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I've recently had a discussion with a woman, let's call her Jane, who maintained that the A minor scale features G# rather than a natural G. According to her, the scale goes A, B, C, D, E, F, G#, A. While I'm moderately proficient (though I definitely lack authority) in harmony and general theory, I was pretty sure the scale is actually all natural, going by what I consider a basic principle, that C major and A minor are both all-natural scales, and that minor scales are "the same" as the major scale three semitones above them.

So I defended my position, and the discussion got heated. I said that maybe she was thinking of the harmonic or melodic minor scale (I never learned which is which), but that I was talking about the natural A minor scale and that one has no G#. Jane went on saying that if you're writing or playing in A minor then of course the dominant chord is E major, not E minor, because G#, and that you would never resolve the harmony using E minor. She concluded that I'm blatantly wrong, and that since Bach and the equal temperament the minor scale has always included a sharp seventh.

Now, the reason I'm asking here what is right and what is wrong is that Jane is a conservatory graduate in Piano and Harmony, and (you probably guessed it) I'm not. Maybe I'm just seeing things at a lower-intermediate level, and maybe I can't realise that my knowledge is basic handbook stuff, but she knows that a certain set of harmonic rules that I don't know mandate that you never use the actual natural minor scale. I don't know, I'm making this up, but I can imagine that there is a reason I don't understand.

So, to sum up:

  • what does the A minor scale actually look like?
  • if I'm writing a piece in A minor, should I use E minor or E major?
  • is it possible that I am, like, "right but actually wrong" when I say A minor has no G#?

PS: as to the second and third question, I know that any note may have a place in any scale if just to create an intentional dissonance. I'm talking about classical harmony: think Bach, that she herself even mentioned.

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    Ask Jane if the III chord in the key of Am is a C or a C+. Both G and G# are used in A minor. Case closed. Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 0:08
  • @JohnBelzaguy One other thing that A minor songs sometimes like to do is that neither E nor Emi are anywhere to be heard but instead what feels like the dominant is the G chord. (There's probably a proper term for it somewhere.) Lady in Black, for instance, and many others.
    – Divizna
    Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 0:53
  • @Divizna Yes, in the relative major key of C that is considered an “interrupted” or “deceptive” cadence, V-vi. In minor it becomes a VII-I but sonically has a similar sense of resolution. The reason is because the 3rd of the G chord resolves like a leading tone to the 3rd of the Am chord. Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 5:44

4 Answers 4

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When I first started learning about music, in the 1950s, it was generally accepted that the 'normal' minor scale was the Harmonic Minor, with its sharpened leading note. Without this, there was no leading note, no dominant chord with a strong tendency back to the tonic, basically no Common Practice harmony. We knew about the Melodic Minor scale of course, and even the Natural Minor (though that belonged mainly to folk songs). But Harmonic Minor was king, and we were taught that a sure-fire way of recognising whether an open-key piece was in C major or A minor was to look for the G♯ accidentals.

Modern music theory - particularly 'jazz theory'- is more inclined to consider Natural Minor the norm (though it's interesting that 'cycle of 5ths' progressions are still very popular, often with the sharpened leading notes that create 'secondary dominants').

Jane is giving the old-school answer. But unless she graduated conservatory a LONG time ago (and has closed her mind to subsequent ideas) she should really be taking a less entrenched position!

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  • Jazz theory, natural minor? I'd have said jazz melodic.
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 16:56
  • @tim that only really starts to come up when learning about alternative sounds to overlay over diatonic harmony. Learning jazz you tend to go through learning the modes first, and as such nat minor is considered the default minor scale. You’re more likely to think in terms of leading tones before really digging into the various other minor scales, in my experience. Thinking fully ‘jazz melodic minor’ pops up first when using the altered scale over a dominant, and for most jazz players is more of a ‘parallel pool’ to dip into rather than a default.
    – OwenM
    Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 22:02
  • Of all the (very exhaustive) answers, I think this one hit the correct reason for Jane's position. Thank you!
    – Simone
    Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 22:45
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There are actually more than one A minor scales.

What's generally understood as "A minor" is the Aeolian scale, and has a G.

The one that has a G# is the harmonic A minor scale.

I've never been able to wrap my mind around the melodic minor scale that, apparently, has F# and G# when going up but G and F when going down. (No I have no idea how that works.)

And these three are those you hear about the most, but the list goes on.

In any case, it's very common to use a major dominant chord in the harmony of minor key songs, so a song in A minor is more likely to feature an E or E7 chord, which contains a G#, than an Emi chord with a G in it.
Common, but not a rule. There's still plenty of songs with a minor dominant, too.

