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I'm a noob at music theory, so I want to stick to basics and stay inside the lines (for example, stay diatonic for a given scale) until my knowledge is more advanced.

I've seen a chart all over the web for chord progressions in a harmonic minor scale that looks like this

two different seventh scale degrees ( SOURCE).

But I don't understand it. The triad for harmonic minor's seventh scale degree is viio, i.e., a diminished chord. But this chart has both viio and VII (a major chord). But can you make a major (0-4-7) chord at that scale degree and stay diatonic, i.e., avoid chromatic alteration? It's not obvious to me, so what do they mean?

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    I'll add this up here too. If you want to stick to basics, you do chromatic alterations. In minor, doing chromatic alterations of at least the 7th scale degree is the basic thing to do. Hit the Road, Jack: Am - G - F - E. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Feb 1 at 9:37
  • Have you looked up the root site of your source? musictheory.pugetsound.edu/mt21c/MusicTheory.html You should have and you should have showed this site as your source. Then I would say I don't vote up your question because of lack of self researching and not telling us what your efforts have been ;) – Albrecht Hügli Feb 1 at 15:58
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I would summarize the other answers by calling out a faulty premise of the question: there is no such thing as a song "in harmonic minor."

The preposition "in" denotes the key of a piece. The key designation comprises two parts. The first is the "home" pitch, called the "tonic," such as D or A flat, and the second is a quality designation, which is usually either major or minor. It could also be the name of a mode, such as Dorian or Mixolydian.

Harmonic minor, on the other hand, is a scale, and a rather artificial one at that. The three qualities of minor scale appear to have arisen in the 19th century as a device to reconcile the chromatic alteration that was prevalent in minor-key harmonies with the new fashion for playing scales as a way of learning to play an instrument. Because of this chromatic alteration, most pieces in minor keys used 8 or 9 distinct pitches (ignoring octaves), and arranging all of those pitches in a single scale did not achieve the desired result. Instead, the idea of three different minor scales was invented.

But, like much music theory, this was not a generative rule. Composers did not start with these scales and then work to see what they could come up with using them. Rather, it is a descriptive or analytical tool: it is an attempt to explain how music works. Unfortunately, this analytical tool is rather poorer than many that were developed over the centuries. It tends to increase confusion rather than to reduce it, and it tends to complicate theoretical analysis rather than to simplify it.

If you insist on analyzing minor music in terms of the three minor scales, you find that most real tonal music mixes all three forms of the scale, using one or another at different points depending on various considerations. Even the fact that one of the three scales has different forms depending on direction, and that one of those forms is identical to the form of one of the other scales, suggests that this whole approach to modeling music theory is problematic.

With this in mind, consider:

I've seen a chart all over the web for chord progressions in a harmonic minor scale that looks like this...

If those charts are truly said to be for "music in a harmonic minor scale" the I would advise you to find another source for music theory instruction. The chart in fact reflects the real story with minor-key music: both the sixth and seventh degree of the scale can be raised or lowered. That is, in A minor you will encounter F natural and F sharp as well as G natural and G sharp.

This answer is now rather longer than I wanted it to be, but it can close as it began: there is no such thing as "in harmonic minor"; it's just "in minor."

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    Excellent answer! +1 The same false premise is behind questions like "how can there be a non-diatonic note, doesn't this violate the rules of nature?" The more I watch theory lessons about scales and how beginners react to it, the stronger I think that melodic and harmonic minor scales shouldn't be taught to beginners at all. By the way, in A minor, you will often encounter C#, D# and Bb as well. C# when going A7 - Dm, and D# when going B7 - E7. And Bb when going Gm6 - A7 - Dm. Even harmonic and melodic minor combined are not enough to cover for-dummies level polka song harmony. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Feb 1 at 15:40
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    There is only one scale which truly covers notes which may be found in any piece - it's the chromatic scale... – Tim Feb 1 at 16:31
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IMO, the reason why people have big difficulties understanding music in minor keys comes from two mistakes:

  • MISTAKE #1: Instead of playing (repeating) lots of example music they want to know theory first, and
  • MISTAKE #2: Having got ideas from theory (caused by mistake #1), they assume that they can select one single scale in which they can operate "diatonically" i.e. without any alterations to the scale needed, for example the Harmonic Minor scale. Just like they were able to do for major tonality.

