I'm confused about the minor scale. There's a bunch of them: melodic, harmonic, natural, etc.

What is the most common one that is used in western music? In other words, which one is usually chosen when someone says "play C-minor". And please give an example of the notes in this key.

To illustrate this confusion. Alot of times when I'm googling for information for example, "what's the key to the tetris theme". And I'll get back "a-minor" (with no mention if it's melodic, harmonic, natural). Like in this page https://www.flutetunes.com/tunes.php?id=192 So which one do I assume it is?

closed as unclear what you're asking by Bradd Szonye, Dom Apr 23 '17 at 0:38

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Perhaps the original was the natural minor, the Aeolian mode, which contains the same notes as its relative major. This worked well, but musicians preferred a leading note just one semitone under the tonic - it made things sound more decisive. So the harmonic minor was spawned, with that sharpened leading note.

That was good, but it gave an interval of a tone and a half between 6 and 7, so it was decided that to ameliorate that, the 6th note should also be raised. That gave us the rising melodic, with the same first five of the original minor, and the rest the same as the parallel major. However, composers preferred the natural minor notes when the melody went down, so the classical melodic, with two different sets of notes, was accepted.

Jazzers tend to use the rising set either way, so the jazz melodic was born.

As to your question, the classical melodic has to be the winner, as it encompasses all of the notes from all the minor scales.

But let's not forget that minor modes exist too - any with a minor third 'twixt root and three, such as Dorian. They should also be in the set to choose from.

  • Great answer! Just wondering - any info on when natural minor came to be? – Ansel Chang Apr 22 '17 at 17:51
  • From what I remember, Harmonic minor with just the raised 7th is referring to raising the 7th for chordal reasons, not using it as a leading tone melodically (although many pieces take advantage of that at the same time). Specifically, the 7th degree of the scale is raised to put a Maj 3rd in the Dominant chord and create a tri-tone between the 3rd and 7th of the chord, which doesn't occur in the minor version of the Dominant. An example of a Harmonic minor passage would be an arpeggiated Dom7 chord that doesn't resolve melodically to the tonic: notes B G# E, with the G# not resolving to A. – Alphonso Balvenie Apr 23 '17 at 4:40
  • @AlphonsoBalvenie - I called it the leading note to identify its place in the scale. If it's more for chordal reasons, fair enough, but if that harmony was used, any un-sharpened note in the melody would have been very odd. There's no 'rule' stating the leading note has to resolve to tonic. – Tim Apr 23 '17 at 7:34

I'm going to answer it a bit differently, and perhaps not in the way that you want:

I don't think the question is a valid question to begin with. I know this may seem as if I'm calling you ignorant---nothing is further from the truth!---but perhaps one quick example can show that the question is not as easy to answer as you might think:

The following excerpt is from Bach's C-minor Fugue from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier:

enter image description here

The first two measures certainly seem to suggest C harmonic minor, right? So when we're compiling data for this hypothetical corpus study to determine which form of the minor scale is most common, this gets one check for C harmonic minor.

But then comes m. 3. The down-stem pitches are the collection of C melodic minor, but they're the ascending form of C melodic minor...and this scale is descending!

So where does this fit in our corpus? Do we check the melodic minor box, even though it doesn't actually follow the "rules" of melodic minor?

As we continue looking at more music, we'll keep seeing examples like this that don't fall neatly into one of the three forms of minor; because they don't map onto real works neatly, the hypothetical study in question cannot be done.

Think of "minor" as a compositional environment. Natural, harmonic, and melodic alterations are just that: little nuances that give flavor, but nonetheless do not alter the basic "minor" status.


"Harmonic" and "melodic" are used mostly when playing scales for exercises. I don't think that you would say that a piece of music was in C harmonic minor or C melodic minor. A piece of music in C minor, unless it is very simple, probably contains both A♮ as well as A♭ and B♮ as well as B♭. So, I guess that you could say that it was in C melodic minor but that is not usual.

  • 2
    I am a bit puzzled by your question. If I was in a piano lesson and the teacher said: "Play a C minor scale" then I might respond: "Harmonic or melodic?". However, if I was shown some music and asked what the key was then I would respond simply "C minor" without harmonic or melodic. I regard those as properties of scales and not more general pieces of music. – badjohn Apr 22 '17 at 18:17

They took this poll of Spotify's music contents in 2015 (all 30 million songs) and, according to https://insights.spotify.com/us/2015/05/06/most-popular-keys-on-spotify/, the most common minor key there is A minor. This is followed by E minor and B minor. Given the bias towards sharps, I blame guitar because it's the easiest to play G major or E minor there. But given that the no-accidentals-in-key-signature key won, I also blame the piano and every other non-transposing instrument.

It's obviously not a comprehensive poll of the most common minor key in music, but it's one of the best starts I could find.

  • 1
    When I listen to minor-key music, I tend to find that it uses a mixture of harmonic and melodic minors. Sometimes, when using exotic chords and modal mixture such as IV or bII, it doesn't technically use either of them. (IV belongs to natural minor, but bII is just plain exotic. However, be prepared to listen to bII in classical music and heavy metal.) – Dekkadeci Apr 22 '17 at 18:24
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    IV belongs to natural minor? Dorian, true. – Tim Apr 22 '17 at 19:41
  • I was mistaken--it actually doesn't. It belongs to ascending melodic minor instead, although Bb-D-Bb only belongs in ascending melodic minor for the first 2 notes and is forced into no-proper-minor-key land with the 3rd note. – Dekkadeci Apr 23 '17 at 14:49

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