BackReturn Home

Writing With Minor Scales

As you probably have already noticed, we have been deriving everything from the Major Scales or referencing it against the Major Scales in some way. This helps us to keep everything consistent. We haven't forgotten about the minor Scales though! The minor Scale has a few peculiarities when it comes to Composing with it. We will explore those here.

The Three Types of Minor

When we covered The Tonal System, we only listed the "Natural minor Scales". For example, here is the Key of A Natural minor:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Tonic Supertonic Mediant Subdominant Dominant Submediant Subtonic
A
B
C
D
E
F
G

This is the Relative Key of C Major. It has the same Notes, but in a different order. However, unlike the Major Scale, the 7th Scale Degree is called a "Subtonic" instead of a "Leading Tone". This is because, within a Natural minor Scale, that Note is a Whole-Step lower than the Tonic rather than a Half-Step. It no longer has a Tone Tendency which pushes it towards the Tonic! (We can hear this if we compare the tension produced by the m2 Interval versus the resolution produced by the M2 Interval.)

It also affects the Chords that we get when we Harmonize the Scale. In the Natural minor Scale, the Dominant Chord is minor (v-) instead of Major (V). In order to use the Dominant to Tonic Function (i.e.: the V to I movement), we have to raise that Note a Half-Step. This small change forms a new Scale referred to as the "Harmonic minor Scale". For example, here is the Key of A Harmonic minor:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Tonic Supertonic Mediant Subdominant Dominant Submediant Leading Tone
A
B
C
D
E
F
G♯

Although we can now get a Major V Chord, we also have another large gap between the 6th and 7th Scale Degrees that may conflict with our Melody, depending upon the style of music that we are going for. [When used by itself, many people describe the sound of the Harmonic minor Scale as "exotic" or "non-Western". It can be quite nice!]

Again, we can bridge this gap by raising the Note on the 6th Scale Degree by a Half-Step. This gives us the "Melodic minor Scale". For example, here is the Key of A Melodic minor:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Tonic Supertonic Mediant Subdominant Dominant Submediant Leading Tone
A
B
C
D
E
F♯
G♯

This is where it gets a little strange: The Melodic minor Scale is usually only used when Melodies are Ascending. Whenever a Melody is Descending, we use the Natural minor Scale instead. However, like the use of Harmonic minor, this is mostly a stylistic choice.

To give a specific reason as to why this works, the Upper Tetrachord of the Melodic minor Scale is the same as the Upper Tetrachord of its Parallel Key, the regular Major Scale. In other words, the last four Notes are the same across both Scales. For example, compare the last four Notes of the A Melodic minor Scale given above to the A Major Scale given below. [Remember, the Notes of the Scale loop!]:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Tonic Supertonic Mediant Subdominant Dominant Submediant Leading Tone
A
B
C♯
D
E
F♯
G♯

Also notice that we can turn one of these Scales into the other just by raising or lowering the 3rd Scale Degree by a Half-Step. Much like we did with our Basic Triads, it is often helpful to think of other Scales as simply variations of ones that we already know well. We don't have to learn three different minor Scales, we just have to remember the Notes that we need to make Sharp or Flat within the corresponding Major Scale in order to move between each of them!

Conclusion

In summary:

• The Natural minor Scale is used for Descending lines within the Melody.

• The Harmonic minor Scale has a Sharp 7th Scale Degree and is used to switch the Dominant Chord within the Harmony from a minor (v-) to Major (V).

• The Melodic minor Scale has Sharp 6th and 7th Scale Degrees and is used for Ascending lines within the Melody.

Please keep in mind that none of these are "hard and fast rules". You can use any of these Scales in whatever ways that you like. For example, we could Harmonize the Melodic minor Scale instead of the Harmonic minor Scale. [Many genres, like Jazz, do things like this.] To help faciliate your exploration, here are all of the types of Basic Triads that appear within each Scale:

Melodic minior (Ascending)
i
ii
III+
IV
V
vi°
vii°
Harmonic minor
i
ii°
III+
iv
V
VI
vii°
Natural minor
i
ii°
III
iv
v-
VI
VII



The following pages are similar to the ones we have for the Major Scales:

Pentatonic minor Scales are shown in blue.

Key Signatures are shown on the bottom of each page, along with Enharmonic, Relative, and Parallel Keys whenever appropriate.

• The string of numbers show how to play the Natural minor Scale on a piano (with each hand over the span of two Octaves). "1" means to use your thumb, "2" means to use your index finger, and so on. Again, these are called "Piano Fingerings".

Scales are listed below by increasing numbers of Sharps and Flats...



A



E
B
F♯
C♯
G♯
D♯
A♯



D
G
C
F
B♭
E♭
A♭