establishing a strong dominant-function chord with a raised 7th scale degree or allowed to steal the show with a melody full of augmented 2nds. With tools like the harmonic minor scale that are flexible enough to apply to a number of different creative scenarios, the choice is your’s, the musician’s, as to whether you’ll lean heavily on the relationship between scale degrees 6 and 7, leave 6 out entirely, or something in between. Whatever you choose, remember: as with all musical tools, simply follow your ear and you can’t go wrong!

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