The Harmonic Minor Scale Explained


The Harmonic Minor Scale is an amazing tool for guitarists.  Not only can you use it for some Yngwie-ish, neoclassical soloing,  it is also useful in a chordal setting.  This lesson will give you everything you need to know to use the harmonic minor scale correctly.

What’s the Natural Minor Scale?

Before you can understand the harmonic minor scale, you must first get the natural minor scale under your belt.  The natural minor scale, also known as Aeolian mode, is the 6th mode of the major scale.  To form a natural minor scale you take any major scale and play it from the 6th tone.  For example if you take the C major scale [ C D E F G A B C ], the 6th tone is A.  So if we play it from that A, we get the A natural minor scale [ A B C D E F G A ].

What’s the Harmonic Minor Scale?

The harmonic minor scale is almost exactly the same as natural minor scale.  There is only one difference.  In the harmonic minor scale, instead of the 7th tone of the scale being an interval of a minor 7th away from the tonic, it is raised a half step so it is a major 7th away from the tonic.  In basic terms,  to go from the natural minor scale to the harmonic minor scale, all you have to do is raise the 7th note one half step.  For example if we take that same A natural minor scale [ A B C D E F G A }, we can make it a A harmonic minor by raising the 7th tone one half step [ A B C D E F G# A ]. 

Why use the Harmonic Minor instead of the Natural Minor?

The major difference between the two scales becomes very clear if we write out all the the diatonic triads of the two scales.  We’ll start with the natural minor scale:

A Natural Minor Scale: Diatonic Triads

E F G A B C D
C D E F G A B
A B C D E F G
i ii° III iv v VI VII

The flaw in the natural minor scale is now obvious: the v is minor.   Why is this a problem you ask?  To answer that question you need to know what a cadence is.  Basically, a cadence is the chords that end a musical phrase.  In classical music the two most important cadences are the “authentic cadence”, which consists of a V-i or V-I, depending on whether you’re in a major or minor key, and a “half cadence”, which ends on a V.  In order for your cadences to sound most powerful and complete, you need a major V.  The natural minor scale comes up short here.  Now let’s look at the harmonic minor scale.

A Harmonic Minor Scale: Diatonic Triads

E F G A B C D
C D E F G# A B
A B C D E F G#
i ii° III iv V VI vii°

Viola! By raising the G to a G# we turn our minor v into a Major V.  Now your progressions will have some power.  Two things to note about the chords in this scale.  First, the III does not contain the G#.  By keeping the G the III remains major.  If we had raised it to a G#, it would become augmented and that won’t be that useful to you.  Secondly,  the 7th degree of the harmonic minor scale is one of the very few places that a diatonic full-diminished 7th chord can be found.  Just some food for thought.

A Practical Example

To fully make my point about this I’m going to give you two very simple progressions.  One will use the natural minor scale and will contain a minor v. The other will use the harmonic minor scale and contain a major V.  Hopefully you’ll hear why the V-i cadence is much more powerful and complete when you use the harmonic minor. Both progressions are in A minor.  The first will be i, III, iv, v. The second will be i, III, iv, V.

Fig. 1a – A Natural Minor

e||–0–|–0–|–1–|–0–|–0–|–0–|–1–|–0–|| B||–1–|–1–|–3–|–0–|–1–|–1–|–3–|–0–|| G||–2–|–0–|–2–|–0–|–2–|–0–|–2–|–0–|| D||–2–|–2–|–0–|–2–|–2–|–2–|–0–|–2–|| A||–0–|–3–|—–|–2–|–0–|–3–|—–|–2–|| E||—–|—–|—–|–0–|—–|—–|—–|–0–||      am    CM    dm    em    am    CM    dm    em

Fig. 1b – A Harmonic Minor

e||–0–|–0–|–1–|–0–|–0–|–0–|–1–|–0–|| B||–1–|–1–|–3–|–0–|–1–|–1–|–3–|–0–|| G||–2–|–0–|–2–|–1–|–2–|–0–|–2–|–1–|| D||–2–|–2–|–0–|–2–|–2–|–2–|–0–|–2–|| A||–0–|–3–|—–|–2–|–0–|–3–|—–|–2–|| E||—–|—–|—–|–0–|—–|—–|—–|–0–||      am    CM    dm    EM    am    CM    dm    EM

As you can hopefully hear, by changing just one note and making em [ E G B } to EM { E G# B ], the progression sounds much more full.  Please note again though.  The III or in this case C Major does not change to C augmented [ C E G# }.

How do I solo with the Harmonic Minor Scale?

The tricky thing about soloing with the harmonic minor scale is that between the 6th and 7th degrees of the scale, there is an interval of an augmented 2nd.  This can sound very awkward if you’re not going for this sound.  I find the harmonic minor scale much more useful for chordal things.  In case you would like to experiment with soloing though, I have included the pattern that Yngwie Malmsteen gave in one of his lessons. 

Harmonic Minor Scale Pattern by Yngwie Malmsteen

 

 

There you go. Everything you ever wanted to know about the Harmonic Minor Scale. If you have any questions or comments about this lesson, please email me at mdguitarteacher@gmail.com.

 

Back to Blog Map

Advertisements

3 Responses

  1. Such a complete and details.! Thank you for sharing — you made someone’s life brighter..

    So do you article…

    Respect
    Cha

  2. Nice lesson but do you just play the harmonic minor scale over the V chord or over all the chords in a progression? It didn’t seem that clear.

  3. Thanks, that was very helpful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: