Welcome to my 500th post! As a side note, 95% of them have been in MT... . I figured I'd do something a little more meaningful to celebrate. I've had to talk about the Harmonic and Melodic Minor scales quite a bit lately, as there seems to be a lot of confusion about how to use them; I figure that a lesson is called for.

Let me know if you find this helpful: I might end up re-writing it and posting it as a UG lesson if it proves informative.

Constructing the Scales

The three main minor scales are as follows:

Natural Minor:
1 - 2 - b3 - 4 - 5 - b6 - b7

Harmonic Minor:
1 - 2 - b3 - 4 - 5 - b6 - 7

Melodic Minor:
1 - 2 - b3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7

Scalar Motion

The minor second (half-step) is perhaps the strongest possible movement in Western music. It can create serious tension or release it in a powerful manner. Naturally, harmonically strong scales have portions of their tonic triad lead into by a minor second. Take the Major scale, the foundation of Western music:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7

There is a half-step between the major seventh and octave (tonic) and another between the perfect fourth and major third. This small interval creates a powerful lead-in to both the tonic and it's third, which are the two most important notes of a major triad--the perfect fifth being often expendable. When both tension notes are combined harmonically and resolve properly, it creates a powerful cadence that effectively establishes a major key. Try this example, in B major:

    F#7 B 

It's a potent sound. Notice the higher two voices: in the F#7 chord, there is an A# and E; in the B chord, they resolve to B and D#, respectively. Notice that in a B major scale...

B - C# - D# - E - F# - G# - A#

...that the E and A# represent the 4th and 7th. They move by minor second to D# and B, the 1st and 3rd of the key. The most powerful resolution to B major comes from the two chords that have these two notes in them: F#7 and A#* (A# diminished.)

The Three Minors

We'll be looking for similar motion in our Natural Minor scale. As a reminder, it is created by the following intervals:

1 - 2 - b3 - 4 - 5 - b6 - b7

The two half-steps in this scale lie between the major second and minor third as well as the minor 6th and perfect fifth. Notice that nothing is leading into the tonic, the central note that we wish to establish. Instead, the strongest tensions are resolving to b3 and 5, or the tonic and third of the relative major. Not only does this mean our tonic resolution will not be as strong in this Natural Minor scale, it also means that we might accidentally resolve to the relative major, as it has a stronger gravity.

I have once heard this labeled "the Minor problem." This is where the Harmonic Minor comes in. Remember that it is built like so:

1 - 2 - b3 - 4 - 5 - b6 - 7

Everything is the same as Natural Minor, but the Harmonic Minor features a major seventh instead of the usual minor seventh. Notice that this is the same seventh that was in the Major scale, located a minor second below the tonic. Now we have a minor second pulling to each of the three notes of the tonic triad: 7 -> 1, 2 -> 3 and b6 -> 5. This gives us a strong harmonic resolution that won't be confused with the relative major, thus this scalled is dubbed "Harmonic Minor."

Everything is all peaches and cream for establishing a strong minor key, but there is one last problem to solve: there is an awkward interval between the minor sixth and major seventh of the scale. This is an augmented second. The sound of the augmented second has been described as giving this scale an 'exotic' feel that has become popular in the modern era. However, in the Common Practice Period (classical music's heydey,) this was seen as a problem: it creates uneven melodies and voice-leading concerns. To solve this problem, composers of old modified their minor scale once more, leaving us with the Melodic Minor scale:

1 - 2 - b3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7

The augmented gap between the sixth and seventh degrees has been smoothed over with a typical major second, giving the back end of this scale a nice, even feel. We lose the half-step between the sixth and fifth intervals, but as previously mentioned, the fifth is often expendable. Notice that both the major seventh and major second resolve upwards by a half-step. This is called parallel motion: it does not sound as strong as contrary motion (where once voice falls and one rises.) Due to this and the tritone (which craves resolution because of its natural instability) created between 4 and 7, resolving to the minor third is often approached from the perfect fourth. The whole-step motion is not as strong as a half-step would be, giving our minor key a unique feel, differentiating it from major keys.
Nothing that is worthwhile in life will ever come easy.
Harmonizing the Scales

Now that some technical explanation is out of the way, it's time to get more practical. Let's harmonize the three scales to find out what chords lie within. I'll use the key of Fm to give a more practical example.

Natural Minor:
F - G - Ab - Bb - C - Db - Eb

Fm G*   Ab  Bbm Cm Db  Eb
i  ii* bIII iv  v bVI bVII

Harmonic Minor:
F - G - Ab - Bb - C - Db - E

Fm G*   Ab+  Bbm C  Db  E*
i  ii* bIII+ iv  V bVI vii*

Melodic Minor:
F - G - Ab - Bb - C - D - E

Fm Gm  Ab+  Bb C  D*   E*
i  ii bIII+ IV V  vi*  vii*

Combining all of the possible triads together, we get the following list:

Fm (i): Tonic triad, the point of final resolution.

G*/G (ii*/ii): Functions as a strong pre-dominant, especially when pulling to V. When using G*, resolving it to Ab can be dangerous. With no stronger cadence in your phrase, you may find yourself resolving to the relative major.

Ab (III): Relative major. A weak and rarely-used chord. It is useful as a tonic extender: a chord following the tonic that delays further progression due to its weak functioning role. Be careful not to accidently modulate to this chord.

Ab+ (III+): Still not implemented often. The dangers of resolving here are practically gone due to the augmented fifth. It may be useful for alternating with the tonic chord.

Bbm (iv): A pre-dominant chord. The minor third makes it useful in a iv - i cadence, leading back into the tonic triad more fluidly than IV. In first inversion, it creates an interesting cadence (Phrygian half-cadence) to V.