First of all, I'd suggest first playing lots of songs in minor to learn concrete examples. Spend at least a few weeks doing that. And only after you have some hands-on experience, you try to look at how the examples you know could be described in theoretical terms.

And about the "staying in one scale", it doesn't work like that. It's better to consider for example the dominant chord introducing a chromatic alteration, as you say. When you're at the tonic chord, let's say, Am, the assumed scale is A natural minor. No G# there. But then at some point comes an E major chord, and then the G note is sharpened. Songs are not "in harmonic minor" all the time.

Trying to avoid chromatic alterations is a Bad Idea and goes against the way music works, and it imposes an unnecessary obstacle to understanding even simple songs in minor keys (i.e. minor tonics). IMO, accidentals and temporary alterations should be introduced from day 1, and not try to think that music is inside a scale. Scales are there only as helper grids, so you can reason about where the sounding notes are relative to basic default positions. Songs are not "in a scale", except for some very specific modal music where chromatically altering the scale would break the modal feeling. But minor tonality is not a mode.

Harmonic and melodic minor scales can be used modally, but that's more of a modal jazz thing.

What comes to the picture, I don't know who made it or how it was presented where it was used. But to tweak the picture so that it makes some sense, I added some annotations:

Chord changes in minor

During the dominant chord, the 7th scale degree has to be raised or otherwise it's not a proper dominant chord. It's a "chromatic alteration" or something. This is the basic thing to do in a minor key. Trying to use the harmonic or melodic minor scales modally is not a basic thing.


Side-note. What causes the theory-first mentality? Is it social pressure and demand of legitimacy? Seemingly scientific theoretical and informed logical thinking is highly valued. Is it perhaps a desire to retain a feeling of "being in control", and to avoid childish - and therefore socially unacceptable - babbling and tumbling where you don't know what you're doing? An opposite but related phenomenon is wanting to learn to play pieces exactly note-for-note "correctly" and precisely, for example with these Synthesia videos with note blocks falling on keyboard keys. What's wrong with repeating, babbling, toying, playing, interacting with others? That's how you learn languages, and music is a language. In my opinion, a better formula for learning music would be something like this:

  • 45% repeating examples
  • 45% messing around with the examples, making changes and trying variations, making discoveries
  • 10% theory, to identify patterns and to get names for the discovered patterns, forming concepts to assist communication and reasoning.
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  • One could stay completely within a single seven note scale, but any music composed that way would be very challenged to stay interesting. I love how this answer emphasizes composing based on knowing the existing literature over knowing the “theory”. Knowing prior work in any form is the best way to move that form forward - in fact I find it makes it quite intuitive and it “feels” good. – Todd Wilcox Feb 1 at 14:28
  • @ToddWilcox it's not that hard to find literally diatonic music that is also interesting. – phoog Feb 1 at 15:14
  • "What causes the theory-first mentality?" In my case it's probably because my background is in engineering where you have to learn a lot of physics, calculus, etc, before you can "do" real engineering. A lot of fields are like that: medicine, physics and chemistry, etc. The other advantage of theory is that it helps organise what you otherwise experience subjectively. What could it mean to "know the existing literature" (as Todd Wilcox says) without being able to describe it or place it in a theoretical framework? – user316117 Feb 1 at 16:46
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    @user316117 Music is not a natural science, it's culture. But a part of the problem lies with teachers wanting to present logical constructs that can be put in an exam and judged in a "correct/incorrect" fashion, to get a numerical score. Scales are one of such things. But teachers should rather be more like coaches or personal trainers, guiding the student's own exploration and practicing and developing a taste. Another problem is internet "teachers" and algorithm-guided attention gathering which is engineered to produce lots of views. "The secret formula of the pros" etc. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Feb 1 at 17:41
  • @user316117 Knowing note names and noticing even a few elementary patterns such as intervals and chords gets you a long way. Go play music on an instrument - your brain will inevitably discover patterns automatically, that's its job. And if you have to choose between identifying non-applicable patterns from playing actual music, or identifying non-applicable patterns from theory, it's harder to get rid of the latter. One such mythical belief is that "music is in a scale", which is simply wrong and incompatible with reality. And it hurts many people's musical progress. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Feb 1 at 17:53
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For simplicity's sake, minor has been split into three different scales. That's without getting into minor modes.

