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Unlocking the Secrets of Minor Scales: A Step-by-Step Guide for Musicians

Updated: May 13

When we learn scales, we often start with major scales. Hello C major! Easy - all white notes - and then more often than not we gradually incorporate new scales into the mix by progressing up the Circle of Fifths (G major, D major etc.) and Fourths (F major, Bb major etc.), so as to not introduce too many black notes in one go (unless you happened to be a student of Chopin, in which case welcome to piano - here's a B major scale!)


Most people - even those who consider themselves non-musical or 'tone deaf' - are able to distinguish between the major and minor key (the 'happy' and the 'sad', respectively), and so it stands to reason that there are indeed minor scales that at some point need to be brought into our practice.


But where are they? How do we find them? All these questions that I am here to walk you through the answers for as we explore minor scales.


But first, let's discuss...



The Relative Minor



Regardless of whether I expect my pupils to actually play a minor scale - or any piece in a minor key - I like to mention the idea of relative minors quite early on in the process. In a nutshell, the relative minor is a minor key that shares the same notes as the major key in question (i.e the same notes are sharp or flat).


C major is a fantastic place to start here, for C major is an entirely white note based scale (C-D-E-F-G-A-B), so somewhere within that sequence we are able to start on a different note and play an ascending scale using the same notes (all white notes) but create a scale that will now sound sad (minor - get it?!).


Let's refresh the C major scale:




There are a few ways to remember how to find the relative minor, but they are all academic so the best advice I can give you is to just learn the rule - the relative minor is the sixth degree of the major scale.


So if we find the relative minor of C major, we would be looking at:


C - 1

D - 2

E - 3

F - 4

G - 5

A - 6


And now we have established that the sixth degree is A, throw the word 'minor' on the end and we can complete our epic discovery: the relative minor of C major is A minor!


And now we can get our first taste of a minor scale by using exactly the same rules as C major (i.e. all white notes and the exact same fingering), only we will be starting on A: A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A .



A minor scale harmonic natural melodic Jack Mitchell Smith Macclesfield Congleton piano teacher music theory pianist Cheshire
Notated A Natural Minor scale, starting on the A just below Middle C

Let's see it played and hear how it sounds:





Try playing it for yourself and incorporating it into your practice in exactly the same ways as you would your major scale(s) - hands separately / hands together / 2 + octaves etc. and you are on your way to understanding minor tonality and minor keys!


What we have learnt here is called the 'natural minor' scale (a.k.a 'Aeolian Mode'), and these always bear direct note for note relation to their relative major.


A slightly more advanced example could be Bb major: the scale of Bb major is Bb-C-D-Eb-F-G-A, so to find the relative minor we look for the sixth degree:


Bb - 1

C - 2

D - 3

Eb - 4

F - 5

G - 6


and throw the word 'minor' on the end to recognise that: the relative minor of Bb major is G minor!


...and then we play a scale starting on G (warning - you will be using a different fingering as you are starting on a white note and not a black note!), but because Bb major had not one but 2 flats in it, we still honour those to create a G natural minor scale: G-A-Bb-C-D-Eb-F.


The natural minor scale is the basis of much contemporary music - aside from rock and roll and pop music, a lot of modern classical music (such as film scores) uses it. If we chord-ify the A natural minor scale, we would have the following chords:


A minor

B diminished*

C

D minor

E minor

F

G


*Advanced Note: a diminished chord is one where the typical major triad formed from the corresponding major scale has both the third and fifth degree lowered (diminished) by a semitone. For example, a B diminished would take the three degrees of a B major triad (B - 1, D# - 3 and F# - 5) and lower the D# and F# by one semitone to create B - D♮ - F♮ . It is not a particularly commonly used chord, and in order to create a more pleasing and accessible chord-ification, you can instead consider the B as the bottom note of an inversion of chord VII - in this instance. This would create B - D - G, therefore our chord-ification would now read as Am, G/B, C, Dm, Em, F, G.


...which an awful lot of modern music honours in some capacity:



A minor scale harmonic natural melodic Jack Mitchell Smith Macclesfield Congleton piano teacher music theory pianist Cheshire
Notated A Natural Minor Scale Chord-ified

Have a listen at how the harmony of a natural minor scale comes together when chord-ified:





However, the minor key doesn't stop there. If you are ready to learn a little more about it, let's learn how the minor key in classical music was a little bit different as we look at...



The Harmonic Minor Scale



The harmonic minor scale is almost identical to the natural minor scale - with a twist. This is down to something called the 'raised seventh'. I can probably assume that you'll have worked out by now what this is, but if not, you'll soon be kicking yourself at how rationally this is named!


In our natural minor scale, we must first identify the seventh note:


A - 1

B - 2

C - 3

D - 4

E - 5

F - 6

G - 7


...and all we do is raise it by one semitone (one semitone being the note right next to the note you're on - whether black or white). In the case of G, this raises it to that black note that sits in the middle of the three black notes, and because we have raised a white note by one semitone, we consider that this is a sharp note (G#).


So our new A harmonic minor scale is A-B-C-D-E-F-G#-A



A minor scale harmonic natural melodic Jack Mitchell Smith Macclesfield Congleton piano teacher music theory pianist Cheshire
Notated A Harmonic Minor Scale starting on the A just below Middle C

Note that when writing in the key of A minor - whether natural or harmonic - you still write according to the key of the relative major. So, despite the A harmonic minor (and many pieces in the key of A minor) featuring G#, these would still be considered as accidentals in the notation. The key signature would follow the rule of the relative major - in this case, C major, therefore, no sharps or flats noted.