And to answer

  • if I'm writing a piece in A minor, should I use E minor or E major?

You are the composer. You can write a piece in A minor featuring the Emi chord, and another piece in A minor that uses the E chord, yet another where both will get a turn, and yet another where just neither of them appears. Any of those possibilities is fine.

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    "I've never been able to wrap my mind around the melodic minor scale that, apparently, has F# and G# when going up but G and F when going down. (No I have no idea how that works.)" You have just described precisely how it works! When the melodic line rises, it retains the sharpened leading note, and sharpens the 6th as well so as to avoid an 'un-melodic' augmented 2nd. Coming down, ^7 is not acting as a leading note so we cam smooth things out the other way.
    – Laurence
    Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 14:18
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    @Laurence But the melody doesn't go neatly up and neatly down, it changes direction at any time, and jumps around in thirds and fourths and sixths, and then stays in place for a bunch of times, it can start on the ambiguous note. If I wanted to sit down and think "now I'll compose a tune in the melodic minor", I'd have absolutely no idea how to do that, or what the rules are for it to be considered the melodic minor and not something else. And what am I supposed to do about the chords that come with it? How does it, you know, work? In the real music? What do I do with such a scale?
    – Divizna
    Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 16:22
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    First and foremost, we do not write music using 'scales'. Keys, yes, but melodic minor is not a key. And often not only using 'scale' notes. You'll find, that often, in music you're writing, (in Am) that G# fits better when the melody is rising, and G nat. fits better when it's falling. Hence the melodic minor, to reflect that. Not always! It's your piece, to write as you want.
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 30, 2023 at 18:19
  • @Tim I guess you mean we do not limit ourselves to only use scales and particularly not only use one scale? Sounds a bit weird to throw out a huge chunk of music theory when putting on you composer-hat... I use scales all the time when listening/playing (usually playing them out of order but the same set of notes) because a lot of music is simple enough.
    – Emil
    Commented May 1, 2023 at 7:31
  • @Emil - we get sooo many questions here regarding how notes 'out of scale' have the audacity to be in pieces. Basically, it's a bit of theory that's just not true.
    – Tim
    Commented May 1, 2023 at 8:15
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Jane is part right, so are you!

Three (or more, read on) minor scales are in common use. A scale is simply a set of notes which work well together, played in ascending and descending order.

As such, the natural minor scale uses exactly the same notes as the major scale associated with it - the relative.

The harmonic minor scale uses a sharpened leading note (G♯ in key Am), in order to produce a better dominant harmony/chord.

The melodic minor scale then changes the 6th note to a sharpened 6th, in order to close the 3 semitone gap produced in the harmonic minor. Classically, that's ascending, and it reverts to natural minor notes descending. There's also the jazz version, using raised 6th and 7th notes both ways.

But - there are more! Minor scales come in the guise of minor modes, all having a m3 from root to 3rd note. Dorian and Phrygian come to mind, apart from others from foreign lands.

So, in fact, Jane, with her 'experience', is less right than you! She must have played and studied many pieces, of all genres, that use both the natural and raised leading note! Show her these, and probably subsequent answers, to enlighten her!!

John's point is a very good one - Em exists in key Am, whereas C+ is rare. The former having G♮, the latter G♯.

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I learned from a more "classical" point of view that the natural minor was the "basic" scale associated with a minor key. I did learn to play natural, melodic, and harmonic minors on various instruments though.

Some of the problem comes from the misleading assumption (made in some texts) that keys are derived from scales. In my opinion, it's easier and more consistent to extract scales from keys. I don't know much about how pop or jazz theorists look a things. Most music from the 1600s to the 1900s or so is written in a key, not from a scale. (I think many of the composers thought of the basic organization being a hexachord.) I see lots of questions on the internet that imply people are taught (or self-taught) that music is organized by scales rather than by keys. There are several scales that can be extracted from the notes belonging to a key. It's simple for the major mode; the minor mode has some major differences though.

The major mode has 7 notes which may be arranged in order (with the tonic as the first note) to give the major scale pattern. The minor mode also has 7 notes but two of these notes are mutable; scale steps 6 and 7 occur in two forms. For notational convenience, it's useful to use the key signature of the relative major for minor keys; the notes are arranged to have the third note a minor third above the tonic.

The different minor scales are extracted from the majority (or plurality or perceived plurality) of choices made with the mutable notes. Goetschius ("Exercises in Melodic Writing") gives some examples as do other authors.

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