There's the natural minor, the harmonic minor and the melodic minor. They're not really separate constructs but for simplicity, each contains notes of the letters ABCDEFG. That in itself makes it slightly easier for beginners. But those scales are just that - scales. Sets of notes that can be played up and down, as we do with scales.

Not a true reflection of how notes get used in minor pieces! The first five notes in each are identical, but after that, there are changes, for reasons quoted in many answers on this site.

The scale quoted is not the harmonic minor, but a bastardisation of harmonic and natural minors.

By the time all the chromatic changes for the top half of minor scales are considered, there are many different triads that can be made from those notes. The example just forgot to remind you of that.

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    To make things slightly "easier", an incorrect misleading fallacy, almost a complete lie, is taught to beginners. And then they spend lots of effort to overcome the "easy" nonsense. I say, music is taught wrong. It would be better if harmonic and melodic minor scales weren't mentioned at all, because all they really do is confuse people so that they cannot understand even simple basic tunes. The right way to talk about minor tonality is, "look here, during this E chord in this bar, the G note is sharpened to G#. It makes a nice melody and harmony". – piiperi Reinstate Monica Feb 1 at 9:47
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica - I hear what you say, and to a degree agree. But scales are part of every teacher's curriculum, and as such, rear their (ugly) heads. Major scales, and their modes, are easily understood, and stand well. Can't say the same for minors, though, as you point out. But - the problem is exacerbated by all the exam boards, which insist on perpetuating the 'problem'. Scales have always been (and probably will always be) a section of exams. 'They exist, so we can test them'. And, undeniably, the majority of pieces will be seen to use those scale notes. I don't think just... – Tim Feb 1 at 10:51
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica -...saying 'it's there 'cos it sounds nice' is sufficient. There are technical reasons for all the chromatic changed notes in minor scales (thus minor pieces), and these need to be understood. For years I played Black Magic Woman in key Am, using E major as the V. Mainly because I associated E rather than Em in key Am! But yes, I agree that minor tonality is taught (not by me!) in not-particularly- helpful ways, often. Hence the propensity of questions such as this very one on this, and other sites. Aargh! – Tim Feb 1 at 10:57
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    The statements "scales are part of..." and "scales have always been..." do not rebut @piiperiReinstateMonica's assertion that "music is taught wrong"; they merely give some detail about what's wrong with the way music is taught. – phoog Feb 1 at 15:23
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    @phoog - I know, and understand, and agree. Still a fact though... – Tim Feb 1 at 15:29
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In the style of harmony that chart tries to represent, called common practice, music is not in harmonic minor it is in a minor key. See the following post for some explanation of minor key harmony Understanding minor key harmony

Part of the problem with the flow chart you posted is they work best as a summary of a longer study of functional harmony. The arrows showing the progression of chords are correct on one level, but it is a mistake to then use the chart as a how to write chord progressions guide. I recently found this article - Tymoczko, Root motion, function, scale-dgree... - which does a nice job of breaking down why the flow charts are flawed. In essence Tymoczko points out the flow chart doesn't have "memory" and can easily produce un-idiomatic harmony.

...so I want to stick to basics and stay inside the lines

Use the rule of the octave for this instead of those flow charts.

...But this chart has both viio and VII (a major chord). But can you make a major (0-4-7) chord at that scale degree and stay diatonic, i.e., avoid chromatic alteration?

The thing you must understand is minor-key harmony is chromatic even at a basic level.

For example, in the key of C minor, the viio is B♮ D F and VII is Bb D F. Both chords will be common in minor key music.

In minor key music the sixth and seventh scale degree are raised and lowered depending on the harmony. The rule of the octave will provide a concise, practical example of how it all works. Combine that with some of the easier JS Bach keyboard books like the Anna Magdalena notebook or the "little prelude" books, here or here.

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This site informs you about diatonic scales:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diatonic_scale

It is confusing whether the harmonic minor scale belongs to the diatonic scales.

Any sequence of seven successive natural notes, such as C–D–E–F–G–A–B, and any transposition thereof, is a diatonic scale. Modern musical keyboards are designed so that the white notes form a diatonic scale, though transpositions of this diatonic scale require one or more black keys. A diatonic scale can be also described as two tetrachords separated by a whole tone.

The term diatonic originally referred to the diatonic genus, one of the three genera of the ancient Greeks. In musical set theory, Allen Forte classifies diatonic scales as set form 7–35.

This article does not concern alternative seven-note scales such as the harmonic minor or the melodic minor which, although sometimes called "diatonic", do not fulfill the condition of maximal separation of the semitones indicated above.

Western music from the Middle Ages until the late 19th century (see common practice period) is based on the diatonic scale and the unique hierarchical relationships created by this system of organizing seven notes.

  1. If you want you can consider a melodic minor scale like a diatonic scale built by a minor tetrachord=4 tones a,b,c,d and a major tetrachord e,f#,g#,a.

  2. Many songs contain both lines: melodic upwards e,f#,g#,a and melodic downwards a,g,f,e, some are just in the aeolian (min 6th, min 7th) or in the dorian mode (maj 6th and min 7th)

  3. The harmonic minor scale has only an sharpened (= maj) 7th (so=> si) with a 1 1/2 half step between VI and VII (fa-si => min 6th and maj 7th).

It depends of the melody whether you have a VII or a vii dim chord.That's why I agree with other answers: you should have more experience with songs and pieces of all 3 minor scales by playing and accompanying them with chords before asking about functions and Roman numbers and then you will understand the theory much better.

Maybe this link will help you further:

https://www.guitar-chords.org.uk/a-harmonic-minor-chords.html

But you will find much more information looking up scales here in this SE, diatonic scales, modes and harmonic scale.

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  • No augmented 7th interval in harmonic minor. It's a major 7th. – Tim Feb 1 at 15:33
  • oh, yes, in German we call "sharpening" = augmenting. But this is wrong: augmented would mean a double sharped 7th, yes? – Albrecht Hügli Feb 1 at 15:51
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The harmonic minor scale is best thought of as a theoretical construct to describe how some composers deal with composing in minor keys. When approaching the tonic chord in minor, it strengthens the sense of arrival if the seventh scale degree is a half-step below the tonic pitch. In a minor key, that means raising the seventh note of the scale a half step, which, presuming no other changes, gives the harmonic minor scale. And the chord preceding the tonic chord would be a diminished chord built on that raised seventh scale degree.

However, when moving away from the tonic, the raised seventh (the "leading tone") is not needed. In that case, the chord built on the seventh scale degree is a major chord.

Example

The key of A minor has no sharps or flats. Thus, the "natural minor" scale is

a b c d e f g

But it's nice to have a leading tone to intensify movement toward the tonic. Since g to a is a whole step, we raise the g to create a leading tone. That gives the harmonic minor scale...

a b c d e f g#

... and results in a viio chord, g# b d.

When moving away from the tonic, however, we don't need the pull of the leading tone, so we use the "natural" seventh. Building a triad on that pitch gives g b d, a VII chord (often called bVII for clarity).

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    Are there scales that aren't theoretical constructs? – piiperi Reinstate Monica Feb 1 at 7:26
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    @piiperiReinstateMonica There are scales that aren't theoretical constructs to describe how some composers deal with composing in minor keys. – Aaron Feb 1 at 7:32

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