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I understand that there are 3 types of minor scales

  • Melodic
  • Natural
  • Harmonic

But I always mix these up, and I don't know the patterns of them.

I would like to know

  • The basic pattern
  • Some theory behind how they are built
  • Ways to remember what they are (bonus)
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@guidot This is not off topic. This should have very clear answers. I am looking for a simple explanation, for which google does not give –  Cody Guldner Jul 10 '13 at 23:48
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The help center says nothing about basic or Googleable questions being off-topic. This question seems perfectly fine, IMO. –  American Luke Jul 11 '13 at 0:21
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@CodyGuldner - You shouldn't apologize for not knowing something - that's silly. It's more the manner of what you're asking. If you had a question asking to clarify a concept from your reading (such as a wikipedia article,) that's definitely doable. With this question your asking someone to present the concepts, which I am guessing many here are not keen to doing as it is something easily googlable, which therefore makes it a little unnecessary to ask here. –  jjmusicnotes Jul 11 '13 at 4:19
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I've cleaned up the comments a bit. The site's scope is pretty clearly laid out, and users shouldn't be making up reasons for questions they don't like to be off-topic. Close votes are not downvotes. –  Matthew Read Jul 11 '13 at 15:23
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A tiny mnemonic, using the natural minor scale as a base: H comes first in the alphabet, and raises one note (the 7th), while M comes second, and raises two (the 6th and 7th). So, if you can play your natural minor scales well, it's easy to modify for the harmonic and melodic. –  Hannele Jul 12 '13 at 18:09
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4 Answers

I know it's too late and a lot of people have already answered in detail. But I believe everything can be expressed in a much simpler and concise way.I will show you two ways of deriving minor scales:

1) For natural minor you use this pattern- TSTTSTT (Where T is the distance of one Tone and S the distance of a Semitone). For example, for A natural minor, we get: A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A . Now, if you want the harmonic minor just sharpen the 7th degree and you have it! (A-B-C-D-E-F-G#-A) you follow this pattern when both ascending and descending. But if you want to play melodic minor then the pattern would differ when ascending (going up the ladder A-B-C...) and descending (going down the ladder A-G-F...) For melodic minor ascending, you sharpen the 6th and 7th degrees and when descending you keep to the original pattern of the natural minor.

2)This method is more of a shortcut method. Basically you use this method to find out the minor counterpart of a major scale. (C major to C minor, A major to A minor, etc.) say, you want to find out A minor melodic. So what you do is, take A major scale and then simply flatten the 3rd degree (C# becomes C)for ascending melodic scale and flatten the 6th and 7th degrees as well (F# becomes F and G# becomes G) for the descending melodic scale. as for the harmonic minor you flatten the 3rd and 6th degrees of the major scale you want to convert to minor scale.

if you notice closely, the first and second methods give you the same results but the approaches are totally opposite! One is inductive while the other is deductive. Which is why the first method advocates sharpening while the second method advocates flattening.

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All minor scales have a half step between the 2nd and the 3rd of that scale/key - that is the pattern and what you feel/hear as "minor" when you play a 3 note simple chord with the root/third/fifth. So the third is always lowered in comparison to the major scale.

The "model" or "first example" for the minor natural scale is A minor, and it's easy to remember if you know the piano keyboard - no black keys. And from there, you get the first answer as to where the other half step is in the natural minor scale.

Half steps in minor scales are:

  • Minor natural: 2nd/3rd and 5th/6th
  • Minor melodic: 2nd/3rd and 7th/8th on the way up, and 2nd/3rd and 5th/6th on the way down.
  • Minor harmonic is also called "arabic" scale, and therefore easy to remember. Half steps are between: 2nd/3rd, 5th/6th and 7th/8th - which causes the typical one and half step between 6th and 7th notes on the scale/key.

Note: This way of identifying minor scales is most common in classical music. Other music genres don't use this system as much (or not at all!) - they use the mode system or something else entirely.

Two examples:

  • C minor:
    natural: C D E♭ F G A♭ B♭ C (same but backwards on the way down)
    melodic: C D E♭ F G A B C > C B♭ A♭ G F E♭ D C
    harmonic: C D E♭ F G A♭ B C (same but backwards on the way down)

  • A minor:
    natural: A B C D E F G A (same but backwards on the way down)
    melodic: A B C D E F♯ G♯ A > A G F E D C B A
    harmonic: A B C D E F G♯ A (same but backwards on the way down)

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@Sergio You said flat the 3rd and 6th for natural minor, but in your example you flatted the 7th as well –  Cody Guldner Jul 11 '13 at 0:13
    
