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Just doing some practice on minor scales. When I play minor scales, should I just know off the top of my head what the relative major scale is and then play the notes, or should I see the minor scale as its own scale pattern (ie W, H, W, W, H, W, W) and not even think about the relative major?

Note: I'm mainly focusing on natural minor.

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You don't practice scales in a spirit of harmonic analysis. You practice them to gain fluency. Work out the notes any way you want. Then get them fast and clean!

  • I did that for years to pass exams. It was only when I reached a point teaching that I realised that a vast majority of pieces in a certain key used the notes from the scale in that key. What a difference! Bit like 56 is in the 7x table, but 58 isn't. – Tim Aug 2 '17 at 11:49
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    We seem to spend a lot of time on this forum reminding less experienced players that although a scale defines a tonality, no special permission is needed to use notes and chords that aren't in the scale! Perhaps if they read and played more existing music before jumping headlong into improvisation... – Laurence Payne Aug 2 '17 at 11:59
  • @LaurencePayne perhaps, perhaps, perhaps – Some_Guy Aug 2 '17 at 20:41
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    @LaurencePayne Honestly though, if our little site helps curious musicians jump out of the "paint by numbers and oh yeah learn some songs I guess" approach to understanding music theory far too prevalent on the internet, then it's already doing a lot of good. Also, answerers tend to do it in a really positive way, and the OPs usually respond pretty well, so even if sometimes it can be a little repetitive I don't mind at all :) – Some_Guy Aug 2 '17 at 20:43
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    Scales are wonderful! My point was that they are the framework of a tonality, not a restriction. – Laurence Payne Aug 3 '17 at 21:47
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Yes, I think it is useful to know the relative major when practicing the minor scale, and not think of each scale as a separate pattern.

I have found that students do well when they begin to see the overall pattern of whole and half steps in the system, and and realize that the scale is determined by which tone in the pattern they are focusing on.

I think that understanding Modes becomes easier for some students when taking this approach as well.

  • I think that understanding Modes becomes easier for some students... I have never understood why understanding modes should be difficult for anyone, or why it's necessary to use such a crutch to introduce modes. Just go to the piano and play an octave on the white keys, starting with C (or maybe even A...) and moving through, starting on the next key each time and naming the mode: You have now perfectly illustrated the concept of modes in what I think is a very simple and comprehensible way. – Stinkfoot Dec 7 '17 at 0:44
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    @Stinkfoot - I know what you're saying, but doing it that way means in effect, seven more patterns to learn - when actually you already know them - from a different point of view. I find students understand modes as maj. scale notes from a different start point/home far easier and quicker. Instant success is often more effective than ' go home and learn this new pattern' which isn't new at all. – Tim Dec 7 '17 at 9:04
  • @Tim - certainly you need a base mode. But my point is it's not really 6 new patterns - it's just one series, starting at different points. If you know the layout of the "base series" it's not really hard to count off from any given point in the series. It's an algorithmic approach - really uses intevals and numbers as opposed to letters. – Stinkfoot Dec 7 '17 at 12:35
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    @Stinkfoot I'm not sure why students have difficulty with the concept, but there is often confusion in the beginning about how it is one pattern and the tonic changes the relative position of the half steps, even when demonstrating on the piano. Usually I see an "ah ha" moment in the student after they have been playing relative maj/min enough times and the pattern becomes clear to them. – Alphonso Balvenie Dec 7 '17 at 19:05
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You should know the connection between the minor scale you're playing and its relative major, but treat them as different. Since you are mainly focusing on natural minor the two might seem like the same thing, but the most common type of minor, harmonic minor, and also melodic minor are definitely different.

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While it is useful to know the relationships between relative major and minor keys, your fingers don't care. I would not recommend that you use the same fingers on the same keys as you do on the relative major, starting a minor third lower, for your minor scales. (If that is what you are asking.) Minor scales have their usual fingerings, just as major scales do. Also, as others have said, the natural minor scale isn't the only one.