Bb (IV): Pre-dominant that leads well into V or bVII. Extended use of IV - V in a minor key can cause some aural confusion as the listener will begin expecting a major tonic.

Cm (v): Can be used as a weak cadence for intermittent phrases. The lack of the leading tone (7th degree) limits its dominant use.

C (V) or C7 (V7): The strongest dominant chord, almost inevitably leads to the tonic. The C7 is the stronger of the pair, containing a tritone that resolves well to the first and third degrees of the tonic. *C7 is made by adding a Bb to the C chord.

Db (bVI): A weak pre-dominant or tonic extender. As a pre-dominant, it often leads to stronger chords such as iv and ii*. Leading straight to V feels weak as it almost inevitably creates parallel motion. In popular music, bVI - bVII - i is used almost ubiquitously.

D* (vi*): Can be used as a tonic extender; it also leads well to bVII.

Eb (bVII): Often appears immediately after the tonic in classical music. In popular music, it is often used in a weak dominant function. bVII - i is very popular in Rock music and is often borrowed into the parallel major.

E* (vii*): Strong dominant chord. It mostly resolves upward to i. Note that it is made up of the 3 - 5 - b7 from C7.

Progression Ideas

There are a lot of possible chords in minor keys--using chords from all three scales is not considered borrowing, it is accepted and expected that intertwining will occur. Here are some ideas for chord progressions to get you started. They are all in Fm; I will give a few ideas solely belonging to each scale for ease, then combine the scales at the end. Feel free to break the longer progressions up into smaller pieces to make them more manageable.

Natural Minor only:

Db - Eb - Fm
bVI - bVII - i
-> A Rock standard

G*/Bb - Cm - Fm - Bbm - Eb
ii*6 - v - i - iv - bVII

Eb - Db - Cm - Bbm - Fm
bVII - bVI - v - iv - i

Harmonic Minor only:

E*/G - Fm - C - Fm/C - C7 - Fm
vii*6 - i - V - i4 - V7 - i

Ab+ - Fm - Db - G*/Bb - C7 - Fm
bIII+ - i - bVI - ii*6 - V7 - i

Melodic Minor only:

Bb - C - Fm
IV - V - i

Gm - C - Fm/C - C - Fm
ii - V - i4 - V7 - i

Combined progressions:

Eb - Bb/Db - C - Fm
bVII - iv6 - V - i

D* - Eb - Fm - C7 - Fm
vi* - bVII - i - V7 - i

G*/Bb - Cm - Fm - Bbm - C7 - Fm
ii*6 - v - i - iv - V7 - i

Ab+ - Fm - Bbm - Fm - Db - Bbm/Db - C - Fm
bIII+ - i - iv - i - bVI - iv6 - V - i

Addendum: Playing with the Progressions:

Since the combined progressions are not diatonic to one particular scale, you'll have to be wary of what you're doing. If you are not fluent with accompanying chromatic harmony, begin by dissecting the chord tones of every chord and work your way between to the next set as the chord changes: it will go a long way to help your playing, and it will allow you to really utilize the full potential of minor keys.


There's not much else to say...while there is a whole world of possibilities between these three scales, this is enough to get you started. Make sure you practice playing them and listening to them. I have given you suggestions and ideas about them, but don't take my word for it; practice, experiment and draw your own conclusions. Music is personal expression, remember?[
Nothing that is worthwhile in life will ever come easy.
Incredibly helpful posts. You just cleared up some questions I had about the harmonic and melodic minor scales. I wouldn't mind seeing this as a lesson here on UG. Bravo!

Haven't used the melodic minor and there was a ton of other stuff I don't understand by simplying skimming- gonna come back to this another time (3am right now..)

Quote by amonamarthmetal
Y u no include Hungarian minor scale? You can't get the sound from
That nice Tristan chord without it

oh, yes, we can.

great post, man.
Anfangen ist leicht, Beharren eine Kunst.
This is a fantastic article - thanks a bunch for sharing! I'll be sure to try out each your examples, as I'm leaning more-and-more in favour of fluid sub-modulations in my own writing.

Again, a huge thanks for taking the time to share this.
Quote by amonamarthmetal
Y u no include Hungarian minor scale? You can't get the sound from
That nice Tristan chord without it

Firstly, the 'Tristan' chord didn't arise form the 'hungarian' minor scale. There's numerous theories about it's function, I'd say it was a french sixth with an appogiatura.

Secondly, it's enharmonic to a half diminished chord, which can be found in the harmonic and melodic minor scales.

Good post Soviet
Thanks for your support, everyone; it means a lot to me. Sounds like I should turn this one into a lesson: I'll revise it when I get a chance (I'm sick of writing for the time being.)

If I could write articles about music theory for a living, I'd never go back to work again. I'm actually on MT half the time I'm there anyway...
Nothing that is worthwhile in life will ever come easy.
Awesome! Definitely lot of knowledge that I need to digest here but just amazing.

Thank you very much to spend the time to share all this with us.

you outdid yourself on this Soviet, I learned some things I didn't know and I thought i knew a decent amount on theory. Well written, well explained, just overall a great job
Schecter C-1 Classic in Seethru blue <333
Schecter Damien FR
Roland AC-60 acoustic amp
Boss GE-7 EQ
Line6 Ubermetal Distortion
Sigma Dx Acoustic
Quote by amonamarthmetal
Y u no include Hungarian minor scale? You can't get the sound from
That nice Tristan chord without it

Oh great, now Liam's gonna be "posting" *cough* INSISTING *cough* for free help/advice/examples/and explanations (in other words, lessons) on what the Tristan chord is and how to write a song with it and use his modes or what modes comes from it, and how to use it in his Vai song...

Great....Time to get ready for the next 10 days of Tristan posts...

Last edited by Sean0913 at Aug 6, 2011,