The Harmonic Minor Scale

Common Harmonic Systems

A lot of harmony revolves around the major scale. It may seem confusing, but the harmony of the natural minor scale is considered a part of major scale harmony. Remember, the major scale has a relative minor scale and vice versa. The harmony all comes from the same place. So, scales (and modes) from the major scale, and the chords derived from them, are all considered major scale harmony.

In addition to major scale harmony derived from major scales, there are other harmonic systems based on other scales. These other scales are structurally different from the major scale. That is, the intervals—the spacing of the notes—are different from the major scale. As a result of these different structures, these scales create their own unique harmony different from the major scale.

Two other common harmonic systems are built on the harmonic minor scale and the melodic minor scale.

Because of the issue of V Chords in Minor Keys, it is necessary to give you a light introduction to these two scales and harmonic systems. This special V chord in minor keys is thought of as coming from these other harmonic systems.

Take It Easy

A quick note: I worry this lesson will overwhelm some of you. Don't let it. At this stage, I only want you to be acquainted with these scales. They will show up again in future lessons as needed. Do not get stuck here. Get whatever you can from this lesson and the next and move on.

Let's talk about the harmonic minor scale.

The Harmonic Minor Scale

The harmonic minor scale with a G tonic:

The harmonic minor scale is just like the natural minor scale except the seventh note is a half-step higher. Compare the A natural minor scale (no sharps or flats) to the A harmonic minor scale in the following table.

A Natural Minor vs. A Harmonic Minor

Intervallic Construction

The intervallic structure of the harmonic minor scale is just like the natural minor scale except it has a major 7th instead of the minor 7th found in the natural minor scale.

Harmonic Minor Ascending Intervals

Whole-Step/Half-Step Construction

So far, the seven-note scales we've discussed (major, natural minor, Mixolydian) are each a unique series of whole-steps and half-steps. By raising the 7th, the harmonic minor scale breaks this pattern of only whole-steps and half-steps. In the harmonic minor scale the distance between the sixth and seventh scale degrees is a step-and-a-half (three half-steps, also known as a Minor 3rd).

Harmonic Minor WH Construction

The Sound of Harmonic Minor

Harmonic minor's unique structure gives it a very unique sound. The sound of the harmonic minor scale may remind you of Eastern European folk music, Jewish music and Spanish Flamenco music. And, these styles were heavily influenced by the music of the nomadic Romani people (pejoratively 'Gypsies') [wikipedia: Romani Music]. The Romani scales and sounds have worked their way into many other styles like Classical, jazz, European folk music and even metal.

Practical Use of the Harmonic Minor Scale

This scale shows up less often in styles like rock, country, blues, funk, and R&B; it shows up more often in Classical, jazz, metal and European folk music.

Depending on your musical goals, you may need to know this scale inside and out or very little. Luckily, it's not too hard to remember—just raise the 7th note of the natural minor scale by a half-step.

Minor Scale Chords and the Harmonic Minor Scale

In our last lesson on V chords in minor keys, I explained how the minor scale's minor v chord is often changed to a major triad or dominant 7th chord. This produces more tension leading back to the i chord. Remember, the V leading back to the tonic (i) is thought of as music's most powerful chord progression.

This major V chord in a minor key can be thought of as coming from the harmonic minor scale, and getting this major V chord in a minor key is the main purpose of this scale—hence the name harmonic minor. It “fixes” the harmony.

The harmonic minor scale, with its raised 7th, gives its V chord a major 3rd instead of a minor 3rd like the natural minor scale's v chord has. The raised 7th of the harmonic minor scale is what creates the major triad or dominant 7th built on the 5th note of the key.

For example, in an A natural minor scale (A, B, C, D, E, F, G) the 7th is G. The v chord is Em (E-G-B). Changing it to a major triad gives you E (E-G♯-B). G♯ is the 7th from the A harmonic minor scale (A, B, C, D, E, F, G♯).

Therefore, many musicians think of the major V chord in minor keys as a temporary change from the natural minor scale to the harmonic minor scale. For instance, a soloist might approach playing a major V chord in a minor key by applying the harmonic minor scale while using the natural minor scale on the other chords in the key. There are a number of approaches depending on the specific song.

Key Signatures and Notation

You might wonder about minor key signatures and use of the harmonic minor scale. Minor keys always use the natural minor scale for their key signature even when the harmonic minor scale is used. The different 7th will have an accidental (sharp or natural) applied to it whenever the 7th of the harmonic minor comes up.

In the following example the key signature is for D minor (1 flat), but the phrase uses the harmonic minor scale which contains C♯. (Don't forget the accidental persists through the end of the bar.)

Harmonic Minor and Key Signatures

Basslines and the Harmonic Minor Scale

As a bass player, you may or may not need to worry about applying the harmonic minor scale in the same way as a soloist. That is, if your bassline is simply outlining triads or chord tones, thinking about changing scales has little advantage; you will play the right notes just by playing the right chord tones. But, if you were playing a more scalar, melodic bass part, fill or solo, you might apply the harmonic minor scale over the major V chord in a minor key.

In the following clip I play a little fill applying the harmonic minor scale. You can hear it sounds a little more exotic or unusual due to the wider minor third interval between the 6th and 7th scale degrees.

 

Harmonizing the Harmonic Minor Scale

Just as you can build chords from the major scale and natural minor scale, you can build chords from the harmonic minor scale. As we've discussed, the V chord of the harmonic minor scale is a major triad or dominant 7th chord. Several other chords of the harmonic minor scale differ from the chords from the natural minor scale, too.

Having you learn the rest of the harmonic minor scale's chords at this time in your development (in this curriculum) will likely slow you down with little reward. Beyond the V chord, in most styles of music you won't encounter the rest of the harmonic minor scale's chords enough for me to insist on you memorizing them just yet. We will circle back to harmonic minor scale harmony when it will benefit you more.

Optional Preview

For the impatient or curious, I can give you a quick and *completely optional* preview. Feel free to skip this section.

We haven't even discussed several of the chord qualities derived from this scale, but you might figure them out with the definitions below.

Harmonic Minor Scale Chords

Notice the chords which differ from the natural minor scale (highlighted in bold) are ones which contain the 7th of the scale.

Also, notice that the ♭III chord is a new type of chord we have yet to cover—the augmented triad. To augment means to make bigger. An augmented triad has a root, 3rd, and sharp 5th; it has a bigger 5th.

In chord symbols, augmented is typically written with a plus (+) or #5 in the chord symbol.

We will discuss augmented chords later in this curriculum.

Harmonic Minor Scale Summary

While knowing this scale is necessary, diving into harmonic minor scale harmony too deeply at this stage is probably overkill. There's a lot to explore here as you advance, but don't get bogged down if you feel overwhelmed. This will show up again when you need it.

Mainly, I want you to understand what the harmonic minor scale is and that it is sometimes used to “fix” the problem of the V chord in minor keys. With the help of the harmonic minor scale we can change the natural minor's weak v chord to a strong major triad or dominant 7th V chord.

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