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I would be grateful to know how other beginner musicians think of the natural scale.

For example, do you think:

  1. I need to play in A minor - the relative major is C. I shall therefore play in C major, but emphasis the A note or

  2. I will play in A major, but flatten the third, sixth and seventh.

I have been playing guitar for quite a while, but on and off, so have would not really consider myself any good.

I grew up listening to heavy rock/metal and virtually everything I learnt to play was in the natural minor.

I then started messing around with improvising and learnt the minor pentatonic all over the neck in A.

I have now decided to properly start playing again and have realised what a fool I have been.

Had I learnt the major scales all over the neck, I would be able to easily construct any scale/chord from them.

Furthermore, I need to make sure that I practice other keys too.

Anyway, further to my original question, I am interested to know how others construct the natural minor scale, in their mind.

I assume that after years and years of practice, you would instinctively just know every scale in every key but I am so far from that point that I need some mental guidance for the process.

  • 2
    Personally I think it's best to play the various minor scales until the whole/half progressions are locked into your memory. I knew some semipro musicians who could sing a scale in any mode (Dorian, Mixolydian, etc), which is a pretty cool trick. – Carl Witthoft Oct 3 '18 at 13:28
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I don't know about beginner musicians, but I'd suggest internalising the sound of the minor scales just as well as the major. That way, you don't have to think of altering some kind of major scale, and also later when one gets into modes, it'll be really helpful to think of phrygian as minor ♭2 rather than major ♭2 ♭3 ♭6 ♭7. Also understanding harmonic minor and melodic minor pretty much requires this basic ability to conceptuallise the minor mode without calling on the major scale first.

It'll be more difficult, but I suggest beginner musicians try to think of the natural minor scale as its own entity rather than a derivative of major.

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    But - the descending melodic minor is mostly (only one note different) the parallel major anyway! – Tim Oct 3 '18 at 15:28
  • True! Although to me, it always seemed much closer to minor than major aurally. – user45266 Oct 3 '18 at 15:43
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    I meant ascending. Sorry! And descending is exactly as the natural minor anyway (in the classical mel. min.) – Tim Oct 3 '18 at 16:01
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So, you've learned the min. pent. there are only two more notes to add to make the natural minor, which you probably play anyway, with the stuff you already play. Taking part of your question - knowing natural minor, you already know its relative major. know Am? You know C maj!

Players use either method to learn scales (and modes). personally, I take the datum point as the major, so relative minor is the same set of notes, so is Dorian, so is Mixolydian, etc. As in, C major = A nat. min = D Dorian = F Lydian, etc.

Others will see it differently: C Mixolydian is C major with a b7; C Lydian is C major with #4, etc.

The point on guitar is that once you have a particular sort of scale sorted, it merely moves up and down the fretboard to become the same sort, but in different keys. So in reality it's not so bad learning scales, as all you need is the pattern and the start point.

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I kind of like what Guthrie Govan has to say about modes - the TLDR of it being that the vast majority of those we derive from the major scale can be thought of in relation to the pentatonic scale. The idea here being that your current ideas with pentatonic scales already work in all of these modes, they just require some of the embellishment notes that aren't in the pentatonic scale to notify the listener that it's a certain mode.

I assume by now you've either noticed or been told that the standard box shape of the pentatonic scale can be either minor or major depending on where you start; in this way you can look at modes as filling in the 'gaps' of the notes that the pentatonic scale hasn't covered.

If you're in a mode that has a minor 3, it fits the minor pentatonic (scale degrees 1 b3 4 5 b7), so you already know 5 of the notes - you just need to know what kind of 2nd and 6th the mode takes. Dorian? Major 2nd, Major 6. Phrygian? Minor 2, Minor 6.

Likewise if you're using a mode with a major 3 it's the major pentatonic (scale degrees 1 2 3 5 6) then you just need the correct 4th and 7th. Mixolydian takes a Perfect 4 and a Minor 7, Lydian takes a #4 and a Major 7.

In fairness this throws Locrian under the bus - it doesn't fit into either pentatonic in the same way though obviously it contains a pentatonic scale - but IMO having one special case is better than 7 special cases. Locrian has only the 1 and the 4 in their "Ionian" positions; everything else is flatted.

