The Harmonic minor Scale - Guitar Lesson

The Harmonic minor Scale
BY: Jimmy Rutkowski

In this lesson I’m going to take you through some background theory of the Harmonic minor scale. Once we have that together, in a future lesson I will teach you some useful ways to apply the scale into your own improvisation.

First of all let’s clear up one myth Elvis Presley IS still alive. Okay how about this one; the Harmonic minor is in no way related to the minor scale. It is not an Aeolian mode or a minor scale that has been altered with a raised seventh degree. For example; you can take the E minor Scale or E Aeolian mode (E – F# - G – A – B – C – D – E) and raise the seventh degree D to D# and derive a E Harmonic minor scale. Yes it is the same notes, however it is not how the Harmonic minor scale was born. To understand its’ origin, we have to climb into a time machine and travel back to the days of the classical composers. Okay H.G. Wells, send us back!!

Traditionally in the hay day of donning powdered wigs and Classical composers, compositions were based on two tonalities; major and minor. Compositions in major keys generally consisted of chords and melodies based around a major key. In order to understand the foundation of the Harmonic minor scale and its’ history it is important to understand how the chords are derived in a Major scale. I will walk you through three and four part harmony. Three part harmony is where we derive our basic Major, minor, and diminished chords. Four part harmony is where we derive our Major seventh, minor seventh, dominant seventh, diminished seventh and our half diminished seventh chords. There is a lot of information in this lesson, follow me and I will bring all of this information full circle to a clear and full understanding. Chords are built from intervals of a third. In the C Major scale the notes are C – D – E – F – G – A - B – C. Example 1 shows how they look on a staff.

             C       D       E       F        G       A       B
             I        II      III     IV        V      VI     VII

Each degree of the Major scale has a specific musical name.

I: Tonic
II: Supertonic
III: Mediant
IV: Subdominant
V: Dominant
VII: Leading Tone

The tonic or root note is “C.” If I count three scale degrees higher I come to the mediant or “E” note. This is called an interval of a third. An interval is the distance between two notes. So the distance between the C and the E is called an interval of a third. The interval of a third from D is F, from E it is G from G it is B etc. Let’s combine all of these onto the staff now in Example 2.

              E       F        G        A       B        C       D
              C       D        E        F       G        A       B

Now let’s add another harmony to the chords. We use the same principle as before, except this time we will count up three scale degrees from the thirds we just added. If we look at the mediant “E” note in example one and count up three degrees E à F à G we go from the mediant “E” to the dominant “G.” Do this with the rest of the harmonies. Example 3 shows all of the three part harmonies in the key of C Major.

             G       A        B       C        D       E        F
             E        F       G       A        B       C        D
             C       D        E       F        G       A        B

At this point we have the three part harmony which tells us the given chords in the key. We established that Elvis is still alive and we also now know the three part Harmony chords which are a C Major chord, a D minor chord, an E minor chord, a F major chord, a G Major chord, an A minor chord, and a B diminished chord. Oh, Elvis IS still alive if you were wondering.

In order to fully appreciate the harmonies created by the Harmonic minor scale as well as the Major scale we need to go out one more harmony and extend the three part harmony to four part harmony and derive our seventh chords. From the dominant “G” count up three scale degrees to the leading tone “B.” Now add the “B” note to the I chord and we now have a C Major 7th chord. Continue this with the remaining chords as in Example 4.

Now we know the four part harmony chords which are a C Major 7th chord, a D minor 7th chord, an E minor 7th chord, an F Major 7th chord, a G Dominant 7th chord, an A minor 7th chord, and a B half diminished 7th chord. The key to take notice here is that the V7 chord (G7) when resolving to the 1 Chord (C Major) is called a Perfect Cadence. A Cadence is the sound of musical resolution at the end of two or more chords. The G7 movement to the C Major has the sound of a solid resolution. And did I mention that Elvis is still alive??

The minor scale is almost identical to the Major scale. Example 5 shows how the minor scale is the Major scale beginning on the submediant or sixth degree. However the submediant is now considered the tonic for the minor scale.

