Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Scales – Part 5

Minor scales

Just as we have major and minor chords, we’ve got major and minor scales. Minor chords and scales have one thing in common – they’ve got a flatted third (when compared to the same major chord or scale). But there’s also one big difference worth noting: there’s only one kind of major scale. That’s what makes it so valuable to music theory as a yardstick for measuring other scales and chords – there is never any confusion about what the notes will be for any given application. On the other hand, there are LOTS of different minor scales!

There’s also one area where major and minor scales overlap: the “˜relative’ major and minor scales can be constructed using the SAME notes. This concept is called “modality” (as in “modes”), and it can be one of the most confusing aspects of music theory for guitarists. So before we get into the various types of minor scales, we’re going to take a brief detour back to the pentatonic scale and apply the concept of modality.

Our first position minor pentatonic scale looked like this (in A):

| 5 |   |   | 8 |
| 5 |   |   | 8 |
| 5 |   | 7 |
| 5 |   | 7 |
| 5 |   | 7 |
| 5 |   |   | 8 |

The notes in the scale are A (the root), C (the b3 – because an A major scale’s third is C#), D (the 4th), E (the 5th), and G (the b7, because A major contains G#). But if we look at the letter names, A-C-D-E-G, we can see that they’re also all part of the C major scale.

These notes can be arranged C-D-E-G-A to create the C major pentatonic scale. Comparing it to the major scale, we find the formula 1-2-3-5-6. And here we’ve got a big clue for why this scale is so useful… the major scale notes that are missing are 4 and 7. I’m going to digress even more here and show you why the pentatonic is the most widely used scale for beginners.

When notes interact with each other, as in simultaneous melodies or notes played against a chord progression, the result is harmony. And although the word “˜harmony’ implies agreement, that’s not always true in music. Some sounds agree very well, and we call those “consonant” sounds. Other notes played in tandem sound more like two cats tied up in a bag; we call those “dissonant” sounds.

What one listener considers pleasing won’t be universal. That might explain why some folks prefer listening to the Carpenters, while others put on Korn when they want to relax. So when we classify sounds as consonant or dissonant, we’re really talking about what the average listener perceives. To complicate things a bit, what the average listener considers consonant or dissonant has changed over time. Given today’s ears, we can classify intervals (two pitches sounded at the same time) into these broad groups:

Consonant              Mostly consonant         Mostly dissonant          Dissonant
Unison/octave (C-C)    minor 3rd (C-Eb)         Major 2nd (C-D)           minor 2nd (C-Db)
Perfect 4th (C-F)      Major 3rd (C-E)          minor 6th (C-Ab)          tritone (C-F#/Gb)
Perfect 5th (C-G)      Major 6th (C-A)          minor 7th (C-Bb)          Major 7th (C-B)

These are broad categories, and the “mostly” ones will depend on context – a minor 6th may sound just fine in one sequence (especially in a minor key), and not so good in another. These are the grey areas of music. But the consonant ones will always sound consonant, and the dissonant ones will always disagree.

Music, like cooking, can be improved when you add a little spice. Just like cooking, too much spice makes something unfit for human consumption. Dissonance is the spice of music – you want some, but not too much. Let’s look at the major scale notes played against each other – upper case “M” is major, lower case “m” is minor. I’ve also marked the usually dissonant intervals with an asterisk, and the always dissonant intervals with two:

C

D

E

F

G

A

B

C

Unison

M2*

M3

P4

P5

m6*

M7*

D

m7*

Unison

M2*

m3

P4

P5

M6

E

m6*

m7*

Unison

m2**

m3

P4

P5

F

P5

M6

M7*

Unison

M2*

M3

Tritone**

G

P4

P5

M6

m7*

Unison

M2*

M3

A

m3

P4

P5

m6*

m7*

Unison

M2*

B

m2**

m3

P4

Tritone**

m6*

m7*

Unison

Using the major scale, 20 of the 49 possibilities create some dissonance. If you’re playing random notes you’ve got about a 40% chance of adding some spice through dissonance. Also notice that two asterisks only appear when one or both of the notes is F or B. Let’s knock out these notes and see what happens:

C

D

E

G

A

C

Unison

M2*

M3

P5

m6*

D

m7*

Unison

M2*

P4

P5

E

m6*

m7*

Unison

m3

P4

G

P4

P5

M6

Unison

M2*

A

m3

P4

P5

m7*

Unison

Now only 8 of the 25 possible combinations results in dissonance – a 13% chance of adding spice. And not one of the notes results in a combination that will always be dissonant.

A dissonance in music needs to be “˜resolved’ to feel fulfilled. A beginning improviser, whose command of the instrument (and his or her ears) isn’t fully developed is playing more or less at random. If you have a 40% chance of playing a dissonance, you have a 60% chance of resolving it by accident – maybe not in the best method, but at least following it by a consonance. And 40% x 40% = 16% of the time what you’re playing won’t be immediately resolved.

