This lesson covers the construction of the Natural Minor, Harmonic Minor and Melodic Minor scales and how they relate to Minor keys. The concept of relative major and minor keys is also discussed with reference to Key Signatures.
The Natural Minor Scale
The natural minor scale is made up of the root note, major 2nd, minor 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, minor 6th and minor 7th. In scale degrees this would be 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7.
Just as the major scale is used as our pallet of notes for playing within a major key, the minor scale is used as our pallet of notes for playing in a minor key. The minor scale has a more melancholy sound than the major scale and is usually associated with sad songs.
Minor Key Signatures
In previous lessons on this course, the key signatures were determined by the number of sharps or flats in the key signature. So the key of G major has one sharp in the key signature as the scale has one sharp. The key of Eb major has three flats as its scale has three flats. Minor key signatures are determined in the same way but it just so happens that every minor key shares its signature with another major key.
We know that C major has no sharps or flats in its scale or key signature – neither does A minor. This makes A minor the relative minor of C major. This also works the other way round – C major is the relative major of A minor.
To work out the relative minor of a major key, you simply count down a minor third from the tonic. To find the relative major, you count up a minor third from the tonic of the minor key.
Harmonic Minor Scale
This scale is the same as the natural minor scale but with a major 7th instead of a minor 7th. Here are the scale degrees:
1 2 b3 4 5 b6 7
This scale could be thought of as the stereotypical classical sound – the major 7th is used for a stronger pull to the tonic, like in the major scale. This is an important factor in chord progressions as the dominant chord (chord V) in this key is better used as a major chord rather than a minor chord like in the natural minor scale. The harmonic minor is the most common scale used in minor keys so it is definitely worth experimenting with.
This scale is quite unusual in the way that has a different ascent and descent. The ascent is the same as the harmonic minor, but with a major 6th instead of a minor 6th.
1 2 b3 4 5 6 7
In other words, it is the same as a major scale with a flat third.
In its descent, we use the natural minor scale.
1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
The notation below shows the scale when ascending and descending.
This goes back to the composers of ‘yesteryear’ – the harmonic minor scale has a major 7th, which provides a strong pull back to the tonic. Composers would want to use this pull to provide a stronger sense of resolution. From a chordal perspective, the harmonic minor works well – there’s a nice sense of key and tonal gravity. However, it is a bit problematic from a melodic point of view as the interval between the b6 and 7 is an augmented 2nd, which isn’t classed as smooth scale movement. So by changing the minor 6th to a major 6th, the interval changes to a major 2nd and is much smoother, but we also keep the leading tone going up to the tonic – giving a nice pull. When coming down on the natural minor scale, we make use of the minor 6th but change the 7 to a minor in order to keep the major 2nd interval.
When we write music for the melodic and harmonic minor scales, the key signature remains the same as the natural minor scale. We just use accidentals for the raised 6th and 7th degrees as and when we need to. A composition in A minor would use the same key signature as C major – no flats or sharps. If we were using the A harmonic minor scale then we would keep the same key signature and simply use accidentals for the G#.
The melodic minor is also used in modern music in both its ascending and descending forms. This scale is often called the jazz minor as it is used loads in jazz improvisation. To play this scale we play the ascending form of the melodic minor – the same both up and down.
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