Melodic Minor Scale (Contexts, Applications & Examples)

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  • Be sure to check out our post all about the different types of minor scales.
  • Recognize a melody built using the melodic minor scale
  • Learn how to build the melodic minor scale in any key

types of minor scales infographic

You have built a powerful bassline and tweaked your chord progression until it is just right. All that is missing now is a lead melody to tie the whole thing together, but no matter what you do, you can’t seem to find the right collection of notes to do the trick.

You know you’re working in a minor key area, but the pitches of the natural minor scale just don’t sound quite right. I have the perfect tool for you, and it is called the melodic minor scale.

In this short article, we’ll investigate the melodic minor scale, along with the theory behind it, so that you can finally leave behind the days of fussing over a dull melody in a minor key.

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

Breaking Down The Melodic Minor Scale

The melodic minor scale is the perfect tool for crafting melodies in minor key areas because it improves on the limitations of both the natural minor scale and the harmonic minor scale. Unlike the natural minor scale, the melodic minor scale features a semitone between scale degree 7 and the tonic.

Unlike the harmonic minor scale, the melodic minor scale has only a whole-step, and not an augmented 2nd, between scale degrees 6 and 7.

The Formula

The trick is to raise scale degree 6 by a half-step, along with scale degree 7, so that the formula (in whole steps) for the melodic minor scale is:

W – H – W – W – W – W – H

In tones and semitones, that would be:

– – – – – – S

But that’s not all; the truly ingenious element of the melodic minor scale is that it changes on the way down. The formula for the descending melodic minor scale is:

– – – – – – W

In tones and semitones, that would be:

– – – – – – T

The ascending scale features the raised sixth and seventh scale degrees, but the descending scale is a simple natural minor scale, meaning that scale degrees 6 and 7 each revert down a half-step.

The ascending A melodic minor scale is A, B, C, D, E, F#, G#, A, whereas the descending melodic minor scale is the same as the natural minor scale: A, G, F, E, D, C, B, A.

The A Melodic Minor scale, ascending and descending, with intervals between each pitch notated as a W (whole-step) or h (half-step).

The same pattern holds true for the B melodic minor scale, which is B, C#, D, E, F#, G#, A#, B, A, G, F#, E, D, C#, B.

The B Melodic Minor scale, ascending and descending.

Why Does The Melodic Minor Scale Work So Well?

The secret to the melodic minor scale’s usefulness for building strong melodies in minor key areas is in the way it differentiates between the approach to tonic and the departure from tonic. Switching up scale degrees six and seven in the ascending and descending scales widens the palette, giving the musician more control over tension.

Through judicious use of the melodic minor scale, a musician can pour on the tension in a passage approaching tonic, but then scale it back in the denouement following the climax and resolution. The climb up can be arduous, and the walk down far less dramatic.

Just as there is a tradeoff in raising scale degree 7 in the harmonic minor scale, the melodic minor scale’s raising of scale degrees 6 and 7 comes with consequences: there is very little difference between the ascending melodic minor scale and the major scale.

In fact, scale degree 3 is the only thing standing between the ascending melodic minor scale and becoming a major scale. It is for this reason that some phrases leaning heavily on scale degrees 6 and 7 in the ascending melodic minor scale will clash with diatonic chords in minor keys.

For example, the iv chord in E Minor is A Minor, which features a C-natural, but the ascending E Melodic Minor scale is E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D#, E.

Drawing from the ascending scale for the melody overlaying this common predominant chord might not be a good idea, but that is why the descending scale is different from the ascending scale. Not only does the descending scale make it possible to avoid clashing with diatonic chords, it also reasserts the minor quality of the key.

A melodic fragment in E Melodic Minor with a chordal accompaniment and raised scale degrees 6 and 7 annotated as #6 and #7.

Examples & Applications Of The Melodic Minor Scale In Popular Music

One great place to start when utilizing a new musical tool involves listening to successful examples of its usage in popular music. The following three songs come from a broad span in terms of both time and genre, but they might already be familiar to you. Have a listen to help attune your ear to the power of the melodic minor scale.

The Beatles feature the melodic minor scale prominently in “Yesterday.” A raised scale degree 6 and 7 can be heard in “all my troubles” before they are lowered in the descending “looks as though.”

“Autumn Leaves,” the jazz standard originally composed by Joseph Kosma, is performed by jazz players all around the world, but below is a version performed by Nat King Cole. The song features a circle of fifths chord progression in which scale degrees 6 and 7 are raised over the dominant chord that leads, finally, to the tonic.

In true melodic minor fashion, scale degrees 6 and 7 are not raised over the VI Maj 7 chord or the ii half-dim 7 chords that precede the dominant.

Carol of the Bells is a great example of the melodic minor scale in action, as the descending melodies stick to the descending melodic minor scale (or the natural minor scale) whereas the ascending runs feature the raised half-steps on scale degrees 6 and 7 found in the ascending melodic minor scale. Here is a version of this classic tune as performed by Cimorelli.

Tips For Using The Melodic Minor Scale

The best guidance for using a new musical tool will always be to play around with it and follow your ear, but you can do that later. For now, here are some shortcuts:

  • The melodic minor scale can be built using any starting pitch and the formula noted above, so simply match your scale to the tonic of your minor key to get started.
  • The ascending melodic minor scale–particularly emphasizing scale degree 5 and raised scale degrees 6 and 7–works nicely with dominant-function chords immediately prior to the resolution to the tonic (or even to the sub-mediant in the case of a deceptive cadence)
  • The descending melodic minor scale typically works best with tonic and predominant-function chords well before the climax of a chord progression.
  • The raised 6 and 7 of the ascending melodic minor scale will clash with any diatonic chords in a minor key that feature un-raised scale degrees 6 or 7–in those instances, the descending configuration of the scale will sound better.
  • Mixing in pitches of the melodic minor scale to which you intend to modulate prior to modulating to a new key will add some drama and tension, making the arrival of the new key even more satisfying.

A Momentary Departure From The Norm

The raised 6 and 7 of the melodic minor scale represent a divergence from the pitches normally heard as part of the natural minor scale, which is the most common minor scale referenced in building melodies in a minor scale.

So why would musicians use this less-common tool?

For the same reason musicians are constantly on the look-out for unique software instruments and plugins.

We, as creators, want to make things that have not been made yet, and the further we can get away from the norm (within reason), the better.

The melodic minor scale is just like one of these unique, relatively unknown new tools that will allow you to make unexpected new tunes, except that it is totally free and yours for the taking.

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