Let's have a listen and a watch before you give it a go yourself:





It can sound a little odd at first for those of us used to the natural minor scale, but it is a crucial aspect of western classical music.



The Raised Seventh Explored...



Remember how we chord-ified our natural minor scale?


Well, if we were to redo that exercise only this time replacing all the Gs with our newfound G#, we would see some different results:


A minor (1)

B dimished (2)*

C augmented (3)

D minor (4)

E (5)

F (6)

G# diminished (7)*


*Advanced Note: as previously mentioned, a first inversion G major chord could be substituted for the B diminished. Similarly, our G# diminished could be altered to an inversion of E (G# - B - E), but because E in this instance is the fifth degree, it's worth noting that the fifth degree of any major or minor scale is of the utmost importance. It is called the dominant, and you will often hear in modern and classical music the use of the dominant seventh. This is when the seventh degree from the dominant note is added on top of its usual tried. For E major, this creates E - G# - B - D, and you may note that the top three notes here are effectively the same as the G# diminished we started with! Therefore, this degree can be considered - to an extent - an inversion of the dominant seventh, although you would require the root note to clarify that (keeping it as a triad, you could use G# - D - E).



A minor scale harmonic natural melodic Jack Mitchell Smith Macclesfield Congleton piano teacher music theory pianist Cheshire
Notated A Harmonic Minor Scale Chord-ified

Have a listen to the difference in harmony now we have replaced all of our Gs with G#s:





The most crucial difference here is the fifth chord is no longer minor - E minor has become E major. And any order of transition between the tonic (the root chord - in this instance A minor), the subdominant (the fourth chord - in this case D minor) and the dominant (the fifth chord - in this instance E major) was a core principle in minor key compositions throughout the Baroque, Classical and even Romantic era. From Beethoven's 'Für Elise' to Mozart's 'Symphony No. 40', from Bach's 'Toccata and Fugue in D minor' to even traditional pieces such as 'Coventry Carol', the reason classical music often sounds fundamentally different in the minor key to today's music in the minor key is because it bases itself structurally around the harmonic minor scale, both melodically and harmonically.


Of course, life would be too straightforward if that is where we stopped. There is, however, one more degree of the minor scale to look upon. Don't worry - it will be familiar in some regards, but until you feel confident with the natural and harmonic minors, try not to worry too much about...



The Melodic Minor Scale



This scale is almost as straightforward as going up harmonically and coming down naturally.


Almost.


Once again, there is a twist.


Remember how we raised the seventh for the harmonic minor? Well, we're still keeping that, only now we have another raised note to deal with:


The raised sixth.


So, our A harmonic minor scale currently looks like this:


A - 1

B - 2

C - 3

D - 4

E - 5

F - 6

G# - 7


Note that F is the sixth degree, and note how big a jump them is between F and G#. Quite an interval!


So the purpose of the melodic minor is to close that gap a little and to create a scale that - when ascending - will honour the use of what's called a leading note (the seventh degree that is always one semitone below the tonic - the harmonic minor raises the seventh for this very purpose) but to ensure that the entire scale is made up only of semitones and tones like all other major and minor scales. Therefore, we just need to raise the sixth note (F) by one semitone (F#) to create a brand new scale: A-B-C-D-E-F#-G#-A


BUT


Before I declare victory on having taught you the A melodic minor scale, there is one more little twist. BOTH raised notes are only used on the ascent. When it comes time to descend, you do so like the natural minor scale (to refresh - this is the scale that is identical notes to the relative major - in this case C major!).


So one octave of an A melodic minor would read like this:


A - B - C - D - E - F# -G# - A - G(♮) - F(♮) - E - D - C - B - A



A minor scale harmonic natural melodic Jack Mitchell Smith Macclesfield Congleton piano teacher music theory pianist Cheshire
Notated A Melodic Minor Scale (Ascending and Descending) starting on the A just below Middle C

Have a watch and a listen, then try it for yourself:





The ascending half of the melodic minor scale is also known as the 'jazz minor scale', and it is widely encouraged as a framework for good, solid jazz performance and improvisation.


The utilisation of a harmonic minor scale (with raised sixth) alongside a natural minor scale has led to some ingenious progression - particularly in contemporary music. If we were to try and chord-ify the A melodic minor scale, we could incorporate both E major and E minor into our music thanks to the harmonic use of the G# on ascent and the natural use of G on descent.. Latin American music is a great example of where both can be found - think of how a Spanish guitar can strum the chords A minor - G major (natural) - F major (natural) and then E major (harmonic - because of the G#).


Let's not forget that thanks to the raised sixth of an ascending melodic minor, we can also chord-ify our fourth chord (the subdominant) any one of two ways (in this example; D major or D minor). This can create, sudden contrasts - and not necessarily ones that are displeasing to the ear. However, it's important to remember that regular sharps or flats will point you closer to a harmonic / natural key signature (for example, modulation only between the chords of A minor and D major would probably not be written in the key of A minor using the melodic minor as its justification. Because D major has an F# and otherwise we are focused more on white notes, it would be much much more inkeeping to notate this in the key of G major / E minor).


Melodic minor scales may be a touch confusing, but once you master playing them then you've covered as much ground as you need to with them! The above paragraphs are purely academic and do nothing more than justify its place - particularly in contemporary music. If you are studying theory or taking piano exams, you will be required to have a good understanding / performance of them (they usually kick in at Grade 3), so it is worth getting to grips with them.


 

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