Memorising the Harmonic Minor Modes

This article aims to give you an easy way to remember the modes of the harmonic minor scale on a theoretical level.

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In this article I'm going to explain a fairly straightforward way of remembering the modes of the Harmonic Minor scale. This is purely a theoretical approach, but a good understanding of the theory will assist with great application.

If we take a look at the scale spelling of the Harmonic Minor scale and compare it to all of the major scale modes, we can start to see some similarities:

Harmonic Minor: 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 7 8

    • Ionian: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
    • Dorian: 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7 8
    • Phrygian: 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 8
    • Lydian: 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7 8
    • Mixolydian: 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7 8
    • Aeolian: 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 8
    • Locrian: 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7 8

At first glance you may think that looks like a whole bunch of confusing numbers, and you'd be right. However, now we can specifically see which modes of the major scale that the Harmonic Minor shares the same intervals with. The most similar mode is Aeolian, and the only different interval is the seventh: it's a major 7th in the Harmonic Minor, and a minor 7th in the Aeolian scale.

With this in mind, we could relate the Harmonic Minor scale to the Aeolian mode, and thus rename the Harmonic Minor as Aeolian #7.

So if the first mode of the Harmonic Minor is similar to the 6th mode of the major scale. Surely the 2nd mode of the Harmonic Minor would be just as similar to the 7th of the Major scale, right?

It is. The 2nd mode of the harmonic minor is spelt:

1 b2 b3 4 b5 6 b7 8

Which looks strikingly similar to the Locrian mode, only the 6th degree has been sharpened. In fact, all of the modes follow a very simple pattern: As you move through the Harmonic Minor Modes, you also move through the major modes, beginning with Aeolian but with a sharp 7. And as you move through each mode, the degree that is sharpened goes down by one. This is probably clearer in numbers:

Harmonic Minor Modes

    • 1st mode - Aeolian #7
    • 2nd mode - Locrian #6
    • 3rd mode - Ionian #5
    • 4th mode - Dorian #4
    • 5th mode - Phrygian #3
    • 6th mode - Lydian #2
    • 7th mode - Mixolydian #1

Now not only do you have all the names of the Harmonic Minor scale modes, but these names also explain the contents of the mode, all with a simple pattern to remember.

The only thing that may potentially cause problems is the Mixolydian #1 mode. If you want C Mixolydian #1 scale, just remember that the '1' has already been sharpened. So you are actually playing B Mixolydian, just with a #1, so the B becomes C

You may be aware of alternative names to these modes, but they don't tend to say an awful lot about the contents of the modes, leaving you to have to remember 7 more scale spellings. Nevertheless, it's useful to know these names in case someone asks you to play Ultralocrian, for example. So here's a list of some of the alternative names:

    • 1st mode - Harmonic Minor
    • 2nd mode - Locrian #6
    • 3rd mode - Ionian Augmented
    • 4th mode - Romanian
    • 5th mode - Phrygian Dominant
    • 6th mode - Lydian #2
    • 7th mode - Ultralocrian

About the Author:
Sam Dawson
is a singer/songwriter who specializes in fingerstyle and percussive guitar. For more songwriting tips, sign up to his free songwriting email course.

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