This won't apply so well if you get into modes of scales that never fit the modes of the Ionian major scale, like a Phrygian Dominant for example, but at that point it's almost better IMO to think of the triad it's being used over and then remembering which notes are the "interesting" ones, ha. But that kicks off a whole different discussion.

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Definitely 2. But don't call it "A major" with a flattened 3rd, 6th, and 7th. Because it's "A minor" now and minor scales stand on their own. Practice minor scales independently from major ones.

It's not just the root that's important, its chords also don't function exactly the same as the major chord. For example, in the natural minor scale the v chord is sometimes changed to a V chord. That's how the harmonic minor came to be. Also the VII chord in minor is used more often than the vii-dim chord in major.

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I'm going to suggest that you think about it in terms of chords. Like you said, the notes of A minor and C major are exactly the same, however, how you use them are different.

The simplest(most basic?) chord is the triad which is built with the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of the scale. So, even though the notes of the A minor and C major are exactly the same, the A minor triad is A, C, and E, where the C major triad is C, E, and G. When you play these, notice how the A minor's sound is dominated by the A and the C major's is dominated by the C.

The intervals between the 1st and 5th is the same for each, but the 3rds are different and give a different character to the chords.

Hope this helps.

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I study piano and can play a little guitar.

I will tell you how I think of it on piano. Theoretically the concept should be the same on guitar, but personally I have always found the guitar neck confusing compared to the piano keyboard.

I think of the natural minor scale in the same way I think of the harmonic & melodic minor and the major scales: an octave divided into two tetrachords.

A tetrachord is four notes spanning a perfect fourth in a combination of half and whole steps. Before looking at the detail of the tetrachords let's go back to the scales as a division of the octave into two perfect fourths (abbreviated P4.) I will use a tonic of A for examples. Let's list out the tonic, 4th and 5th of the four scales...

Major          [A...D][E...A]
Natural Minor  [A...D][E...A]
Melodic Minor  [A...D][E...A]
Harmonic Minor [A...D][E...A]

...of course A to D and E to A are both perfect fourths. I placed those fourths in brackets to delineate the tetrachords. I intentionally haven't yet filled in the inside of the tetrachords, so we can see they are all the same!

Tonally those are the primary scale degrees: the tonic, subdominant, and the dominant. The are the same for all four scales, because those tones are the foundation of the major/minor system.

In terms of pure numbers we have 8 scale tones x 4 scales for 32 total with 4 x 4 primary tones for 16 total. Half of the notes are the same between all four scales!

The specifics of constructing the final scales is filling out the complete tetrachord. There are four types of tetrachord. I will list their names, whole step (W) and halfstep (h) series...

Major    W  W  h 
Minor    W  h  W 
Phrygian h  W  W 
Harmonic h  A2 h  (A2 is an augmented 2nd or 3 halfsteps)

Our tetrachords begin on A and E and theoretically we could play any of the four tetrachord types on either A or E...

Major    [A  B  C# D]
Minor    [A  B  C  D]
Phrygian [A  Bb C  D]
Harmonic [A  Bb C# D]

Major    [E  F# G# A]
Minor    [E  F# G  A]
Phrygian [E  F  G  A]
Harmonic [E  F  G# A]

...but we won't use all of the possibilities. These are the tetrachord types used for the four scale types...

Major          [major   ][major   ]
Natural Minor  [minor   ][phrygian]
Melodic Minor  [minor   ][major   ]
Harmonic Minor [minor   ][harmonic]

Notice that the major and minor tetrachords are used three times! The phrygian and harmonic tetrachords are only used once each for the top half of the minor scales.

Remember these tetrachords are shapes that can be transposed to different positions of the guitar neck (or piano keyboard.)

Mostly we are using the major and minor tetrachords. And those two only differ by the 3rd degree. The minor scales are generated by simply inflecting the top half of the minor scale with either the phrygian, major, or harmonic tetrachords.

Finally, the spelling of each scale is...

Major          [A  B  C# D][E  F# G# A]
Natural Minor  [A  B  C  D][E  F  G  A]
Melodic Minor  [A  B  C  D][E  F# G# A]
Harmonic Minor [A  B  C  D][E  F  G# A]

The bonus for thinking of scales as tetrachord combinations is you can get many other scales with the same process. The dorian, phrygian, and mixolydian modes, and the exotic scales like the double harmonic and Freygish are constructed with combinations of these tetrachords.

If this seems complicated, just remember: it uses only four tetrachords!

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