Demystify The Minor Scales [1/2]

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Many people are confused by the term "minor scale" because there are a few minor scales. So which one is the correct one to use? Well it depends on what you are doing! So I am going to give you a little story to help you remember how they all came about. It's not the whole truth, I am simplifying a bit, but should help you understand where they come from and how they are used. At least that is what I am aiming for!

You will have to some basic understanding of music theory before you try and understand this stuff. Beginners will probably just freak out and get more confused. My Practical Music Theory book should explain enough that you will understand this lesson!

The classical or "pure" minor scale.

The minor scale in it's most basic form is called "the classical minor", "the natural minor", or "the aeolian mode" - they are all the same. This was the first type of minor scale that was commonly used.

So to start with, if you play a C Major Scale but start and end on the note A, you will hear the A Pure Minor Scale. So having learnt your Major Scales (as I hope you all are, because they are the most used scale in all of music!) you will have learnt all your Minor Scales already!

The C Major Scale and the A Pure Minor Scale are related. You would say that the RELATIVE minor scale of C Major is A Minor. The two scales have the same notes, but have a different tonal centre (and root note). Because of this they are obviously related.

A Pure Minor = A B C D E F G A

The easy way to find the RELATIVE major scale is to use your fingers on the guitar. It won't always work out theoretically perfect, but will give you the right notes.

Put your first finger on the root note that you want to find the Pure Minor Scale of. Then place your fingers one at a time in the following frets and the note that your little finger falls in (3 frets higher) will be the REALTIVE MAJOR SCALE.

For example: you want to find the notes of the G pure minor scale - place your first finger on the note G, in the 3rd fret of the thickest string. Then place your fingers in the next frets - 2nd finger in the 4th fret, 3rd finger in the 5th fret and little finger will fall on the 6th fret. So the note on the 6th fret will be the root note of the RELATIVE MAJOR. In this case the note Bb. So therefore, G Pure minor is RELATED to Bb Major Scale. Of course if you know your note circle well you could just count up three semitones and not use your fingers, but using your fingers means that you won't get it wrong!

Because of this, I never teach different shapes for the 'pure minor' scales, there is no need! Just learn your major scales and you will automatically learn all your modes, including this Aeolian Mode, the same as the Pure or Classical Minor scale!

The chords that you would play this over are the same as the ones found in the RELATIVE major scale, the relative major in this example is C, so the chords and notes are the same as one would find in a C Major Scale.

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

I

1

2

b3

4

5

b6

b7

1

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

A

Amin

Bdim

C

Dmin

Emin

F

G

Amin

Amin7

Bmin7b5

CMaj7

Dmin7

Emin7

FMaj7

G7

Amin7

The chart above (and the ones to follow) show the scale degrees on the top line, then the scales relationship with the Major Scale, then the notes in the Key of A, then the Triads in the key of A, and then the Quadads in the key of A.

But I demand a Cadence said J.S. Bach

To understand what happened next, you need to understand the concept of a Perfect Cadence. A perfect cadence is the movement of a V chord to the I chord. It is used ALL the time in Classical music and if you listen to an example then it will sound familiar for sure.

The standard major perfect cadence is V7 to I, for example E7 to A. The notes of the V chord lead very well to the notes of the I chord. Look at how the notes of E7 (E G# B D) can move smoothly to A (A C# E)

G# => A
D => C#
E => E (stays the same)
B => A

Now they do not HAVE to move this way, but they commonly do. Note that often the bass jumps from E to A, adding another note to the chords.

The important bit of this is the note G# going to A. It is called the leading note, because it pulls very strongly to the tonic (key centre).

The E7 chord is naturally found as the V chord in the key of A Major, but if you look above at the natural minor scale you will see that the V chord in a minor key is a minor 7 chord.

So change a note and get a Harmonic Minor

So in the Baroque period (lets blame J.S. Bach) it was decided that the perfect cadence was too important to leave out, so it was decided to change the note G to a G# in the A Minor Scale, and thus the Harmonic Minor scale was created, named because it helped create the HARMONY that was desired at that time.

