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When using the harmonic (or melodic) minor scale for a melody, it is often combined with the natural minor, depending on whether the seventh is a leading tone going up to the tonic (in which case you'd use a raised seventh), or e.g. a melody going downward (in which case you'd use the natural seventh). This sounds very "normal", and a non-musician would hardly notice that you're mixing two different scales.

However, when writing a song with a melody that alternates between harmonic and natural minor, does this alternating between a raised and natural seventh extend to the choice of V or v chord? E.g. if the overall key is E minor, would you use both B and Bm chords depending on the local context? And would that local context be the melody, or the chord progression (i.e. would you use B when the next chord is C or another chord that contains the note E, and Bm in other situations)?

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    Whichever fits better. Rules don't apply. – Tim Jun 13 at 19:07
  • @Tim Well, I sort of made up my mind already, based on what sounds good to me, but I was wondering if there's any relevant theory or standard way of doing this. – Your Uncle Bob Jun 13 at 20:02
  • I'm struggling to decide which answer to accept, as each contains interesting information. Give me a couple of days... – Your Uncle Bob Jun 15 at 22:51
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Melodic minor for up and natural for down simply is not how minor key music works. That is a short hand textbook rule.

...E minor, would you use both B and Bm chords depending on the local context?

Yes.

A lot depends on style. In classical music it really depends on whether the seventh degree is raised to act as a leading tone.

In the following lesson you can see how the raised ^7 moves to the tonic. But in bar 10 the ^7 is the lowered form, F natural. It is part of a descending line - not acting as a leading tone. Basically the raised form is used for cadential (tonic/dominant) harmony.

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But that example has the ^7 degree in the bass. It doesn't quite address your question about cases when it is in the melody (treble part.)

The following is from a partimento lesson...

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...where the lowered ^7 is in the melody and beat 4 of bar 1 is clearly the minor v.

The bass part is the actual content of the lesson and it opens like this...

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...where the use of the raised ^7 - the G# in the bass - for the cadence is clear. At such cadence points we would definitely expect the major dominant V.

Both forms of the dominant are used in minor and the ^7 degree can be either lowered or raised in either a harmonic or melodic context and in either ascending or descending contexts. The difference depends mostly on whether the harmony is cadential, a dominant to tonic progression.

  • I'm using a lot of step-wise changes and parallel passing chords, like v-bv-iv and V-VI-VII, instead of cadential harmony, so that's why it felt more natural to extend the rising/falling rule to the choice of chords too. – Your Uncle Bob Jun 13 at 20:27
  • Do you mean V bVI bVII, so in E minor: Bm C D? – Michael Curtis Jun 13 at 20:36
  • Yes, indeed; the terminology is confusing me. Bm-Bbm-Am and B-C-D in the key of Em. The choice of B is determined by the melody at that point, but I was wondering whether you can use a "v when falling / V when rising" rule for chords similar to "^7 when rising / 7 when falling" for melody. – Your Uncle Bob Jun 13 at 20:47
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    I think 'classical' harmony is where you have a very circumscribed style. To the extent you asked about "...standard way of doing this" I think what I posted about classical style is that standard. Beyond that - non-functional, parallel harmony, etc. - I think you can enjoy a lot of freedom. – Michael Curtis Jun 13 at 20:47
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When you write a melody, you imply something about the harmony as well, and so you have some kind of a vague idea or gut instinct about chords, even if you can't or don't want to explicate any specific chords right away. You can do it either way. Think of chords first (for example by using voice-leading as a guideline for thinking up something) and place melody notes on strategic places in the harmony progression, fulfilling any other criteria like ups and downs, tension and release, rhythmic feel, expectation and surprise, etc. Or write melody notes straight away for example following the ups and downs and natural rhythm of lyrics, and then think of nice chords to support it while satisfying other "design criteria" like tension and release etc. Modern pop songs usually stick to colorless/tasteless/odorless minor or major pentatonic scales for melody, and backing chords live their own separate life.

