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I am getting into jazz harmony, so have recently started learning chords derived from the modes of the melodic minor scale. As far as I can tell, these modes are primarily used for two main functions:

  1. making substitute chords to play instead of the basic chords from the equivalent ''normal'' mode- (eg playing a lydian sharp 5 chord, instead of a normal M7 chord). Or, creating chords that primarily work as V chords in normal keys, even though they are not the V chord of the melodic minor key. (eg lydian dom, altered, dorian flat 2).

  2. using alternative scales to play over 'normal' modes, eg playing mix flat 6 instead of normal mix over a V chord for added colour.

So, for example, do lydian dominant chords ever function as IV chords? Do dorian flat 2 chords ever function as ii chords? The only chord derived from dorian flat 2 I can see talked about online is the dominant sus4 flat 9 chord- which again of course functions as a V chord. Likewise, I only ever see lydian dominant and altered chords talked about in terms of being used as V chords (and of course mix flat 6, but that actually IS the V chord in melodic minor). Regarding Locrian natural 2, I only ever really see this talked about as a substitute scale to play over half dim chords, or a mode to create locrian chords which have a major 9 extension. But again, this would be a variation on the vii/ii half dim function of locrian, NOT a vi chord function.

So apart from the triad-based classical music which uses melodic minor (and even in this case, the harmony is primarily derived from natural and harmonic minor), does the melodic minor scale ever work normally as a key?

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    In classical music this is exactly why the melodic (and harmonic) minor exists, to function as a key all by itself. Unless I misunderstood your question. – user50691 Feb 7 at 19:13
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    @ggcg can you give an example of a piece of music (classical or otherwise) that is purportedly in a harmonic minor key or a melodic minor key? No. They do not exist. Harmonic and melodic minor are scales, and one of them comprises 9 of the 12 tones (constituting a superset of the tones in both of the other two minor scales). The melodic minor has a different form in the ascending and descending direction, and the descending form is identical to the natural minor. What does it even mean for a key to be ascending or descending? The entire concept of a melodic minor key is nonsensical. – phoog Feb 8 at 5:00
  • @ggcg - so you're saying 'this piece was written in a melodic minor key'? Rather than simply in a minor key. – Tim Feb 8 at 7:08
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    While this may be related to the question considered in the vtc, it's not a dupe, as harmonic and melodic are not the same. Although the concept of the question might well be. If we close questions that have close concepts to others, we'd lose loads! – Tim Feb 8 at 10:12
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    I've changed the title slightly to reflect OP's comment I suppose what I'm really driving at is whether when ''in'' melodic minor (i accept its not technically a key), the ii and IV chords still have a strong predominant function? - i.e. I think the fact there isn't literally a 'key' with this name isn't what's of interest to the OP. – topo Reinstate Monica Feb 8 at 11:00
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It depends on how you define the terms.

If we define "key" as meaning the tonic note and its third (minor or major), then melodic minor is not a key. See phoog's answer here Chord progressions in Harmonic Minor

Quoting the most important bit:

there is no such thing as a song "in harmonic minor."

Similarly, there is no such thing as a song "in melodic minor."

However, if we define "key" differently so that a song can be "in a mode", and if we relax the definition of mode so that melodic minor is a mode, then yes.

If you mean, can you use the melodic minor scale as a mode, then yes.

Personally, I wouldn't start calling melodic minor a "key".


Edit. The above was about rectifying the terminology and definition of key. But after a bit of discussion in the comments it seems that the OP is assuming a "jazz minor" modal harmony, and the question is about the functions of chords built on the scale degrees.

Here's one more slightly unconventional use of terminology in your question, using scale names for chords.

So, for example, do lydian dominant chords ever function as IV chords? Do dorian flat 2 chords ever function as ii chords? The only chord derived from dorian flat 2 I can see talked about online is the dominant sus4 flat 9 chord- which again of course functions as a V chord.

I assume that by e.g. "lydian dominant chords" you mean the fourth mode of the jazz minor scale, and in some way building chords there. However, if you want the chord to sound like a "lydian dominant", you'll have to play it as e.g. F7-5, and not the regular F7 that you would get as a stack of thirds, taking every other scale note. Using the name of a scale for referring to a chord is slightly unconventional - or maybe it reflects the chord/scale thinking? But implying a separate mode for each chord is misleading, because your mode here should be the jazz minor and that defines where your tonic should be. Even if you build a chord with the bass on the fourth degree, you aren't supposed to change the mode. Your sense of tonic shouldn't move. If it moves, then you failed at staying in the mode.

As a general rule I'd say that you're supposed to listen to the music and develop a sensitivity to how it makes you feel. If a chord makes you feel predominant'ish, then that's how it is - use your feelings as guide for your art. In different modes the intervals around the tonic are different, so the harmonic feelings they create are different as well. If you can't hear the differences on any level and don't trust your ears and feelings, then trying to blindly rely on your (mis-)interpretations of what other people have said won't make you a very good jazz musician.