@CodyGuldner, I never used the word flat. I know it can be misunderstood. The 3rd is lowered compared to a major scale, and sometimes you need to lower it with a flat (b) sometimes you don't. Remember that always between E/F and B/C it's a half step. It's how music theory is made, one of the fundamental principles. –  Sergio Jul 11 '13 at 0:23
    
I've cleaned up resolved questions from the comments. @Cody Scales are based on the intervals between notes; which notes have accidentals (sharps and flats) applied is not determined directly by the scale/key, it's determined by the names of the notes within the scale/key. If you know the type of scale (minor/major/etc.) and the starting note, you can figure out all of the notes in the scale by simply applying the interval rules laid out by Sergio (whole steps everywhere except for the mentioned exceptions). Key signatures are a shortcut, rather than how the scales are actually built. –  Matthew Read Jul 11 '13 at 15:30
    
I think you mixed up the descriptions for natural and harmonic minors. In your description for natural, you said there are 2 semitones, but in your example there are 3. For harmonic, you said there are 3 semitones, but in your example there are 2 –  Cody Guldner Jul 11 '13 at 15:35
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Cody - no. There are only 2 in the natural example, and 3 in the harmonic. Sergio has written them correctly. See his comment above Matthew's one. –  Dr Mayhem Jul 12 '13 at 13:29
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ASSEMBLING THE MINOR SCALES

All scales in the diatonic/chromatic are constructed from a pattern of intervals. If you're not aware, our Western system of harmony consists of a chromatic scale with 12 tones:

C - Db(C#) - D - Eb(D#) - E - F - F#(Gb) - G - Ab(G#) - A - Bb(A#) - B

The distance between these consecutive tones is known as a half step (for example, the distance from C to Db). When we use interval patterns to construct scales, the easiest unit to measure the distance between notes is by counting the number of half-steps.

With that in mind, the three minor scales - Natural Minor (Aeolian), Melodic Minor & Harmonic Minor - can be viewed as an interval pattern like so:

Minor Scales

In this example I used A Minor as our reference because in its natural form it has no sharps or flats. For those who can't read music, the tone names are written above the staff. If you look below the staff, you'll see a number between each note. That is the interval pattern needed to construct that scale:

NATURAL MINOR: 2, 1, 2, 2, 1, 2, 2

HARMONIC MINOR: 2, 1, 2, 2, 1, 3, 1

MELODIC MINOR: 2, 1, 2, 2, 2, 2, 1

These patterns remain consistent regardless of key. You can start on any note, and so long as you apply this interval pattern, you will have assembled this scale.

RULES OF THUMB FOR IDENTIFYING THE SCALES

You may find that using the interval patterns is not the simplest way for you to remember the scales themselves. Here are a few tricks you can use on each scale to help you remember which is which:

Natural Minor - Natural Minor is what we call a mode of the Major Scale - specifically the 6th mode, or Aeolian. If you take any major scale, start on its 6th degree and play it up to the next 6th degree, you will have played a natural minor scale. Example:

Modality

You will notice that the note it starts on is 3 half-steps down from the scale's starting point (distance between A and C). Therefore, one simple way to figure out a natural minor scale from a major scale is to count 3 half-steps down from its starting note, or simply find the 6th note and play the major scale from there as shown in the picture.

Harmonic Minor - Harmonic Minor is the only minor scale with an interval larger than 1 whole step (two half-steps). One sure way to identify this scale is to listen for the leap between the 6th and 7th tones. The nature of that leap provides the scale with a sound that is often described as arabesque, middle-eastern, etc... This is worth noting, as harmonic minor and its modes have several names & purposes in other cultures -- especially Klezmer, the music of Eastern Europe, & India to name a few. Give the scale a listen and notice that discrepancy that sets it apart from the others.

Melodic Minor - This one is arguably the simplest. Melodic Minor is simply a Major Scale with a lowered 3rd. If you're in the key of C Major, for example, and you lower the 3rd degree of the scale (the E => Eb), you will be in C Melodic Minor - the parallel melodic minor scale of C Major.

I hope this explanation helps you out!

A NOTE ABOUT THE EXISTING DISCREPANCY ON THE DESCENT OF MELODIC & HARMONIC MINOR SCALES

In reference to melodic & harmonic minor scales, there are two commonly accepted "spellings" for the scales. The more traditional, which stems from the classical tradition, is to 'resolve' these two scales by playing the natural minor on the descent. The modern tradition, as is popular among jazz artists and some contemporary composers, is to play the same tones ascending and descending. The diagram below highlights these two concepts visually:

Melodic and Harmonic Scales - Jazz and Traditional

In this day and age, it is important to be aware that this discrepancy exists and be comfortable with performing them either way. In essence, there are two separate and unique ways to perform each of these scales. In an audition situation, if asked to play these scales, make sure you clarify the preferred method of performance - Traditional (resolve on descent) or Modern/Jazz (same tones on descent).

