Hi everyone !

In this new series of 4 new music theory posts, we will talk about minor scales, starting with 3 kind of minor scales. In the next 3 posts, we'll have all of those scales covered.

First, be sure that you fully understand distance between notes. I suggest that you read again this post where I described major scale construction.

Reminder

You remember that a scale is in fact a "recipe".
Here is a reminder of the "major scale recipe" (1 stands for whole-tone, and ½ stands for semi-tone) :

the distance between - and - is 1
the distance between - and - is 1
the distance between - and - is ½
the distance between - and - is 1
the distance between - and - is 1
the distance between - and - is 1
the distance between - and - is ½

If you fill the first cell with a C you get the C major scale, if you fill it with an E♭, if you fill it with a D you get the D major scale, etc...

the distance between D and E is 1
the distance between E and F♯ is 1
the distance between F♯ and G is ½
the distance between G and A is 1
the distance between A and B is 1
the distance between B and C♯ is 1
the distance between C♯ and D is ½

(that is d-e-f♯-g-a-b-c♯-d , the D major scale)

Minor scales

Today, I want to introduce 3 scales. Why 3 scales ? I don't want to discuss the historical path that led to the existence of 3 minor scale1, so lets just say that in minor contexts, you'll see variations in sixth and seven degrees of the minor scale so often, that musicologists decided to give a name to each one of those 3 common variations.

So let's just assume their existence ...

Natural minor

Here is a new recipe :

the distance between and is 1
the distance between and is ½
the distance between and is 1
the distance between and is 1
the distance between and is ½
the distance between and is 1
the distance between and is 1

What happens if we fill the first cell with a C ?

the distance between C and D is 1
the distance between D and E♭ is ½
the distance between E♭ and F is 1
the distance between F and G is 1
the distance between G and A♭ is ½
the distance between A♭ and B♭ is 1
the distance between B♭ and C is 1

We now have the C natural minor scale, that is c-d-e♭-f-g-a♭-b♭-c.

What happens if we fill the first cell with a C♯ ?

the distance between C♯ and D♯ is 1
the distance between D♯ and E is ½
the distance between E and F♯ is 1
the distance between F♯ and G♯ is 1
the distance between G♯ and A is ½
the distance between A and B is 1
the distance between B and C♯ is 1

We now have the C♯ natural minor scale, that is c♯-d♯-e-f♯-g♯-a-b-c♯

You got it ?

Harmonic minor

Here is the harmonic minor scale recipe :

the distance between and is 1
the distance between and is ½
the distance between and is 1
the distance between and is 1
the distance between and is ½
the distance between and is 1+½
the distance between and is ½

The 1+½ stands for an augmented second (a whole-tone + a semi-tone)

What happens if we fill the first cell with a C ?

the distance between C and D is 1
the distance between D and E♭ is ½
the distance between E♭ and F is 1
the distance between F and G is 1
the distance between G and A♭ is ½
the distance between A♭ and B is 1+½
the distance between B and C is ½

We now have the C harmonic minor scale, that is c-d-e♭-f-g-a♭-b-c.

If we fill the first cell with a G, we get this :

the distance between G and A is 1
the distance between A and B♭ is ½
the distance between B♭ and C is 1
the distance between C and D is 1
the distance between D and E♭ is ½
the distance between E♭ and F♯ is 1+½
the distance between F♯ and G is ½

That's the G harmonic minor scale, that is g-a-b♭-c-d-e♭-f♯-c.

Melodic minor

Here is the melodic minor scale recipe :

the distance between and is 1
the distance between and is ½
the distance between and is 1
the distance between and is 1
the distance between and is 1
the distance between and is 1
the distance between and is ½

What happens if we fill the first cell with a C ?

the distance between C and D is 1
the distance between D and E♭ is ½
the distance between E♭ and F is 1
the distance between F and G is 1
the distance between G and A is 1
the distance between A and B is 1
the distance between B and C is ½

We now have the C melodic minor scale, that is c-d-e♭-f-g-a-b-c.

If we fill the first cell with B♭ :

the distance between B♭ and C is 1
the distance between C and D♭ is ½
the distance between D♭ and E♭ is 1
the distance between E♭ and F is 1
the distance between F and G is 1
the distance between G and A is 1
the distance between A and B♭ is ½

We get the B♭ melodic minor scale, that is b♭-c-d♭-e♭-f-g-a-b♭.

In the next post, I will list the natural minor scales.

See you there !
Sebastien

  1. the short story is : the natural minor scale is just a mode of major scale among other, used in Gregorian Chant (around 10th century), whereas the harmonic minor scale allowed Baroque composer to fill their harmonic needs, and melodic minor scale allowed them to fill their melodic needs.