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  • thanks for your answer. I suppose what I'm really driving at is whether when ''in'' melodic minor (i accept its not technically a key), the ii and IV chords still have a strong predominant function? – EdB123 Feb 7 at 21:23
  • Oh, I haven't addressed this in my answer, but I fully agree: we say the key is major or minor, but not "melodic minor". – user1079505 Feb 8 at 4:13
  • @EdB123 How do the chords make you feel? Chords function as a sum of their parts. And when you talk about e.g. "lydian dominant chords", it doesn't really matter which rotated mode of the scale you are thinking about when selecting notes. What matters is what notes and when you actually play. If you think about F Lydian dominant scale, but play a stack of four thirds from its second degree, you'll get a G7 chord and it functions like a G7 does. And nobody can have any idea that you were thinking about F Lydian dominant. Where is your tonic and what intervals around it do you actually play? – piiperi Reinstate Monica Feb 8 at 7:40
  • +1 for "jazz minor" -- a new concept to this classical musician. It seems like a far more useful concept than the purported three distinct forms of the minor scale taught in classical theory. – phoog Feb 8 at 18:06
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    @phoog Calling it "jazz minor" is, I guess, an attempt to give a separate name to the different, modal use of the scale, and allow co-existence of the classical way of thinking where "melodic minor" can even have different notes for ascending and descending melody lines. But based on the multitude of tutorial videos on Youtube, it's often called just melodic minor even for modal jazz. I don't know where the "jazz minor" name originates from. Maybe it was invented by some professor who had both classical and jazz students and wanted everything in the same picture without self-contradiction. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Feb 8 at 18:24
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In the context of jazz, jazz tunes typically modulate perpetually, so it's unusual for a jazz tune to stick to a single scale.

However if you ask if it's possible to compose using melodic minor scale and chords derived from this scale, the answer is: yes. It sounds cool and it's a fun thing to do. Try it!

I'd like to add "lydian dominant" is not really a chord name in functional harmony. The name would be rather, in the key of Cm, F7(#11). Or "locrian ♮2" – the diatonic chord is just Aø. Name "locrian ♮2" suggests you depart from functional harmony towards modal, and then the functional dependencies between chords are not the same, perhaps less strong.

Oh, one more example: in blues, the "IV" chord is typically a dominant chord. You could stick #11 there. Try writing a blues based on melodic minor scale. It can work!

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  • thanks for your answer! yes, an interesting point about functional tendencies between chords. I guess that's what I'm really driving at here. Do the IV and ii chords still have a strong predominant function (''in'' melodic minor)? – EdB123 Feb 7 at 21:09
  • "modulate perpetually" is an overstatement. Jazz standards modulate. But most start and end in the same key. That certainly is a norm among jazz songs. – Michael Curtis Feb 8 at 18:40
  • @MichaelCurtis I'm not sure about the nomenclature. Since we talk about melodic minor let's look at the A section of Nica's Dream. Starts on tonic Bm(maj7), but already the second chord is out of key. Then comes back to tonic, then ii-V in Db, then ii-V-I in Gb and finally iiø-V-i in Bbm. I agree that for the whole time the key of the tune is Bbm, but all these changes also produce impression of temporary move to another key. What is the name for that, if not "modulation"? – user1079505 Feb 8 at 19:28
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Here are the diatonic chords of the melodic minor scale in C:

C-(ma7) D-7 Eb+ma7 F7 G7 A-7b5 B-7b5

Creating chord progressions and using these as a key center can be done but as you can see there is not much there to build a cohesive diatonic chord progression with. Most of the chords that are stable in major or minor (1,2,3,4,6) contain augmented or tritone intervals when built from the melodic minor.

That’s not to say that some of these chords can’t be borrowed in either major or minor keys. The IV7 for example is often used as a i-IV7 vamp in minor keys (i.e. C-7 to F7). A couple of examples are the vamp in George Bemson’s “This Masquerade” and Grover Washington’s “Mister Magic”.

Another thing to point out is chords can either exist diatonically or independent of a key. Using a mode to describe a chord like “Lydian dominant” can be confusing. It’s better to just call it what it is and say 7(#11), 9(#11) or 13(#11).

One thing the melodic minor scale is very useful for in jazz is using its modes for improvising over different types of chords. A few examples are:

1st degree: m6 or m(ma7) chords 1,2,b3,4,5,6,7

3rd degree: +maj7 chords 1,2,3,#4,#5,6,7

4th degree: 7,9,13 (#11) chords 1,2,3,#4,5,6,b7

6th degree: -7b5 chords (best as part of a 2-5 in minor) 1,2,b3,4,b5,b6,b7

7th degree: altered dominant chords (b9, #9, b5, b13) 1,b2,b3,b4(also the 3rd),b5,b6,b7

These modes are more used for improvisation by advanced players because of the unusual advanced structures they contain.

