Why Are There 3 Minor Scales?

Category: Music Theory

In the past few lessons we have learned about the three different types of minor scales: natural, melodic, and harmonic. But this can lead to some confusion – like, WHY? Why is there only one major scale and three minor scales? Who is making the rules? WHO IS IN CHARGE HERE?

Well, if you are looking for someone to blame, you might not be able to point a finger at one particular person. This system has evolved through composers over the last 500 years or so. It all started with the natural minor – this makes some sense as the natural minor is basically just a MODE of the major scale. In case you need a reminder, a MODE of a scale is when you start the scale on a different note, changing the tonic. Natural minor scales start on the 6th note of the relative major.

The natural minor scale was developed during the 9th and 10th centuries when the Gregorian Chant was all the rage. If you’ve ever heard a Gregorian chant, you’ll know that they are monophonic, which means that the chant is sung one note at a time without any harmony. Well, around the time of Bach, composers began to realize that this system didn’t suit their needs very well. They were looking for a series of tones that would lend itself well to harmony and more complex melodic passages. In particular the common chord progression of IV-V-I (subdominant-dominant-tonic) did not resolve as nicely as it did in the major scale. (In the major scale this chord progression is often used to “conclude” a passage. It gives the listener a sense of finality.) This is when the harmonic minor was created. It made the desired chord progressions resolve nicely to the tonic chord for a feeling of conclusion. I have inserted a short sound clip to show the difference between the IV-V-I progression in the natural minor and the IV-V-I progression in the harmonic minor. Do you notice the difference?

IV-V-I in Natural Minor:

IV-V-I in Harmonic Minor:

Now I’m only left to explain the existence of the melodic minor scale. Well, similarly to why the harmonic minor was created, the melodic minor was created to address other deficiencies of the natural minor scale. Composers began finding that traversing UP the natural minor scale just didn’t sound right; the melody wasn’t driving towards the tonic as much as they would like. It sounded fine on the way DOWN the scale, but not on the way up. So to give the sense that the scale was “driving” upwards, they raised the 6th and 7th notes of the scale.

An example of the melodic minor in action would be “Carol of the Bells”, the popular Christmas song. Take a look at the sheet music here: http://makingmusicfun.net/pdf/sheet_music/carol-of-the-bells-piano.pdf. This particular version is in G minor. You’ll notice at the top of the second page the scale runs in which E is raised to a natural and F is raised to a sharp. There are your 6th and 7th notes raised to make it a melodic minor! (Here is the passage I was talking about..)


And if you want to take a listen to the melodic minor in action, the recording can be played below. Remember, you won’t hear an example of a melodic minor passage until it goes… doo doo doo doo doo doo doo dee doooo doooo…. (at about second 18).

Carol of the Bells:

OK, that’s it for now – and I even managed to throw in a reference to a Christmas song! Bonus points for me!

Posted on December 12th, 2013 by sharlene


  1. Samara Says:

    OMG. I’ve been asking myself this question but no one knew how to answer me!!
    I loved it ! Thank you!

    Oh! there’s a problem with the listening files,they’re not working at all

  2. Arian Says:

    Yes, me too! I understood what the different minor scales *were*, but I didn’t see how and why they were used in actual music. I’m glad to know it was composers who invented them: “This set of notes isn’t doing what I want; I’m going to use this other, better set of notes instead.” Thanks! 🙂

  3. John Gleeson Says:

    Now it makes perfect sense. Try playing an Em7 to resolve to Am, then an E7 to resolve to Am – that G raised to G# makes all the difference. For the Melodic Minor – just play it – it seems obvious. Thanks for the tutorial – now I can better explain the Minors to my students.

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