Learn how to build the natural minor scale in any key
Recognize a melody built using the natural minor scale
The natural minor scale has long been the go-to for writing melodies with a plaintive, somber character. Also referred to as the Aeolian mode, it contains the same intervals as the major scale, only it begins on what would be the sixth scale degree of a major scale.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the theory behind the natural 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…?
The natural minor scale begins with the same first five scale degrees as the two other heptatonic minor scales (for more on basic theory related to scales, see our overview article on the 3 minor scales).
While the harmonic minor scale features an altered scale degree 7 and the melodic minor scale features altered scale degrees 6 and 7, the natural minor scale sticks to the same intervals found in the major scale. The only difference between the major scale and the natural minor scale is the starting pitch.
This lack of altered pitches is what makes the natural minor scale one of the seven modes, as modes are essentially the different iterations of the major scale beginning on (and thus centering) each of the seven scale degrees.
The natural minor scale is the Aeolian mode, which begins on the sixth scale degree of the major scale (which is also known as the Ionian mode).
The formula for building a minor scale on any pitch is to begin with that pitch (scale degree 1) and add pitches above it according to this pattern.
W – H – W – W – H – W – W
In tones and semitones, that would be:
T – S – T – T – S – T – T
One of the beautiful things about scales is that we musicians only have to learn one formula for each scale. The WhWWhWW formula can be applied to any starting pitch to create a natural minor scale.
Is The Full Version Worth It?
The natural minor scale is not a piece of software; but if it were, the developers would be in a tight spot right now.
Relatively few songwriters of popular music use the full heptatonic scale when writing melodies, instead opting for the minor pentatonic scale for writing music in a minor key.
The minor pentatonic scale is identical to the natural minor scale save for the removal of scale degrees 2 and 6.
The Minor Pentatonic Scale
The minor pentatonic scale carries the reputation of being a silver bullet for writing a melody that sounds good in a minor key. Seemingly any pitch drawn from this five-note scale seems to belong over a chord progression in a minor key.
So what is it about scale degrees 2 and 6 that make the full version of the natural minor scale unwieldy?
Scale degrees 2 and 6 are the most likely to form a dissonant interval with other pitches within a chord progression set in a minor key.
Scale degree 2 is just a half-step away from scale degree 3, which is part of the tonic (i) chord and sub-mediant (or VI) chord, both of which are common as tonic-function chords or, in the case of VI, as a tonic-expander or pre-dominant function chord.
Scale degree 6 is just a half-step away from scale degree 5, which is the chordal fifth of the tonic chord and the root of the dominant chord.
The half-step is also known as the minor 2nd in the previous examples, and it is a pretty jarring dissonance when not prepared and resolved carefully.
The Features Of The Full Version
In the same way that the full version of a piece of software will offer more functionality than the “trial” or “free” version, the natural minor scale offers two pitches excluded from the minor pentatonic scale.
The question is, are they worth including?
While scale degrees 2 and 6 bring with them the risk of introducing unintended dissonance between the melody and a chord progression, the flip side of this risk is an expanded palette for a musician who knows how to use them.
Using The Natural Minor Scale
The first step in making effective use of the natural minor scale is primarily in finding places in a harmonic progression where scale degrees 2 and 6 will not ruffle too many feathers.
Scale degree 2, for example, is already found in the dominant-function chords V and V7, making this chord tone a perfect melodic focal point. It is worth noting, also, that these chords make use of a raised scale degree 7, which would clash pretty severely against the un-raised 7 of the natural minor scale.
Scale degree 6 is in the relatively common iv and VI chords, as well as the iio6 chord that occasionally pops up in a minor chord progression. Scale degree 2 also happens to be the root of the latter chord, which is typically written in the first inversion to avoid the diminished fifth that would otherwise occur between the root and the chordal fifth.
Aside from scale degrees 2 and 6, as noted above, the other principal concern when writing melodies based on this scale is scale degree 7.
It is common enough to raise the seventh scale degree in dominant-function chords that both of the other heptatonic minor scales feature a raised scale degree 7.
For that reason, it is critical to be on the lookout for which version of scale degree 7 (and thus, which version of the minor scale) to use.
Examples & Applications Of The Natural Minor Scale In Popular Music
It took some time to find some great examples of popular melodies informed by the natural minor scale. As noted above, the minor pentatonic scale is so much more prevalent, especially in contemporary tunes. However, the following are several great examples of the natural minor scale in action to get you acquainted with this sound palette.
All Of Me – John Legend
Though this song tends to oscillate between the minor and its related major, the melody to the text “Head’s underwater but I’m breathing fine” first heard at 0:48 is a descending natural minor scale.
Though this pre-chorus section leads to a chorus that is decisively in a major key area, it is not entirely clear up to that point whether or not the key might be more firmly established in the minor key area with which it flirts in an ambivalent modal mixture throughout the first minute of the song. Part of what makes this modal mixture work is the lack of a clear leading tone resolving to tonic throughout the entire piece.
Hello – Adele
The melody of Adele’s “Hello” is purely informed by the natural minor. This song provides an excellent example of how flexible scales can be, since music is so much more than simple pitch relations. The reflective tone of the verse and the anguished energy of the chorus show us how a key change is not the only way to change the feeling of a piece of music, and the palette afforded by a single scale contains infinite potential to a dynamic musician.
Umbrella – Rihanna
This is not an example of a melody written entirely in natural minor, but rather an example of a song with a melody written entirely in natural minor except for one note at the end of the bridge. The note Rihanna uses to sing the second half of “more” around 2:24 is a raised scale degree 7.
This is the one example of this pitch in the entire melody, and it occurs quite possibly at the height of tension in the bridge melody, in what I would call the climax of the song.
I include this example in spite of the fact that it does not contain a perfect example of a melody informed by the natural minor scale because it provides, on the other hand, a wonderful example of using these scales flexibly and judiciously to add a touch of spice to a harmonic moment in a piece of music.
Exploring New Sound Worlds
The natural minor scale informs the creation of melodies with a clear character to them. Music does not derive its character solely from pitches and their relationships to each other, so the end result of a melody informed by the natural minor scale might be influenced by any number of other musical considerations.
Nuance aside, however, there is something about the flat-3, flat-6, and flat-7 that separate the natural minor scale from the major scale that makes the world of the former sound totally unlike that of the latter.
Spending time in a different sound world can be such an invigorating experience for a musician, so why not challenge yourself to play around with the natural minor scale?
If you have been playing mostly with the trial version in the form of the minor pentatonic scale, then I have good news: the full version is free too!