Are they all just 'Em', or is there some standard, concise way of differentiating between them? Thanks!


While the other answers shed light on the issue, they don't answer the question about how to notate different minor scales.

The need for this may arise e.g. when performing harmonic analysis, where one wishes to express the origin of a borrowed chord. In these situations notations such as Em(H), Em(M) and Em(N) can be sometimes used to refer to the harmonic, melodic and natural E minor scales respectively.

Similarly, you may sometimes see notations of borrowed harmonic functions such as IV(M-) to refer to the IV of the (ascending) melodic minor.

However, as the other answers suggest, this differentiation is rarely expressed explicitly. In most cases it is inferred from the actual notes or chords used.

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    IV(M) is confusing. If it's ascending, it will be an Amaj. If descending, it'll be Amin. As I see it, IV(M) cannot exist.Unless, of course, it's going to be the Hendrix chord... – Tim May 23 '14 at 22:46
  • I'm guessing the poster accidentally wrote IV instead of VI, which is easy to do. However, the use of Roman numerals is confusing here anyway since that is generally reserved for chords, not scale degrees. – Pat Muchmore May 23 '14 at 23:10
  • I did mean IV(M) and not VI(M), but that's because my Jazz Harmony textbook assumes the melodic scale is always the ascending melodic scale so there's no confusion. I guess you could use some additional notation to differentiate between the ascending and descending melodic scales, but I never encountered anything like that. And, I did mean chords and not scale degrees: For example, If I'm in Em (harmonic) and I see an A chord, I could (depending on context) analyze it as IV(M) meaning the IV harmonic function borrowed from the parallel ascending melodic scale. – Avish May 25 '14 at 20:39
  • Hi @Avish, what Jazz Harmony book are you referring to? I'd love to take a look if a copy is easily available. – Bob Broadley May 25 '14 at 20:48
  • I'm referring to Foundations in Jazz Harmony by Kimelman/Benacot. It's a Hebrew textbook though, so I'm not sure you'd be able to take a look. I took a second look myself and the book only mentions the "Jazz melodic minor", which looks like an ascending melodic minor to me (there's no talk of descending melodic scales at all). It uses "H-", "M-" and "N-" to refer to the different minor scales, e.g. when summarizing the harmonic functions in each or when analyzing borrowed chords as I mentioned above. – Avish May 25 '14 at 21:01

The three examples you give in your question are not different keys, but are different scales. All of these are E minor scales (scales used in the key of E minor). So, a piece using them would have a key signature of one sharp (F#). The differences between them would be notated in the actual music; using C# and D# (instead of C and D) when using E minor melodic ascending; using a D# (instead of D) when using E harmonic minor; E minor melodic descending and E natural minor (also known as E aeolian) use the notes of the key signature for E minor (E F# G A B C D).

Apart from the necessary pitch changes, there is no need to differentiate between these scales when writing a piece of music; they are all E minor and use an E minor key signature. However, if you were describing the scales used in actual passages of a piece in a minor key (for a musical analysis, or to help someone performing the piece, for instance), you may then wish to use the names of different scales.

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    A good example of a piece of music that is constantly shifting between different types of minor scales is the middle movement of Bach's Italian Concerto, which is in D minor (with one flat), and uses accidentals (B naturals and C sharps) throughout to show which version of the scale should be used: youtube.com/watch?v=F0cKeYtLROg&t=244 – Caleb Hines May 23 '14 at 13:25
  • Thanks! Given what you've told me, is there any conventional shorthand way of indicating which minor scale you are referring to (e.g. Em*, Em^)? I just pulled those examples out of nowhere, but you see what I'm asking? I'd just like to be able to reference them using shorthand that would be at least somewhat recognizable. Thanks again! – jackerman09 May 23 '14 at 15:41
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    Not that I know of - if I'm scribbling quickly I use things like "mel min asc" or "nat min". But I don't know of any symbols - if there are any, I'd love to know them! – Bob Broadley May 23 '14 at 15:44
  • In what context are you wanting a shorthand for them? Since they aren't chords (like you would notate on a lead sheet) nor the names of keys, I'm really curious. – Caleb Hines May 23 '14 at 20:40

The key for all 3 is just E minor, relative of G major, so the key signature will always be the F#. In the 3 scales, the first 5 notes are identical - it's only the 6th and 7th notes that vary.The natural minor will have all the same notes as G major; the harmonic minor will have a raised leading note (D#) all the time; the melodic is the odd one, as both 6 and 7 are raised usually on the way up, and are just like the natural minor on the way down.The accidentals, both sharps and the cancelling naturals, are the main clue as to whether the tune is using the melodic minor. I said usually, as the jazz melodic tends to use the raised 6 and 7 most of the time. This sort of makes four minors, and that's before we consider Dorian and maybe Phrygian modes.

So - the notation won't be in the key signature, but in the notes along the way.


A couple of different cases:

1) For natural minor (aeolian), harmonic minor or melodic minor (ascending and descending) the key signature is always the same. In case of E minor, that would be one sharp (at f#). Accidentals are added as needed to denote those pitches that are not by default implied by the key signature. So for melodic minor ascending, you'd use a c# and d# accidentals in the case of E minor.

2) If your piece is consistently in a particular mode, then typically the key signature is in accordance with the relative minor or major key of that mode. That is, the key signature that one would find for the key corresponding to the ionian or aeolian mode.

Example1: if your piece is in E phrygian, you'd have a key signature without any sharps or flats; without analysis, the key signature would imply C major or A minor.

Example2: If your piece is in E dorian, the key signature would be 2 sharps; without analysis the key signature would appear to indicate D major or B minor.

3) If your piece is mostly in a melodic minor or harmonic minor key, with sections that are of the dorian mode of that key's name, then I would probably simply use accidentals to denote the changed notes. So for example, if you piece is in E melodic minor, with some sections in E dorian, then you'd simply use accidentals to denote the c# that is implied by the dorian mode on E.

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