            A      B       C      D      E       F      G      A

Even though the C Major and A minor sales share the same notes, they sound quite different from one another. Let’s look at the harmonic flow of the notes:

The C Major Scale flow diagram in Example 6 shows the flow of the notes through the scale. From the Tonic C we ascend a tone (whole step) up to D, another tone up to E. The double whole step ascension from the tonic to the mediant creates a very powerful motion with in the scale. The other characteristic to pay extra attention to is the leading tone “B” resolving to the upper tonic “C” in a semi-tone (half step) movement. The leading tone sounds almost as though it is unsettled and has the dire need to resolve to the tonic to give closure. So sayeth’ the lord.

The harmonic flow diagram in Example 7 shows the A minor scale ascending one octave. Notice that from the tonic ascending the second and third degrees there is a “held back” feel due to the semitone distance between the second and third degrees where as the Major scale had a “runaway train” momentum. The other major difference here is the tone (whole step) distance between the 7th degree and the tonic. It feels as though the scale could rest here before even returning home. The unsettled feeling of the Major scale is missing. The movement from the 7th degree to the upper tonic seems as though the harmonic return to the upper tonic happens out of nothing better to do……it’s bored hanging around.

The other point of interest with the minor scale is the order of chords in relation to the A minor (i m) chord.

i: Amin7th
ii:B half-dim7th
III: C Maj7th
iv: Dmin7th
v: Emin7th
VI: F Maj7th
VII: G dom7th

Notice that if we were to make a V to I cadence in the key of A minor it would be E min7th (v min7th) resolving to A minor (i min). This does not have the same resolution sound as the V7 to I as in the major keys. In the C Major scale the third interval in the G7 chord is B. When the B7 (V7) chord changes to the C (I) chord we have the leading tone B resolving in a stepwise (half step) motion to the tonic (C) in the harmony. Within the A minor scale the E min 7th (v min7) chord has a G note moving a whole step to A. And as we said before the movement has the sound of “okay I will go there there’s nothing else to do” not anticipation and resolution.

This is where the Harmonic minor scale comes in. In order for the classical composers to take advantage of the V7 to I cadence the perfect tension and release sound the obvious solution was to modify the v min7th chord (E min7th) to function as a dominant E7 chord. Once this is done the cadence would be E7 to A minor (ahhhh much hipper.) So they raised the “G” in the A minor scale a semitone to G#. This not only created the formula for the E7 chord but it also gave the minor scale a leading tone at the 7th degree. G# moving to the upper tonic “A” now became a semitone movement. The sound of the scale resolving at the end had changed…… that’s right the bells and whistles went off and everyone danced merrily under falling confetti….. okay maybe not…. but it sure revolutionized the minor scale, cadences within minor progressions, and added a new harmonic coloring that would stand the test of time even through present day. Example 8 is a diagram of the harmonic movement of the Harmonic minor scale.

As you can see in Example 9, once our dead ancestors changed the seventh degree of the minor scale, it changed the chords as well.

The chords relative to the A harmonic minor scale are:

i: A min(Maj7)
ii: B half-dim7th
III: C Maj7(#5)
IV: D min7th
V: E7
VI: F Maj7th
Vii: G# dim7th

So as you can see. Elvis IS still alive and The Harmonic minor scale has its’ own separate birth certificate, social security number, and place of residence from the Major Scale. The origin stems from the V to I cadential movement and the need for the sound of perfect tension and release resolution; a perfect cadence within a minor progression. Don’t forget, in a future lesson I will show you a few ways to apply the harmonic minor scale to your own playing. We will also discuss Sasquatch sightings.


fatb0t said...

Thanks for the theory brush up...

sarge1875 said...

Your welcome, it's good to refresh ourselves every once in a while.

Gary Fletcher said...

Nice post, I look forward to the follow ups on applying the harmonic scale...

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Daniel said...

Thanks a lot for this post, it has helped a lot.
I have a question though. I've been noodling around with the E harmonic minor scale, and working on some Prog Rock stuff, but what really gets me is that I can't play an F#5 power chord or an a G5 or D#5 because the 2nd note in the respective power chords aren't part of the scale.

So I guess my question really is, can you still play those power chords, while using the E Harmonic Scale?

Cause it would open up quite a few doors, even though Open chords like a dominant or minor are really cool, I'd really like to use those power chords.

Thanks in advance, Danny.

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