If we use the pentatonic scale, 87% of our notes are already consonant. The 13% that aren’t will be followed (again, at random) by notes that resolve 87% of the time. 13% x 13% = less than a 2% chance that you’ll be dragging out the dissonance. The pentatonic scale is practically built for poke & pray soloing – 98.3% of the time you’ll sound like you know what you’re doing, even if it’s completely random. And you will never face a harsh dissonance of a tritone or minor 2nd! Add just a little bit of experience and the success ratio quickly becomes 100%. You may not sound like the greatest soloist – because you’re not taking the biggest chances – but you’ll sound like a competent improviser.

All this is great in theory… but let’s start putting it under your fingers. Put on a backing track in a MAJOR key, and put your fingers into minor pentatonic position 1 three frets below your key note – if your backing track is in B, you’ll be playing in G# minor. Go ahead and solo, but end your solo on the SECOND note of the minor pentatonic scale – the B note on the 6th string (7th or 19th fret), the 3rd string (4th or 16th fret), or the 1st string (7th or 19th fret). You’ll find that no notes were difficult to work with, and the end result sounded anywhere from a little bland to really good.

Ok, I’m done with that digression, although we’ll return to the concept of modality in a later section. But it wasn’t completely a digression, because we’re about to apply it.

We’ll start by looking at the most basic minor scale, the natural (or “pure”) minor. This is the scale that uses exactly the same notes as the major scale. The natural minor scale is created by starting from the 6th degree (or note) of the major scale – if you’re working in C major, the relative natural minor will be C major notes starting from A: A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A. You can use the SAME fingerings we reviewed for the major scale, but you’ll be treating a different note as the tonic, or “˜home base’.

Because the notes are the same as the major scale, the fingerings are also the same. All we do is make a different note the focal point of the melody, and we’ve shifted from the major to the relative natural minor scale.

One quick note about the focal point – it’s incredibly difficult to set “˜rules’ that determine which tone will be the tonic. Some folks will tell you it’s the last note of a melody (often true, but not always), the note used most frequently (sometimes true, but usually not), or the first note (rarely true unless the soloist is a beginner). But a melody will always feel like it has come to a resting point when the tonic is reached… so determining the tonic is sort of like defining pornography: you know it when you see/hear it.

Get a backing track in A minor, and use one of the C major fingerings over it… but focus your attention on the A notes. If you’re using the fifth position fingering, it’ll look like this:

5-(7)-(8)
5-6-8
5-7
5-7-9
5-7-8
5-7-8

When you solo over the progression, you might notice a couple of notes are harder to work with. In particular, the G note (4th string 5th fret or 2nd string 8th fret) may clash with the dominant chord. Understanding why that happens requires another brief detour into harmony.

Earlier I explored the harmony created by two notes of the major scale sounded simultaneously. Those two sounds create intervals. If we add a THIRD sound to the mix, we get a chord.

There are several different systems of harmony out there, but most music makes use of “tertian” harmony, building chords in thirds. The simplest chords contain only three notes, and they’re called “triads”. What that means is that whatever note we start with in chord construction, the chord will consist of every other note – if you start from C, you’ll skip over D and use E (the third note of the C scale). Skipping over F gets you to G, and the combination C-E-G creates a C major chord.

Different chords have different formulas; the major chord works out to 1-3-5 against the major scale. A minor chord uses the b3 – C minor is C-Eb-G. There are two other common triads, the diminished (1-b3-b5) and the augmented (1-3-#5).

We don’t typically use random chords in constructing a progression. Instead, we use chords that belong to the same key. That means if we’re in C major, we’ll usually use only chords that have notes from the C major scale. Building chords in thirds using only C major scale tones gives us the following:

C-E-G (C major, 1-3-5)
D-F-A (D minor, because a D major scale has F# in it, so F is a b3; we always use the major scale of the chord root to figure out the chord’s formula)
E-G-B (E minor, since E major has G#)
F-A-C (F major)
G-B-D (G major)
A-C-E (A minor, because A major has C#)
B-D-F (B diminished, because a B major scale has both D# and F#)

These chords will sound perfectly acceptable together, and many simple songs are made from various combinations. But we do want a little spice in our music, so we sometimes harmonize chords in four notes. Without getting into chord theory too much, a chord that has the seventh note of it’s root scale is a “maj7″ (major 7th) chord; a chord that has the b7 of its major scale is a “7th” (or “dominant 7th) chord. We can combine these terms – a minor chord with a b7 is a m7 chord; a minor chord with the natural 7th will be a m/maj7 – that’s kind of rare, because it’s pretty dissonant, but the labeling of chords is consistent.

Harmonizing the C major scale in four parts gives us these additional chords:

C-E-G-B (Cmaj7)
D-F-A-C (Dm7)
E-G-B-D (Em7)
F-A-C-E (Fmaj7)
G-B-D-F (G7)
A-C-E-G (Am7)
B-D-F-A (Bm7b5)

With these additional chords, there are three that have a “tension” – they sound like they have to move somewhere. These chords are the B diminished, the G7, and the Bm7b5.

