Tag Archives: natural minor

the three kinds of minor scales in Western tonal harmony

Natural minor

The natural minor scale corresponds to mode VI of the major scale, also known as Aeolian (for a comprehensive review on modes, see this post). In other words, it has the exact same notes as the major scale, but it begins and ends on the 6th scale degree of the major scale.

For example, the A major scale has the following notes: A B C# D E F# G# A. The sixth scale degree here is the note F#. F# natural minor is thus: F# G# A B C# D E F# (the same as the F# Aeolian mode).

Another way to look at this is to think that the tonic in any given natural minor scale is to be found a minor third below the tonic of its relative major scale.

For example, the relative minor scale of C major (C D E F G A B C) is A minor (A B C D E F G A). Indeed, there is an interval of a descending minor third between the two tonics, C and A (for a comprehensive review of intervals, see this PDF).

Harmonic minor

Most music students know that harmonic minor is “natural minor with a raised seventh.” But why do we call it harmonic minor? What exactly is harmonic about it?

Consider this: the chord built on the fifth scale degree in natural minor is a minor seventh chord (Emi7 in the key of A minor). To get a dominant-tonic relationship akin to the one we have in major keys (G7 to C for instance, with the tritone F & B resolving to the notes E & C), that minor third in the V chord needs to be raised by a half step. Vmi7 now becomes V7: a dominant chord with a major third (which is called the leading tone because it resolves up a half step to the tonic). With the scale reflecting this change in the V chord, we now have harmonic minor. That is: A B C D E F G# A in the key of A (here, the G# is both the leading tone of the A harmonic minor scale and the major third of its fifth degree, the E7 chord). Does that make sense? I hope so! And if it does, we can now move on to melodic minor…

Melodic minor

In the harmonic minor scale, the raised seventh creates an interval of an augmented second, a melodic “gap” so to speak, between the sixth and seventh scale degrees (some might say this results in an “exotic” or “Middle-Eastern” feel). This “gap” might be somewhat discomforting, particularly to a Western ear that expects a series of major and minor seconds, i.e. whole steps and half steps (as is the case in the major and natural minor scales).

Raising the sixth a half step (from F to F# in the key of A) makes the augmented interval disappear and “smooths out” the scale from an intervallic point of view. The result is what we call melodic minor. In A, we have: A B C D E F# G# A.

Looking at the scale from a different angle, one might notice that a given melodic minor scale would feature all the same notes as its parallel major counterpart, except for the third, which, of course, has to be minor (lowered by a half step when going from the parallel major scale to the melodic minor scale).


NameExample (in A)Remarks
Natural minorA B C D E F G AEquivalent to the Aeolian mode. Relative of C major (both scales share all of the same notes).
Harmonic minorA B C D E F G# APresence of the leading tone (raised seventh), which creates harmonic tension and yields the V7-Imi progression.
Melodic minorA B C D E F# G# AEquivalent to playing the parallel A major scale with a lowered third (minor instead of major).

These three different types of minor scales are commonly found in the Western tonal system. There are, however, myriad other minor sounding modes (Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, and Locrian for example) and scales (such as Hungarian minor to name but one).

pentatonic possibilities 1: major and minor pentatonics

Pentatonics are 5-note scales. Technically, any ordered sequence of 5 notes can be called a pentatonic. But the most common and widely used pentatonic is without doubt the one obtained by reordering a series of 5 notes stacked on top of each other in fifths (for example, the series “C G D A E” gives us “C D E G A” once reordered). This particular pentatonic comes in its “major” form (C D E G A), and its relative “minor” form (A C D E G).

So, what do I mean by “pentatonic possibilities?” Well, pentatonics tend to break up the diatonic quality of 7-note major and minor scales because of their intervallic content. So, to create fresh melodic shapes and give a more edgy feel to your lines while improvising over changes, you might ask yourself: what pentatonic scales can I use over these chords? Chords derive from modes, and modes from harmony types, so the question may be rephrased as: what pentatonic scales can be extracted from the various harmony types?

For the purpose of this particular post, I will limit myself to what I call the “common” or “global” pentatonic scale (the one discussed in the first paragraph). Let’s have a look at major harmony first. The pentatonics listed in the first and last column of the table shown below are extracted from the key of C major (C D E F G A B). Their “major” forms are listed in the left-hand side of the table along with their relative “minor” forms on the right-hand side, and the roman numerals represent the scale degrees for each pentatonic:

major harmony pentatonic possibilities
C D E G A I Maj. pent. <=> VI min. pent. A C D E G
F G A C D IV Maj. pent. <=> II min. pent. D F G A C
G A B D E V Maj. pent. <=> III min. pent. E G A B D

Natural minor harmony is equivalent to the Aeolian mode. Therefore, the pentatonic possibilities in natural minor are the same as in major harmony (the roman numerals indicating the scale degrees, however, would have to change due to the shift to relative minor).

Now, let’s have a look at melodic minor harmony. It turns out only one pentatonic scale can be extracted from this harmony type. It is shown in the table below in the key of C melodic minor (C D Eb F G A B):

melodic minor harmony pentatonic possibilities
F G A C D IV Maj. pent. <=> II min. pent. D F G A C

Finally, neither harmonic minor nor harmonic major harmony bear common pentatonic possibilities, due to a flatted 6th scale degree in both instances. However, some interesting “exotic” pentatonics can be derived from those harmony types…

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