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What are the 3 different minor scales?
Understand how to construct them
Learn how to use them effectively
Back To Basics: What Are Scales?
For many musicians, the word “scale” is enough to bring back dark memories. Anybody who has ever taken piano lessons knows something about scales, and anybody who has stopped taking piano lessons probably does not remember them fondly. For those of us writing music, however, it is important to realize that scales are not exclusively drills, practice exercises, and warmups; they’re also tools for composition.
In fact, scales are such powerful tools that entire plugins, like Scaler 2, are devoted to helping musicians make sense of them.
Scales are important tools, so much so that there are apps like Scaler 2 out there designed to help musicians use them more effectively. Scaler determines what key and scale you’re in and suggest chords that match your music.
Essentially, a scale is just a collection of pitches.
Each scale is curated for a particular purpose, so choosing a scale is like choosing a tool.
Different compositions call for different scales, in the same way that different carpentry projects call for different woodworking tools. Oftentimes, when we get stuck on a particular chunk of melody, all it means is that we have chosen the hammer when we needed the saw.
The Difference Between Natural, Harmonic & Melodic Minor
Here’s a quick overview of the formulas before diving deeper into each of them individually.
T – S – T – T – S – T – T
T - T - S - T - T - S - T
T – S – T – T – S – T½ – S
S - T½ - S - T - T - S - T
T – S – T – T – T – T – S
T – T – S – T – T – S – T
Diving Deeper Into Heptatonic Scales
The three scales that are the focus of this article have a lot in common. First of all, they are each heptatonic scales, which means that they are each composed of seven distinct pitches before repeating.
Each of these pitches is assigned a number, or scale degree, from 1-7. We will use these numbers to distinguish between the scales.
Another similarity between each of the three types of minor scales is in the first five pitches. Each of the minor scales contains the same first five scale degrees, which only leaves scale degrees 6 and 7 to differentiate between the three scales.
The Natural Minor Scale
The intervals separating the seven scale degrees of the natural minor scale follow the pattern:
To build the natural minor scale, you take the major scale formula but start it on the sixth scale degree (for more on the major scale, check out our article here).
Because of this relationship between major and minor, you can take any major scale and start it on the sixth scale degree of the scale in order to find a natural minor scale. The minor key area related to a major key in this way is known as the relative minor of the major key you’re using to find it.
For example, the relative minor of C Major is A Minor. The natural minor scale starting on A is just a C Major scale with a different starting pitch: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A.
Following the same pattern, the relative minor of D Major is B Minor: B, C#, D, E, F#, G, A, B.
The Natural Minor Scale’s Limitations
While there is only one heptatonic (meaning seven tones) major scale, there are three different heptatonic minor scales. The differences are all based on the approach to the tonic, or starting pitch, of the scale.
The major scale features a half-step (also known as a semitone) between scale degree 7 (also known as the leading tone) and the tonic. The leading tone is so named because of its strong tendency to resolve to the tonic.
Whether it is part of a chord or part of a melody, the leading tone always wants to find its way to the tonic. The natural minor scale does not have this semitone between scale degree 7 and the tonic, so it loses some of its forward momentum.
The harmonic minor scale is exactly the same as the natural minor scale with the exception of one scale degree. The harmonic minor scale features a raised scale degree 7, while the other scale degrees remain in place.
The augmented 2nd, composed of three half-steps, is the most recognizable feature of the scale. The A Harmonic Minor scale is A, B, C, D, E, F, G#, A.
The B Harmonic Minor scale, following suit, is B, C#, D, E, F#, G, A#, B.
The prominence of the augmented 2nd leads a lot of musicians to shy away from it or to use it only very sparingly, as it will immediately change the character of a piece of music. Most of us do not follow these conventions, but it is notable that the augmented 2nd is a forbidden melodic interval in Common Practice Counterpoint.
Thus, European composition students of the 18th and early 19th centuries would have been instructed to approach a raised scale degree 7 from above and not from scale degree 6 in a minor mode.
The melodic minor scale differs from the other two minor scales in two ways. The most prominent departure from the other two minor scales is in the fact that the melodic minor scale is different in its ascending form from its descending form.
The ascending melodic minor scale is identical to the natural minor scale except for the addition of 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 in the descending scale.
The ascending A melodic minor scale is A, B, C, D, E, F#, G#, A, whereas the descending A melodic minor scale is the same as the natural minor scale: A, G, F, E, D, C, B, A.
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 pitch system we use within most of the musical world is known as equal temperament, as it is composed of twelve equally-tuned half-steps (for more on tuning systems, check out our article on the reference pitch debate here).
Equal temperament allows us a lot of flexibility when it comes to moving between keys. This means that any scale formula can be applied to any starting pitch to build the scale in the new key area.
Players of physical instruments often have to use different hand and finger positions from one scale to another, but a musician working on a computer can take a scale, or a melody composed with reference to a scale, and drag it up or down in the piano roll to end up in a new key area with a new scale composed of the exact same intervals as the old one.
General Tips for Choosing A Minor Scale
When writing melodies for pre-existing chord progressions, the easiest way to select a scale to reference when composing your melody is to look at pitches within the chords themselves.
Generally, if the pitches of the chords fall within a particular scale, that is the scale that will inform the smoothest melody least likely to clash.
When it comes to minor scales, the fact that there is so much overlap between them means that you only have to be on the lookout for specific instances in which you might have to make a decision between your three options.
In fact, many musicians think of the melodic minor and harmonic minor scales as simple variations of the natural minor scale.
Generally, the best practice is to avoid putting raised scale degrees 6 and 7 over any chord featuring the un-raised scale degrees.
This means some pre-dominant function chords, like VI and iv, in particular, do not blend well the ascending melodic minor scale.
It also means that the natural minor scale’s scale degree 7 tends to clash with the raised leading tone found in the dominant (V) chord. The raised leading tone found in the other two minor scales is best suited to that harmonic situation.
As noted earlier, the harmonic minor scale features an augmented 2nd between scale degree 6 and scale degree 7. The harmonic minor scale is the only one out of the three minor scales with this interval, which gives it a flavor that sets it apart from the other two minor scales.
For many musicians, it is so distinct that it has acquired something of a clichéd effect. This is not by any means to warn against its use, only to suggest that musicians be aware of connotations summoned by the sound of music.
While we have control over what we create, we do not necessarily have control over the perceptions of our audience, so we have to navigate the listening landscape as it is offered to us.
The harmonic minor scale and melodic minor scale only depart from the natural minor scale in their ascending approach to the tonic.
It is for this reason that melodies informed by these scales generally arise in dominant-function areas within chord progressions, as these are the areas most concerned with getting back to the tonic.
Are identical ascending and descending
T – S – T – T – S – T – T
Are identical ascending and descending
T – S – T – T – S – T½ – S
Contain a raised 7th
Differ ascending and descending
Ascending: T – S – T – T – T – T – S
Descending: T – T – S – T – T – S – T
Ascending contains a raised 6th and 7th
Descending contains a flattened 6th and 7th
One More Tool In The Toolkit
The important thing to remember with any musical convention is that there are no hard and fast rules, only tools in an ever-expanding toolkit.
Melodies are not written in scales so much as informed by scales. Next time you have a melody that seems close but just isn’t quite right yet, try raising your 7th scale degree, or maybe even your 6th and your 7th scale degrees, and see what happens.
If it works, then you have used a tool to solve a musical problem. If not, there’s always another tool!