Most people practice the harmonic and melodic minor scales, as these often come up in music. The harmonic minor scale raises the 7th degree a half step to provide a leading tone. The melodic minor scale raises the 6th and 7th scale degrees a half step going up, and drops them again (uses the natural minor scale) going down.

If you want to see the usual fingerings of all the scales, you can find them here, starting on page 50.

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The minor scale you're considering is the natural minor, also known as Aeolian mode and descending classical melodic minor.

Of course it's better to think along the lines of its relative major, which is already known. In itself, it's used often while a piece is in a major key, to modulate into, seamlessly.

The other minors - harmonic and melodic - use some changed notes, which again can be seen to be related to other scales.

The harmonic only changes the leading note from the natural, so there's a semitone between the 7th and 8th notes. That gives a tone and a half gap between 6 and 7, which is 'compensated' for in the rising classical melodic, by also raising the 6th note. But if you know the natural and harmonic minor scales, it's just a matter of adapting the changed notes, which should make more sense than thinking along the lines of 'it's a completely new set of notes' - which it isn't.

You could also have the same mindset with modes, which use the same notes again as the major scale, but start and finish on other notes rather than the major root. As in D Dorian is an 'extension' of C major.

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    Of course it's better to think along the lines of its relative major, which is already known - If you've been weaned on jazz, blues and certain types of rock music, (like I was) IMO that's not necessarily so at all. Minor modes come much more naturally to me than major - my ear is far more accustomed to music that "leans minor", as is my playing style. I have to think more about what I'm playing when I have to stick to major chords and harmony - liberal use of bIII's , bVII's and dominants in tonic chords is my natural style of playing. – Stinkfoot Dec 7 '17 at 0:37
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    @Stinkfoot - fair enough, and three hundred or so years ago, music was minor lead. Now, everything is considered from the major datum point - when we say something's in Eb, no-one questions maj. or min., it's a given.I'm answering the question with the OP's experience - or lack of it - in mind. Most tend to learn maj. stuff first, then realise that the natural min. includes the same notes.Quite possibly guitarists will know min. pents and blues before anything else, but the OP quoted piano.One ought to be at home equally in maj. min. and all modes, to encompass all sorts of music effectively – Tim Dec 7 '17 at 8:58
  • Now, everything is considered from the major datum point : Yes an outdated "vestigal" POV encouraged by poor music education at the elementary levels. Today do more people identify with the tunes and harmonies of the Beatles, the Stones, BB King, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Motown etc etc etc or with the tunes and harmonies of Mozart and Haydn? – Stinkfoot Dec 7 '17 at 10:51
  • @Stinkfoot - a good question! And one where 'it depends who one asks'. If it's people queuing for the Berlin Phil., the answers going to be somewhat different from that of those queuing for a Stones concert...And, to be fair, a lot of the tunes and harmonies from the Beatles, et al, have been orchestrated, and still sound good, as they may have been written by 'classical' composers. But we digress too much... – Tim Dec 7 '17 at 11:19
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    @Stinkfoot from a purely pedagogical standpoint, it's easier to teach major first, simply because songs in minor keys generally deviate more from the scale notes than those in major keys do. Perhaps that contributes. I suppose that the major chord is the most fundamental chord in the harmonic series has something to do with it as well (the major third is the sixth overtone, while the minor third is the 19th): I can't imagine using a bugle to teach minor chords. – BobRodes Dec 10 '17 at 4:26
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I agree with @LaurencePayne 's answer:

You don't practice scales in a spirit of harmonic analysis. You practice them to gain fluency. Work out the notes any way you want. Then get them fast and clean!

( Personally, I used an algorithmic/modal approach to scales and thought of variations as exceptions to the standard algorithms - there is already plenty of terminology out there to help - terms like Lydian Dominant or Locrian #2 or the Altered Scale. Eventually, the common ones became automatic. I'm not a full time pro - often enough I have think about things as I play, if it's not something commonplace. )

But I'll add this:

I don't think of natural minor as the relative minor of its major scale. I think that puts too much emphasis on the very conventional and not particularly relevant "Major vs Minor" mindset, which in modern music has been obliterated, IMO.

I think of natural minor simply as the 6th mode - Aeolian - the mode built on the 6th degree - of the Ionian "base" mode, known commonly as "The Major Scale": IMO, in modern music it's valid say that "all modes are equal", (although having a base mode still puts emphasis on major and there are good reasons for that) and we also find many scales in use - harmonic and melodic minor, various pentatonic scales, bebop scales... - that aren't modes or relative major or minor to anything. (And what's without touching on other systems that are also becoming part of our musical vocabulary - Indian music for example.) In fact, the natural minor, Aeolian mode, occurs infrequently relative to those others.

So - why bind yourself to the "Major vs Minor" mindset implied by Major and Relative Minor, or vice-versa? It's not the correct way to think about contemporary music.

  • 'All modes are equal' - except Ionian and Aeolian, which make up a heck of a lot of music, and Locrian, which seems to hardly work at all - for player and listener! – Tim Dec 7 '17 at 9:07
  • @Tim - Aeolian? Where and when? Please elaborate... Dorian and Mixo are far more common in rock and and blues/rock, metal, etc, AFAIK Dorian is "default minor" in jazz parlance. Lydian dominant, bebop scales and all sorts of altered scales are also well used in jazz from what I've seen (not all that much admittedly.) - more than straight Aeolian. Where do you find straight Aeolian? 10th century plain chants? – Stinkfoot Dec 7 '17 at 10:44
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    Aeolian shouldn't have been quoted, although it's only one note different from the oft used harmonic minor. And, let's face it, a vast majority of pieces use extra notes that aren't diatonic anyway, so it's not a simple matter to decide exactly what key/scale notes a piece uses. – Tim Dec 7 '17 at 11:14
  • it's only one note different... And a tritone is "only one note different" than P5. :) – Stinkfoot Dec 7 '17 at 12:29
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As an ultimate goal, we want to be able to think "I want to play an Fm scale" and the scale should be right under our fingers. We think "Let me play some notes of a Bbm scale now" and immediately our hand plays the right notes in any order. However, although a Bbm scale is a scale "derived" from the Db major scale, it has emphasis placed on Bb (and the other notes from Bb chord) and not on Db (This is part of the ingredients of a scale: a center of tonal gravity + a formula for subsequent notes. The first concept is not easily understood right away by beginners). So, when you think about the Bbm scale, your hand should visualize "Bb related notes" and if you need to make the brief mathematical analysis "What is the major scale from which Bbm is derived? Hm, it's Db. Ok, let me play the notes of Db but emphasizing the Bbm chord", then there is an unnecessary wasting of brain power.

Let me quote Gary Burton in a MOOC Berklee Coursera course (if you change Bm7b5 for Am, that's your question):

"Often students will ask this question about the seven modes: Since the same notes are used for seven mode scales (the B Locrian uses the same notes as the C Ionian, and so on), can we just think of the C Ionian, a more familiar scale, when we see a Bm7b5 chord symbol?

The answer is no. The reason the chord symbol is spelled as a Bm7b5 instead of a C major is to point us to the strongest notes, the chord tones, of the B minor harmony. The chord symbol is telling us more information than just the notes in the scale.

If the symbol says B minor something, then you will want to picture it, and think of it as B minor. If you have to first think of it as C major to find the scale notes, it creates an extra step in your thought process and distracts you from focusing on the important notes in the B minor harmony."

As an intermediate step, I am a proponent of learning 2 worlds that will serve as a basis for all basic structures: major and minor worlds. If you learn the G major scale, immediately learn Em and associate Em with the same key signature, although as a separate entity. Don't think of Em as a E scale with b3,b6,b7 and also don't use this kind of half-whole formulas (it's cumbersome if you want to skip notes). The idea of keeping these 2 scales in mind has the benefit of learning easily lots of other scales, changing just a few notes. If you want to practice the dorian scale, start with a minor scale and raise the 6th degree. If you want to practice the lydian scale, start with a major scale and raise the 4th degree. Most scales will be categorized as a part of the "minor world" or "major world". You can use a more fine-grained categorization and add the "diminished world", "dominant world", etc ... but now I digress :p

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