In any case, if you want to do a Bm feel, you'll use a D note in the melody. Or if you use a D# note in the melody, you won't harmonize it with a Bm chord. Use both if you like.

Here's one in Em, with both Bm and B, chords first, placing melody notes on critical spots, with a rhythm. I guess it could go melody first as well, but if you write this melody without chords, you won't need a musical genius to come up with these chords.

Bm-B-chords-and-melody

Edit: I'll add my comment about the "going up" vs "going down" thing here. What happens with the melodic minor scale when going up is, it implies chords, namely secondary dominant - dominant - tonic. For example if the key has been established as Em, then even if played without accompaniment, the melody notes B - C# - D# - E feel like chords B - F#7 - B7 - Em. For some reason the melodic minor scale is often explained as some kind of natural phenomenon or semi-physical thing in itself that "just works" when going up, but IMO it's like a common short melodic phrase, with chords virtually embedded in it. It outlines a chord progression.

Why the melodic minor is not used all that often in descending melody phrases is that it requires a bit more imagination to feel a sensible harmony progression there. For example Em - B7 - F#7 - Em makes much less sense than Em - F#7 - B7 - Em. What comes to the harmonic minor scale's B - C - D# - E, it sounds like e.g. the chords Em - Am - B7 - Em. And descending E - D# - C - B works too: Em - B7 - Am - Em is easy to imagine there.

  • In parts of the song where the melody isn't using a D or D#, and there isn't a clear melodic reason to choose a Bm or B chord, would the rising/falling direction of the chord sequence determine the choice of V or v, i.e. Am-B-C vs. C-Bm-Am? – Your Uncle Bob Jun 13 at 20:12
  • @YourUncleBob The root note is only one of the voices, and I don't think the rising/falling thing has much to do with it anyway. In simplified terms, movement means change in position, and I feel the "position" of harmony in terms of (1) where might the tonic be, and (2) are we home or leaning to the subdominant or dominant side. The choice between B or Bm should be about how strong dominant feelings you want. Even the D# note alone, or any of A/C/D#/F# dim7 chords, or F13 etc. can work as a dominant, it doesn't need the B note. – piiperi Jun 13 at 21:49
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    @YourUncleBob IMO what happens with the melodic minor scale when going up is, it implies chords, namely secondary dominant - dominant - tonic. For example if the key has been established as Em, then even if played without accompaniment, the melody notes B - C# - D# - E feel like chords B - F#7 - B7 - Em. For some reason the melodic minor scale is often explained as some kind of natural phenomenon or semi-physical thing in itself that "just works" when going up, but IMO it's like a common short melodic phrase, with chords virtually embedded in it. It outlines a chord progression. :) – piiperi Jun 13 at 21:58
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In lots of classical pieces the composer follows a not-so-obvious (to me) rule (it does make sense.) Ascending scale like use the raised forms of steps 7 and 8 and descending forms use the lower forms; at the same time, the minor v is used in non-cadential situations; the major V in cadential ones. Of course, the classical composers used the lower step 6 and raised step 7 commonly.

A couple of examples can be observed here. When a cycle of fifths (or fourths or circle depending on one's naming preference) is repeated, the v minor may be used in the first cycle and the V major at the end: i-iv-VII-III-VI-ii0-v-i-iv-VII-III-VI-ii0-V-i (or I). Similarly there are some renditions (can I say this for 1600s music?) of Greensleeves that go i-VII-i-v-III-VII-i-V-i.

About the only permutations that I have not seen (at least until the middle Nineteenth-Century) are the augmented chord on 3 and the use of a raised 6 as a neighbor tone to step 5.

What one sees (that may seem against the rules) are false relations between the raised 6 and 7 against the lowered versions in a bass vs melody.

Of course, the classical composers tended to think of the with the minor mode as a single object two mutable tones. They didn't separate the natural, harmonic, and melodic minors as objects in themselves; that's a more modern interpretation.

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