Notice that we get some pretty wacky chords when we add the 7ths (Quadads), many of these were not used, they used the triad harmony instead.

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

I

1

2

b3

4

5

b6

7

1

A

B

C

D

E

F

G#

A

Amin

Bdim

Caug

Dmin

E

F

G#dim

Amin

Amin(maj7)

Bmin7

CMaj7#5

Dmin7

E7

FMaj7

G#dim7

Amin(Maj7)

These days this scale is only used by Neo Classical players (such as Yngwie Malmsteen), and jazz players when playing over a V chord in a minor key, and by classical composers writing in a Baroque style.

The import thing that they got was the dominant (7) V chord. This enabled them to have the perfect cadence they so desired, for example E7 to Amin. But it also created a big problem...

Make it fit my melody and get Melodic Minor

As soon as the composers started to trying to use this new scale they discovered a problem with this scale melodically - mainly the 3 semitone gap between the VI and VII degrees of the scale. This jump made the music sound almost Arabic and was not to their taste... so they started to change things again.

To solve this problem it was decided that the VI degree should be raised a semitone, that way making the the scale better for MELODY and still keeping the ability to make the dominant (7) V chord.

Notice too that this scale is the same as the major scale but with a flattened 3rd degree (the note that makes a scale or chord minor!).

I

II

III

IV

V

VI

VII

I

1

2

b3

4

5

6

7

1

A

B

C

D

E

F#

G#

A

Amin

Bmin

Caug

D

E

F#dim

G#dim

Amin

Amin(maj7)

Bmin7

CMaj7#5

D7

E7

F#min7b5

G#min7b5

Amin(Maj7)

Again it introduced a whole heap of strange chords, which mostly went unused in the Baroque period, but it enabled them to create beautiful melodies, so you can see how they named these things :)

BUT they made it even more complex because they wanted to continue using the chords from the Pure Minor... so it was decided that they would only use the Melodic Minor when going UP the scale and the Pure Minor when they were coming down!!! sounds crazy, eh, but it's true...

Being able to draw from the harmony created by the Melodic Minor AND the Pure Minor had many advantages. It enabled them to use the relative Major chord (the III built off the b3rd degree). The C augmented chord found in the melodic minor was not as pleasing to the ear as the regular Major chord (C) and the use of the combined harmony solved that problem.

This scale was used for a long time in many types of Classic composition, and although it seems a little complex, it actually sounds great. Remember the golden rule "If it sounds good, it is good..."

In modern music the Melodic minor is played the same when ascending or descending the scale, and it is very commonly used in jazz improvisation, particularly some of the modes of this scale, the Superlocrian (or Altered) and the Lydian Dominant.

Enter the Dorian Mode

No look at minor scales would be complete without looking at the minor modes from the Major scale. We already looked at The Aeolian Mode (it's the same as the Pure Minor) and the next most minor mode is the Dorian Mode. More on that scale can be found at this lesson - (coming soon)

Enter the Phrygian Mode

The other minor mode is the Phrygian mode, which is less widely used than any other minor scales talked about here. More information on that scale can be found at this lesson - (coming soon)

Round up time...

So there are many types of minor scales, so what do you need to know?

I recommend getting to grips with the Major Scale first. Then learn the modes of the major scale and how to use them. Only when you can do that do I recommend that you look at the Melodic Minor or Harmonic Minor. Try and make sure that you know WHY you want to learn them before you embark on a lot of study... even though I know all the scales, I hardly ever use the Harmonic Minor, and use the Melodic Minor Modes when I play jazz. That said if you play Neo-classical rock (like Yngwie) then you need to learn you Harmonic minor scales right now! And if you want to play complex fusion or jazz then you need to know all your modes of the Melodic Minor. So it all depends on where you are and where you want to go!

Hope that helped clear up your understanding of the minor scales.

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