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Music

Minor Scale Guide: Natural, Harmonic, and Melodic Minor Scales

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 9, 2020 • 4 min read

Minor scales are as old as Western music itself. All styles of music use minor scales to produce melodies, riffs, and chord progressions.

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What Is a Minor Scale?

In music theory, a minor scale is a seven-note musical scale that features a minor third scale degree (also known as a flat third). The sound of the minor scale can evoke sadness, eeriness, and suspense. Minor chords and minor-key music use notes from a minor scale. While minor scales traditionally have seven notes, they can accept nearly any note in the chromatic scale as a tension. (The only note they cannot accept as a tension is a major third scale degree.)

What Is the Difference Between Major and Minor Scales?

The primary difference between major scales and minor scales is the third scale degree. A major scale always has a natural third (or major third). A minor scale never has a major third. In practice, you can add any note as a tension to a minor scale except for a major third. For example, if you are playing a D minor scale, almost any note can arguably sound good in this scale except for F♯. If you play an F♯, the scale instantly takes on a major tonality.

Natural minor scales share a key signature with a relative major key that has the same diatonic notes. For example, the D minor scale is the relative minor of F major. The E minor scale is the relative minor of G major.

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3 Types of Minor Scales

There are three types of minor scales in music theory. Each of these scales produces a different sound, but all are anchored by the minor third scale degree, which gives the minor tonality its recognizable sound.

  1. The natural minor scale is the most common minor scale, and the default when a musician refers to “a minor scale” or “minor.” The natural minor scale pattern features the same exact notes as the Aeolian mode in modal music.
  2. The harmonic minor scale is derivative of the minor scale where the seventh scale degree is raised by a half step.
  3. The melodic minor scale is a minor scale with raised sixth and seventh scale degrees, but only when ascending. A descending melodic minor scale is identical to a natural minor scale.

What Is the Natural Minor Scale?

A natural minor scale is similar to a major scale, but it features a few half steps where the major scale would have whole steps. Here is a breakdown of each degree of the scale:

  • First scale degree—the root of the scale
  • Second degree—a whole step up from the root
  • Flat third degree—a half step up from the second
  • Fourth degree—a whole step up from the third
  • Fifth degree—a whole step up from the fourth
  • Flat sixth degree—a half step up from the fifth
  • Flat seventh degree—a whole step up from the sixth

The scale concludes with one final whole step to get back to the root, an octave higher than before.

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What Is the Harmonic Minor Scale?

In the harmonic minor scale, the seventh scale degree is raised. While a natural minor scale has a flat seventh, or minor seventh, the harmonic minor scale has a natural seventh. Compare the two scales to see the difference. For example, the E natural minor scale consists of the following notes: E-F♯-G-A-B-C-D. The E harmonic minor scale is nearly identical, but with a raised seventh: E-F♯-G-A-B-C-D♯. The only difference between the two is that the D is raised by one semitone to D♯. This makes that seventh degree a leading tone, just like you’d have in a major scale.

What Is the Melodic Minor Scale?

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The melodic minor scale is peculiar because it uses different notes depending on whether it is ascending or descending. When going up, a melodic minor scale has a flat third (or minor third) degree, and all the other notes are the same as a major scale (including natural sixth and natural seventh degrees). Going down, the melodic minor scale is just like a natural minor scale. For example, the E melodic minor scale in ascending form has a raised sixth degree and seventh degree: E-F♯-G-A-B-C♯-D♯. The E melodic minor scale in descending form is: E-D-C-B-A-G-F♯.

What Is the Minor Pentatonic Scale?

The minor pentatonic scale is a variation on the natural minor scale. To turn a natural minor scale into a minor pentatonic scale, eliminate the second and sixth scale degrees. This leaves the following scale degrees: first, flat third, fourth, fifth, flat seventh.

What Is the Minor Blues Scale?

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Blues scales are pentatonic scales with added notes, and those notes vary from player to player. You can add nearly any note to the minor pentatonic scale except the natural third, which clashes with the minor character of the scale. Within the G minor blues scale, this means you should not play a B natural. Other than that, you’ll be able to find which notes are the best ones to add on to a pentatonic scale with practice and trial-and-error. A flat fifth makes a good addition, as does a natural seventh in addition to the flat seventh that’s already in the minor pentatonic scale. Only use the natural seventh it in passing between the flat seventh and the root—so in the G minor blues scale, use an F♯ to connect an F to a G.

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