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I am learning a pop song that was famous about a decade ago and starts on an F chord for a few bars before going to the following descending chord progression.

F Eb Dm7 Bbm/Db

The second time the progression is the same except it ends on Bb major and then goes into a staple vi ii IV V progression in F major

The song is notated with one flat but up until that point actually appears to use the notes from the F Mixolydianb6 scale which is the 5th mode of the Bb melodic minor scale. I found this song as I was looking for examples of songs using the mixolydian mode and on the wikipedia page this song was listed as an example. After looking at all the notes used in the vocal melody however, in the 1st verse, there is no M6 but only a m6 when the Bbm chord is used. Is it correct to say that this part of the song is actually using the Mixolydian mode or is it true that the b6 means it is actually using the melodic minor scale in this part of the song?

Here is a part of the score. The song is called Unwritten by Natasha Bedingfield enter image description here

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  • The answer will be yes, but providing evidence would involve making a list - not right for this site, I believe.
    – Tim
    Feb 17 at 8:44
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There are a few different ideas to be teased out here:

Scale versus Key

The question is presented in a way that suggests the idea that the song might be written entirely according to the melodic minor scale; that is, as though it were in the "key" of melodic minor.

Melodic minor is a scale, reflective of a technique many composers have used to construct melodies in minor keys. But it is not a key in itself, though certainly a composer could choose to use the melodic minor scale exclusively in a minor key song.

For anyone wanting clarification, the issue is much discussed on this site. A good starting point is Difference between keys and scales?

Are any pop/rock songs every written using the melodic minor scale?

Probably, but the example at hand is not one of them.

"Unwritten" by Natasha Bedingfield

Listening to the song, I hear it unambiguously in F major. The case for F mixolydian is the frequent, prominent use of E♭ in the melody. However, a truly mixolydian song would emphasize the "mixolydian-ness" of both the melody and harmony. In particular, it would avoid V-I cadences or any other use of the leading tone. This song sticks to a pretty standard major/minor harmonic system, with the E♭s serving as "blue notes" rather than mode-defining pitches.

Blue note: a minor interval where a major would be expected, used especially in jazz. (From Oxford Dictionaries via Google search)

The chord progression that ends on Bbm/Db is just borrowing the latter chord from F minor to facilitate a chromatic bass line and to create harmonic tension. Given that the E♭ chord is also borrowed from minor, one could make a case for some limited use of the melodic minor scale as underpinning the bass line and harmony, but only in a very local, technical sense. The piece as a whole is major, and even that passage maintains an overall major sound.

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  • Thank you Aaron. I edited the question to clarify that I was only asking about the scale during the part of the song notated in the image I added. I know the rest of the song is unambiguous but I found the sound of the melody to be Melodic minor since it does not have the M6 which is usually a key note along with the b7 in mixolydian mode. Your answer was very helpful thank you.
    – armani
    Feb 17 at 9:00
  • @armani I think the problem you're running into is that you're trying to analyze a part of the song, and the melody specifically, in isolation, which doesn't produce a valid analysis. Even this part of the song is still fundamentally major, it just happens to borrow some notes/chords from minor.
    – Aaron
    Feb 17 at 9:13
  • Many songs I have analyzed have distinct scale patterns for verse chorus and bridge sections and I know that the melody alone is not the entire picture but considering that in pop music the vocal is the most important thing it might be plausible to write melodies first and decide on scales for the different sections even before thinking about chords so in that sense don't you think it is valid looking at melody? Since scales give us the mood that we hear and the chords usually just support that when the melody is what people listen and remember not the chords
    – armani
    Feb 17 at 9:18
  • @armani The melody is memorable, but the chords define the harmonic context of that melody. Identical melodies with different harmonizations will sound entirely different. So it's valid to say that a melody happens to use notes from a melodic minor scale, but that isn't particularly meaningful. Consider a melody comprising G-A-B-C-Bb-Ab-G. This melody uses the C melodic minor scale, but without context, it can't be known whether the actual portion of the song is C minor, G major, G minor, a modulation between F major/minor.... Different harmonizations could define any one of the contexts.
    – Aaron
    Feb 17 at 9:28
  • I understand what you mean but going from a melody first approach, I think it is less important what chords are used initially as those can always be switched out later for more appropriate options that may or may not pursuade theorists to try and analyze the song later. IOW I can change the chords and play with the background of the melody much as a painter can paint someone with different backdrops. How much that backgrop affects the perception of the person being painted is opinion. I might be unconventional saying this but thats just my point of view :)
    – armani
    Feb 17 at 9:42
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Most minor pop songs are melodic minor. All others are in a minor mode (aelolian or dorian, a few may be in phrygian.) Songs in harmonic minor are very seldom. The only one that comes in mind is Hava nagila or our famous Bernese Chanson dr Sidi Abdel Assar vo El Hama by Mani Matter.

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    Could you name a few pop songs that use melodic minor please?
    – armani
    Feb 17 at 9:05
  • Those were the days, l‘Italiano, Et si tu n‘existe pas, Kriminaltango, Yesterday (major, but second phrase mel. min.) many French chansons, Spanish, Portuguese, Feb 18 at 6:13
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There's a huge misconception that scales are used to write songs. WRONG!

Any scale is just a set of notes which work well together, and have been set out in acsending and descending order.

It may well happen that notes from certain sets do get used frequently - take any major key, and most of the notes from it could be used in a song in that key. But there's nothing saying that's all one can use, and there's nothing saying that when non-diatonic notes occur the key has changed. True, sometimes it has, but most times it hasn't.

I doubt that any songwriter thinks 'I'll use these scale notes for this song' before writing said song. Sometimes they may write the whole melody, then consider what key it's actually in.

Let's look at what's bothering you. Find a song in, say, A minor. Check all of its notes. If there's only G♯s (no G♮s), then can we say it's used A harmonic minor notes? If there's not an F or F♯ in sight, it could be A melodic minor, couldn't it? The defining bit is missing. And it's simply in A minor.

The notes which constitute the different minor scales (and modes) are man-made, and are used for exam purposes as much as anything. Minor pieces can and do call in reinforcements from other notes. The only real defining thing about a piece in a minor key is that the 3rds in it are m3. Even then you may still find M3 somewhere. That won't necessarily mean suddenly the piece has changed, and is now in a major key. Only that bit may be different.

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  • I use this method and can name 10 artists that write songs melody first. To do that you need a scale. secretsofsongwriting.com/2015/05/22/…
    – armani
    Feb 17 at 18:14
  • @armani - not a scale, per se. Some notes which will work together, yes. Imagine a song in A minr, where there is a G natural and somewhere else a G#. That would make the scale have an extra note. There may also be accidentals in thae piece. They won't be part of the 'scale', otherwise they wouldn't be accidentals.That was my reasoning. Some may use scales as such, but there are many more that don't. I never have, writing stuff. Not that that makes any difference. Maybe a question coming?
    – Tim
    Feb 19 at 17:06
  • @armani - I still think you're using the term scales slightly incorrectly. A scale is nothing more or less than an ordered set of notes that usually, but not always, belong to a key. You seem (to me) to be using the term to mean 'the notes of a key'. The two are not synonymous.
    – Tim
    Feb 19 at 17:23
  • An ordered set of notes that pretty much determines the mood and vibe of the music. Many times accidentals come in the form of a different scale being used for that specific section. In many cases I write music using diatonic melodies and might adjust some of the notes when I reharmonize using non diatonic harmony. If I think of a good title for a song. I need to sing it... I could just play chords first but if you have lyrics and you need to put music to that I much prefer using a scale.
    – armani
    Feb 19 at 18:36
  • @armani - that's fine. It works for you. Stay with it. But I still think the terminology is inaccurate.
    – Tim
    Feb 19 at 18:40

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