Lesson 38: Harmonic Minor Scale

Category: Lessons

To continue along with our theme of minor scales, let’s break open the concept of HARMONIC MINOR scales. So firstly, what is a harmonic minor scale? Well, it is a minor scale – similar to the natural minor that we learned about in lesson 37. There is one key difference between a natural minor scale and a harmonic minor scale, and that is that the harmonic minor has an ACCIDENTAL. I’ll discuss this in a moment but first I want to ask a question. Why is it called HARMONIC? Well, harmonic means “of or relating to harmony”. It is a bit confusing, because scales do not have harmony. At least the scales that I play don’t. However, the reason it is called a harmonic minor scale is because this scale contains the notes that most minor harmonies use. That is, most songs written in minor keys are based off the notes of the harmonic minor scale.

In a harmonic minor scale, the seventh note of the natural minor scale (or SUBTONIC) is RAISED by one semitone. That means that if the original note was a natural, it will be raised to a sharp. If it was already a sharp, it will be raised to a double sharp. (Don’t worry, this doesn’t happen that often.) If it was a flat it would be raised to…. Can you guess?

I’m going to leave you hanging on the answer to that last question. If you flip your monitor upside down, you will be able to find the answer to that question at the bottom of this post.

OK, harmonic minors. I’m going to give you a step-by-step guide to creating this magical beast, but first you will have to be familiar with the concept tones and semitones. You will also have to review Lesson 37 if you don’t know how to write a natural minor scale. Here are the steps.

Step 1: Write the natural minor scale. I’m not going to review how to do that here – lesson 37 explains it better than I ever could.

Step 2: Locate the seventh note of the scale.

Step 3: Find out if the seventh note of the scale is sharp or flat. You may have to look in the key signature if you wrote the natural minor scale using a key signature. If not, look at your accidentals.

Step 4: If the seventh note is flat, put a natural sign in front of the note. If the seventh note is natural, put a sharp, If the seventh note is sharp, put a double sharp.

There! That’s it. Below I have an example of how to raise the seventh note of a natural minor scale to create a harmonic minor scale. In the image below the semitones are marked in red, and the whole tones are marked in dark blue. As you can see in the harmonic scale, by raising the 7th note of the scale we have created an interval that is not a semitone and it is note a tone.  It is larger than a tone – it is actually 3 semitones, or 1 and a half tones. By raising the seventh note, we have effectively increased the size of the interval between the sixth and the seventh notes of the scale.

In my opinion, memorizing the tone-semitone pattern for the harmonic minor scale is not an effective way to learn how to write the harmonic minor scale. Unless you have a photographic memory, or really like spending your Saturday nights reciting patterns, I would recommend using the method above.

I would recommend trying to play a few natural minor scales and their corresponding harmonic minors so that you recognize the difference between them. You will notice that harmonic minors are much more pleasing to the ear. Now you may understand more about why they are called “harmonic”.

In the next episode, melodic minor scales. Stay tuned…

Posted on December 4th, 2012 by sharlene


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