Most music makes use of tension/release: building excitement, then letting the listener back down. One of the most common ways to do that is through a V7-I cadence, moving from G7 to C.

Since the notes of the natural minor scale are exactly the same as that of the major scale, we end up with exactly the same chords – except they’ll appear on different scale degrees. If we use a G7 to build tension in the key of C, we can get a satisfying C-F-G7-C chord progression, or I-IV-V7-I. Applying exactly the same logic to the A natural minor scale, we’d get a progression of Am-Dm-Em7-Am.

There’s nothing wrong with that progression, but it lacks the excitement of the dominant 7th chord. So hundreds of years ago, composers began altering the minor scale – they wanted an E7 chord to create tension that resolves to Am.

Since a dominant 7th chord is 1-3-5-b7 against the major scale, E7 will be E-G#-B-D. Raising the G note to G# creates the desired harmony, so replacing G with G# in an A natural minor creates a scale called the A harmonic minor.

Using the A natural minor fingering above as our base, we can get the A harmonic minor fingering below:

5-(7)-(8)
5-6-9
5-7
6-7-9
5-7-8
5-7-8

Just as we did with the major scale, we can find alternate fingerings for the notes you have to stretch for. This scale becomes a lot more finger-friendly if we shift to fourth position when we get to the third string:

4-5-(7)
5-6
4-5-7
6-7
5-7-8
5-7-8

There was one big problem with this scale: singers hated it. The harmonic minor scale uses an augmented second interval between the 6th and 7th notes (from F-G# in Am), and that’s a difficult interval to sing accurately. Singers prefer to use half steps – one fret on the guitar – or whole steps (two frets).

One solution is to raise the 6th note of the minor scale. That creates a whole step between the 6th and 7th notes, and the distance from the 5th note to the 6th changes from a half step to a whole step… still very singable. Our A minor scale would now be A-B-C-D-E-F#-G#-A, or 1-2-b3-4-5-6-7.

This scale wasn’t used very much, because it’s so close to the major scale. In fact, it’s the major scale with only one note changed – so if the melody spends much time away from the third note, it starts to sound major. Composers quickly discarded it (in favor of the scale we’ll look at in a moment) – but this scale did find a resurgence in jazz, where it’s called the “jazz minor” or the “bebop minor”. Folks from Berklee call it the “real melodic minor”, but folks from Berklee often have their own names for things!

Using fifth and fourth positions again, this minor scale can be fingered like this – the shift is now on the 4th string:

4-5-(7)
4-5-7
4-5-7
4-6-7
5-7
5-7-8

The solution classical music composers found to the problem of both creating the desired harmony and keeping the singers happy was unusual: they created a hybrid scale. This is one area where pedagogy (how things are taught) differs a bit from actual practice; here’s the pedagogy part:

Going up, the scale raises the 6th and 7th notes, creating the right harmony and keeping the singers happy. But going down, it will be the same as the natural minor scale, giving a minor sound to melodies that don’t touch on the flatted third for a while. In a minor, it will look like this:

A-B-C-D-E-F#-G#-A-G-F-E-D-C-B-A
 (going up)        (going down)

Because the direction of the melody determines which pitches will be used for the 6th and 7th notes, this is called the melodic minor scale. You’ve already got the fingerings – it’s the jazz minor going up, and the natural minor going down.

In practice this scale doesn’t always work the way it’s taught. Composers and improvisers can use the natural minor part going up and the jazz minor part down – they simply try to avoid that hard to sing interval. In either direction, melodies will sometimes use all the notes, treating the one from the “˜wrong’ direction as a passing tone. As we’ll see, minor scales are incredibly flexible.

There are still more minor scales to come: I’ll cover the Dorian and Phrygian in the next section about modes, and a few others like the Gypsy minor in the final part, exotic scales.

Tom (“Noteboat”) Serb is a longtime Guitar Noise contributor and founder of the Midwest Music Academyin Plainfield, Illinois. This advice first appeared in Volume 4 # 18 of Guitar Noise News. Sign-up for our newsletter to receive more free tips like this by email.

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2 Comments

  1. jake104
    Jan 25, 2012 @ 20:32:24

    This post is great,

    Thank you so much for sharing this to us sir.
    hope i could be 1 of the best guitar players like you and Peppino D’Agostino who’s 1 of my favorite acoustic guitar players

    thank you so much for sharing

    Reply

  2. Rohit Rathi
    Nov 02, 2013 @ 02:43:55

    Wow, this is such a wonderful article. The way you explained the evolution (whether the story was real or fake) made the whole learning so easy. I used to always get confused about the Maj7 = harmonic=unsingable=jazz minor and the melodic/singable/hybrid minor. Now no more. Thanks.

    Reply

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