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@Nate-your note isn't clear to me. Natural minor notes are used in descending melodic and (naturally !) natural minors. Harmonic minor uses #7 leading note up and down. Jazzers tend to use melodic minor ,scale notes as in the rising version, most of the time, going up or down. –  Tim Jul 11 '13 at 7:04
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@Tim - You sort of hit on the nose the very point my note was driving at. Jazz musicians tend to play both melodic & harmonic scales the same way ascending as they do descending, whereas the classical practice is to play natural minor descending on melodic & harmonic minor. I just didn't want to mislead anyone by explicitly saying "jazz" and "classical", as I feel personally that compartmentalizing our small corner of the world of music with titles like those negates the continuity of the art. –  Nate Kimball Jul 11 '13 at 7:21
    
fair point. Maybe, then there are now actually 4 minors - 'classical' and 'jazz' melodics need to be differentiated from each other.Until I did some homework,this factor confused me, and probably confuses lots of others too (including Cody !!) –  Tim Jul 11 '13 at 7:30
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true, but i think it's worth noting if you're going to provide a distinction between traditional and jazz minor scales. –  Alexander Troup Jul 11 '13 at 10:40
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The melodic minor (classical) came about through performance- using the leading note in places where the melody rose, and the flat 7 when it dropped. Jazz uses whatever, whenever, with all due respect to jazzers.A.B.R.S.M. exams still expect the classical version to be shown in scale playing.(They've only this year recognised natural minor, at lower grades !) –  Tim Jul 12 '13 at 8:28
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The natural minor is also often called the Aolean mode, dating back to when modal music was the main way of writing.

There's a whole history to it but there used to be 6 main modes that were used, and the 2 that survived most into modern times were the Ionian mode and the Aolean mode.

Natural Minor Taking a major scale, the relative natural minor scale is what happens when you start on the 6th degree of the scale and continue it up an octave, for example in C major(cdefgAbc) the relative minor would be A minor(Abcdefga)

If you want to remember the natural minor scale, it's what happens when you take the NATURAL progression of tones from the relative major scale.

Harmonic Minor There are many differences between the sound created by a major and minor scale, these are attained by the difference in intervals between each note going from the root up to the octave. one thing about the natural minor scale is that it often has a smoother sound than the major scale, especially when going from the 7th to the octave(B-C in CMaj, G-A in AMin) the B to C in C major resolves to the root better because it is shifting a semitone and the ear picks that up as a better resolution. In the a natural minor scale however the Tone between G and A is a much smoother resolution.

The 7th note in C major is said to be a leading tone because it leads onto the next C. However in A minor there is no leading tone because the 7th is a semitone flatter. So to create a leading tone composers simply sharpened the 7th going up a natural minor scale. This was a HARMONIC choice on the part of the composers. This is also why classical theory says you should sharpen the 7th of a minor scale on the way up, and keep it natural on the way down.

Melodic Minor There's an inherent problem with only sharpening the 7th of a natural minor sometimes, and that is that the listeners ear will easily pick out that you're changing the 7th note sometimes, and I imagine that it was just easier sometimes to sharpen the 7th every time. the problem there though is that you now have an interval of a minor 3rd in your scale that gives it a very unique sound, and can possibly make the sound unstable. Remember that at this time composers weren't used to all the intervals and sounds that we are. In natural minor you only have 2 types of interval - tone and semitone, but in harmonic minor you have 3 types = semitone, tone and tone+semitone

natural min - TsTTsTT harmonic minor - TsTTs(T+s)s

In order to try and add more balance to the scale while still keeping the leading note composers started also sharpening the 6th as well as the 7th. this meant that the scale still had a minor quality, and didn't have the imbalance of 3 different types of interval in the scale. This was believed to create a more MELODIC shape.

  • natural min - TsTTsTT - abcdefga
  • harmonic minor - TsTTs(T+s)s abcdefG#a
  • melodic minor - TsTTTTs - abcdeF#G#A

Learning the names

Hopefully that will help explain the history and how to construct minor scales.

As for learning the note patterns I think a good way is to know the Tone/semitone patterns and work out from your root note that way.

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So on natural minor, you pick a key, say E flat. Then you take the 3rd of that scale, and use that key signature? So for E flat, the natural minor would have 1 sharp? –  Cody Guldner Jul 10 '13 at 23:53
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Cody, you seem to have gone the opposite way ! Using your Eb example, assuming Eb is the MAJOR key, then go 3 notes DOWN (or 6 UP) to land on C. C minor is your key (it's called relative minor) with the same key sig. as the original Eb. –  Tim Jul 11 '13 at 6:44
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