The Melodic Minor Scale
Another important minor scale to discuss is the melodic minor scale. The melodic minor scale, like harmonic minor, also has a raised 7th compared to natural minor. This raised 7th , just as in the harmonic minor scale, gives us a major triad or dominant 7th V chord in a minor key.
Melodic minor, however, differs from the natural minor scale by also having a 6th that is a half-step higher. The melodic minor scale is like natural minor, but with a raised 6th and 7th.
Remember the unusual one-and-a-half step interval between the 6 and 7 of the harmonic minor scale? That minor third jump is thought to be a little melodically awkward. The melodic minor scale, with its raised 6th, gets rid of the one-and-a-half step leap between the 6 and 7 of the harmonic minor scale. By changing the 6th note, the scale is back to a combination of whole-steps and half-steps and is made more melody-friendly...hence the name melodic minor.
The One-Octave Melodic Minor Scale
Notice the fingering here. If you use your first finger on the 4th degree and your fourth finger on the 5th degree of the scale, it makes shifting smoother. Your fingers compress and then stretch back out. This is a good technique to learn, and it will show up in other musical shapes on the fretboard later on.
Ascending and Descending Melodic Minor
Here's the unusual bit. There are two forms of the melodic minor scale: ascending and descending.
The ascending melodic minor scale is what I've just described—a natural minor scale with a raised 6th and 7th. The descending melodic minor scale is another name for the natural minor scale. “Descending melodic minor” is just the plain old natural minor scale when descending.
Why? It was felt when melodies descended the scale, it sounded better with the flatted 6th and 7th, and while melodies ascended through the scale it sounded better with the raised 6th and 7th.
This ascending/descending distinction is respected in Classical music. To other musicians, like jazz musicians, 'melodic minor' simply refers to the ascending form of the melodic minor scale. Typically, musicians will just call the descending melodic minor by the name 'natural minor.'
You can expect to see and hear of these these distinctions of ascending and descending melodic minor scales, but don't worry too much about them. When people discuss the melodic minor scale in modern music they are most often speaking of the ascending form.
The intervallic structure of the melodic minor scale is like the natural minor scale except it has a major 6th instead of a minor 6th and a major 7th instead of the minor 7th found in the natural minor scale.
Unlike the harmonic minor scale, where the distance between the sixth and seventh scale degrees is a step-and-a-half (three half-steps), the melodic minor scale, with its raised 6th, brings us back to the common whole-step/half-step type of scale structure.
Another Way to Think of Melodic Minor
Another way of viewing the melodic minor scale is, instead of it being a natural minor scale with a raised 6th and 7th, think of it as a major scale with a flatted third.
For example, C major is C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. C melodic minor is C, D, E♭, F, G, A, and B. I find students remember it better this way.
Practical Use of the Melodic Minor Scale
The melodic minor scale is so named because it has melodic importance. By now, do I need to remind you of a bass player's biggest functions? Rhythm and harmony. (I knew you didn't forget!)
Yes, we can and do play melodically. Yes, we can and do play solos. But, what we're most expected to do is rhythmically define the harmony.
I'm not saying you can't or won't use this scale. You will. And, depending on the style, you may use it extensively (jazz).
Where you will most likely apply this scale in an everyday bassline is when you need to avoid clashing with a song's melody which uses this melodic minor scale. The troublesome note for the bass player will be the 6th of this melodic minor scale.
A common experience goes like this:
You know you're in a minor key.
You will come to a V chord in the minor key (the major or dominant 7th kind of V chord).
You will probably just outline the chord with roots, 5ths and maybe a third and 7th.
The melody (singing part/solo) will use the major 6th from the scale over this V chord being played.
If you're not listening or unaware, you might try playing a fill or passing tone using the 6th from the wrong minor scale as a passing note or melodic fill note.
Whoops! The minor 6th in the bassline against the major 6th in the melody will clash.
You will probably hear that this note sounds off or funny, and hopefully you will hear what to do next time.
This scenario isn't that common, but it might happen to you.
Melodic Minor Song Examples
Here are a few song examples using the melodic minor scale. Notice I'm pointing out the notes of the singing part...the melody. Melodic minor...
The Beatles – Yesterday
For a long time this stood as the world's best-selling single.
The phrase of the melody “All my troubles seemed so far away” walks up the melodic minor scale from its fifth.
Carol of the Bells (Bell Carol)
In this well-known Christmas song the ascending scalar melody “Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas...” walks up the melodic minor scale from its fifth.
Autumn Leaves (Classic jazz standard)
The part “...of red and gold” begins, again, on the fifth of the melodic minor scale walking up three notes and then a leap.
Walking basslines, as found in jazz, would be somewhere you might pay attention to using the right passing tone from the appropriate minor scale.
You might notice this scale tends to occur over the V chord in a minor key. Not always, but you might listen more closely or avoid the 6th of the minor scale as a passing note altogether.
This is a good reminder that when learning a song one should not only learn the chord progression, but the melody, too. A song is melody and harmony. Bass players often forget this and just focus on the chords. Hear the song as a whole.
Harmonizing the Melodic Minor Scale
Once again, just as we can build chords from the major, natural minor and harmonic minor scales, we can do the same with the melodic minor scale. The unique structure of the melodic minor scale gives us another very different harmonic language from the plain old major scale/natural minor scale sounds. And, it's different from the harmonic minor sound as well.
Again, at this stage in the StudyBass lessons, it's not essential for you to master these melodic minor scale chords just yet. Like the harmonic minor scale chords, these will show up in the future as needed.
If you're impatient or curious, here is another *completely optional* preview of melodic minor scale harmony.
Melodic Minor Scale Summary
As with the harmonic minor scale, the melodic minor scale is a world of its own compared to major scale harmony (major & natural minor). Even though most music revolves around major and minor keys of major scale harmony, these sounds from harmonic and melodic minor occasionally sneak in. Where you will most often experience both of these scales is on V chords in minor keys.
Later, you will learn there are many advanced uses of the melodic minor scale, its chords and other scales derived from it.
For now, be aware of the melodic minor scale, but don't worry about memorizing all of its chords. There are more important things to master before dedicating too much time here.