When we first learn an instrument, it is quite common to play a “C major” scale. That is because it is the easiest, especially on a piano or keyboard where it is just the white notes. Major scales are what we tend to begin with. But there are other scales, and one is used in music just as much – the minor scales.
What is the Minor Scale?
Simply put, it is a musical scale consisting of seven notes and features a flattened or minor third degree or note. This creates a very distinctive sound that can be sad but also filled with suspense and foreboding.
Music written in minor keys uses notes from the minor scale. As I have said, the minor scale has seven notes. However, you can use almost any note from the chromatic scale as a “tension note.” I say almost because you cannot use a “major third.” This would contradict the definition of the minor scale with its flattened third.
Let’s just clarify exactly what a “tension note” is. These are notes that are additions to the “chord notes.” The chord notes are the triad of the chord. In C minor, the triad would be C, E, and G. In degrees; they are 1, 3, and 5. If you add any extra notes, remembering you cannot add a major third, these would then be known as tension notes.
Major and Minor Scales, what is the difference?
The main difference I have already mentioned. It is that the major scale always has a major or natural third degree. The minor scale has a flattened third degree or note of the scale.
Let’s look at a brief example. Take a scale of D minor. In my experience, that is a great key to work with because virtually any added tension note sounds good. But if you add the F sharp, it becomes a D Major. It is obvious to the ear. Not good, so any other note, but not that.
Minor scales have a key signature that is common with a major key. They are known as ‘relatives.’ The E minor scale is relative to G major. The D minor to F major. Hence you get comfortable chord structures in songs that follow the pattern, F, Dm, Bb, and C.
Variations of Minor Scales
There are three different types of minor scales. They all give you a slightly different sound. But they all have one thing in common. The flattened third degree.
They all commence the same way, but then the differences appear. The three scales are known as the Natural scale, which is the most commonly used, the Harmonic and the Melodic.
A short note about the Harmonic and the Melodic
These are completely different from Melodic and Harmonic intervals. It is just that the same word has been used, so don’t confuse them. Let’s take a look at these three different minor scales.
The Natural Minor Scale
When a musician refers to a minor scale, it’s usually the natural minor they are talking about. It is the most commonly used minor scale as a starting point. Furthermore, it features the same notes as the modal scale for the Aeolian mode.
It is dissimilar to the major scale in very few places. You tend to get semitones or half steps in the minor scale and tone or whole steps in the major scale. Let’s look at the pattern of the Natural minor scale.
- The First degree or note is the root note of the scale.
- The second is a tone or whole step up.
- Then comes the flattened or sometimes called the minor 3rd.
- The Fourth is a tone or whole step up from the third.
- The Fifth is a tone or whole step up from the fourth.
- The Sixth is a semitone or half step up from the fifth.
- The final Seventh degree or note is a tone or whole step up from the sixth.
- The conclusion is one more tone or whole step up to take you back to the root note, but an octave higher from where you started.
The Harmonic Minor Scale
This is almost identical to the Natural scale. The difference is that the seventh degree is raised. You will note that on that natural minor scale, there is a flattened seventh degree. This is sometimes called a minor seventh. In the harmonic scale, there is a seventh that is raised by a semitone or half step.
This is an interesting occurrence. By raising the seventh note by a semitone, it makes it a “leading” tone as you would have in a major scale. “Leading” you back to the note a semitone up, which is the root note. That is the only difference between Natural and Harmonic Minor scales.
The Melodic Minor Scale
As usual in music theory, there is bound to be some odd goings-on to throw a spanner in the works. And just as you think there is a set and easy pattern to master the minor scales, there is something else to think about.
It can get confusing
The Melodic minor scale has different notes and patterns when it is ascending to when it is descending. When it is ascending, the Melodic has just a flattened, or minor third. The rest of the notes are the same as you would find in a major scale, including natural sixth and natural seventh degrees).
However, descending, it reverts to a natural minor scale. Raise the sixth and seventh when ascending but don’t when you descend.
What about the Minor Blues Scale?
Blues scales are nothing more than minor pentatonic scales but with extra notes that are added. To get a minor pentatonic, you just take a natural minor scale and remove the second and the sixth degrees. You are then left with a base scale of a first, a flattened third (of course), a fourth, fifth, and a flattened seventh.
To create a minor Blues scale, you use the pentatonic and add notes. There is no set format. Players can add whatever notes they like providing they don’t interfere with the flattened minor third. Much of it is created by trial and error, and it can quite often define the player concerned.
A guitarist used who I played with often added a flattened fifth. He would often follow that with the flattened seventh and then add the natural seventh as an extra note. It always made a nice connection at the end of a phrase.
Some helpful teaching aids that can help you out are the Minor Blues In All 12 Keys, and The Complete Book of Scales, Chords, Arpeggios & Cadences: Includes All the Major, Minor (Natural, Harmonic, Melodic) & Chromatic Scales. Another option for playing Blues in Minor keys is Minor Blues Tunes in All Twelve Keys.
Looking to Improve Your Music Theory Skills?
Our experts can help you out. So, take a look at our useful guides including The Scale Degree Names Explained, Types Of Bebop Scales, Diatonic Scales, The Dorian Mode, The Aeolian Mode, and the Best Music Theory Apps for more useful information.
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The Minor Scales – Final Thoughts
Songs written in Minor keys often leave more of a mark than any other. That is probably because they reflect sadness and loss. Emotions that stir the human soul.
Minor scales are the essence of some songs and music. Those songs would not be the same written any other way. Therefore, Minor scales are important to understand and to master.
Until next time, let your music play.