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  • Woud you say there are a couple more diatoni chords (in key C) based on Ab and Bb? That presumes the descending notes of classical melodic minor, not just jazz mel.min. I'm also a lot happier reading 7(#11) for example. It does what it says on the tin. – Tim Feb 8 at 7:46
  • @Tim In jazz they don’t seem to distinguish between ascending and descending melodic minor, it’s all based on ascending. I consider Ab and Bb to be the true diatonic chords in C minor and the harmonic and melodic minor scales are used for the leading tone and melodic variety. – John Belzaguy Feb 8 at 8:46
  • Did you mean Ab and Bb as the true diatonic chords, or A and B? I reckon in key Cm, there's more chance of finding Ab and Bb chords, if that's what you mean. – Tim Feb 8 at 8:52
  • @Tim Yes. Even though the leading tone will give you a Bo in Cm I think of both of those as chords in Cm. – John Belzaguy Feb 8 at 17:18
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Using this Wikipedia page list of chords for the jazz minor scale, if you had chords D7sus G7 Cmin6

With Roman numeral analysis you would say that is V7/V V7 i.

If the first D chord had a minor third you would use ii. Of course using the sus dodges the whole question of specific chord quality. There is no raised fourth degree in the scale so I don't see the rationale for saying the associated chord is a type of dominant seventh chord. Regardless, whether V/V or ii the function is pre-dominant.

To the extent that ii functions as a pre-dominant you could say the D7sus from the jazz minor scale functions like a ii when it goes to G7. Whether the analysis is V/V or ii is determined by a tone omitted by the sus so it isn't a absolutely clear case of one or the other.

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  • Here are cool chords for the degrees of C melodic minor youtube.com/watch?v=PTHPkew138c&t=7m33s – piiperi Reinstate Monica Feb 8 at 17:40
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    "...D phrygian natural six..." the nomenclature is SO tedious even the guy playing has trouble with it. The chord/scale system simply can't make up it's mind if it's naming chords or scales. And the tedium doesn't bring a deep insight. In this case all the names obscure the simplicity of playing sequential harmony from a single scale then ad libbing melody using that scale. – Michael Curtis Feb 8 at 19:00
  • Talking about music is like dancing about architecture ... The names are not needed very often, so it's clumsy. In the linked video, the chords change every four bars, and the changing makes it more like a chord progression where the 1st degree scale/chord always feels like the home base. But that's because it was meant to be a training exercise to get you familiar with the different tastes. If you like the sound of D phrygian natural six, you could try making it the harmonic center for the song. And then you might want a name for it? – piiperi Reinstate Monica Feb 8 at 19:21
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    "D phrygian natural six" is indeed "dancing about architecture." It's just playing the melodic minor scale. The proof of the unnecessary obscurity of chord/scale is when some makes the "breakthrough" connection that ii V I, dorian mixolydian, ionian is really just... the major scale/key. You have to work backwards from chord/scale to get simple musical concepts. – Michael Curtis Feb 9 at 13:52
  • I have to disagree completely. If you're supposed to play in that mode, you can't think about melodic minor with some rotation offset. Just like if you're in A minor and you want to make it A dorian, you have to think of it as "A natural minor with sharp six". You can't start thinking about G major with a rotation, that confuses and obscures the whole thing, because then you're not inside the mode at all, the whole "where am I and what is around me" spatial awareness is wrong. Similarly, with D phrygian natural six, you have to think of it as D phrygian but with one changed note. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Feb 9 at 15:33
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The melodic minor scale has different notes when ascending from when descending so it would seem to me to be a bad choice to use this as the basis for developing chord substitutions for people to solo over. My advice would be to keep it simple and be guided by what you hear rather than musical theory. Precise technical description in musical terms of what actually happens harmonically in a particular Jazz piece or improvisation is frequently of not much help to players who really only want to know what major key signature to start up in. Some jazz pieces are notated with no key signature whatsoever -just accidentals.

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  • The question is not about the meaning of "key" or key signatures. The OP is operating in so-called "jazz minor" where the ascending melodic minor scale is used modally en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… see youtube.com/watch?v=PTHPkew138c – piiperi Reinstate Monica Feb 8 at 11:11
  • Yes I kind of get that. I guess What I am trying to say is the melodic minor is only part of the picture and as such imposes its own constraints. A more unified approach might be seen from the point of view of Lydian mode (See Russell's - Lydian Chromatic Concept) – Andrew Carmichael Feb 13 at 23:46

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