Get to grips with those minor scales

There are 3 main types of minor scale that I am going to discuss in this article.  They are:

  • Natural minor
  • Harmonic Minor
  • Melodic Minor

The natural minor scale is the easiest to work with first and with this scale all you need to do is go from the tonic to the tonic and follow the key signature.  Here are a couple of examples of this:

A minor (Natural)

a minor natural scale

D minor (Natural)

d minor natural

E minor (Natural)

e minor natural

The pattern of tones and semitones for the natural minor scale is:

Tone, Semi-Tone, Tone, Tone, Semi-Tone, Tone, Tone


For the ABRSM or Trinity exams this form of the minor scale isn’t required and very often is completely forgotten about.  I have found it very useful for students to understand this form of the minor scale and then discuss how the altered notes are used in the Harmonic and Melodic forms of minor scale.

When teaching scales I feel it is imperative to insist that students learn these off by heart.  Memorising these scales is a very useful exercise and something that can help not only with any exams that are coming up, but can also help make sense of the music they are working on.  It is usually easier to teach any form of scale by ear, really focusing on sound quality and intonation.

It is usual to start with the major scales and then add onto this the minor form of scale.  If these are taught by sound through listening and memory right from the very beginning rather than relying on any form of notation it can eliminate issues for the student further down the line.

The next form of minor scale is the harmonic form.  This scale follows the key signature and in addition to this raises the 7th note by a semitone ascending and descending.  Remember that it is not sharpening a note, much better to think of raising it by a semitone to avoid confusion when using flat keys.  It is good to point out that with the minor harmonic and melodic scale forms it is possible for a scale to contain flats and a sharp, but the 7th note is an accidental and is not part of the key signature.

A minor (Harmonic)

a minor harmonic

C minor (Harmonic)

c minor harmonic

C Sharp minor (Harmonic)

c sharp minor harmonic

The pattern of tones and semitones for the Harmonic minor scale are:

Tone,  Semi-Tone,  Tone,  Tone,  Semi-Tone,  Tone+Semi-tone,  Semi-Tone

You might be thinking what is the point in these different types of minor scale and why didn’t they just have the natural minor form and leave it at that.  The reason is fairly simple and is ultimately driven by the sounds that are produced from these different forms in music.

The reason the harmonic form exists is to allow for stronger harmonic progressions so that the direction of the harmony is clear.  However, the harmonic minor scale contains a very awkward interval to sing so the melodic form allowed for this difficult interval to be avoided.

So, put simply, the harmonic minor scale allows for better harmonic progressions to exist and the melodic form gives the opportunity to write melodies with better shape and line.

The melodic form is normally the last one for students to work on, and often it can be a source of confusion.  It doesn’t need to be and if it is approached through listening exercises this should eliminate any need for misunderstanding.

The melodic scale is different ascending and descending.  On the way up the 6th and 7th notes are raised by a semitone and on the way down the scale is played according to the key signature (as with the natural minor scale).

A minor

a minor melodic

F minor

f minor melodic

B Minor

b minor melodic

The pattern for the melodic form of minor scale is:

Ascending – Tone, Semi-tone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semi-Tone

Descending – Tone, Tone, Semi-Tone, Tone, Tone, Semi-Tone, Tone

The most important thing with these scales is to keep listening and make sure that intonation is carefully handled, especially around the third note of the scale as this provides that minor sound.

Good luck and do let me know if you have any good tips or advice by adding a comment below.

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