The Harmonic Minor Scale Explained

Harmonic Minor explained

Note: The Harmonic Minor subject is a little more advanced subject so make sure to check out these articles before proceeding: “The Major Scale”, “Modes“, “Harmonic Function”, “Avoid Notes” and “Non-Chord Tones

What is a Harmonic Minor Scale?

The harmonic minor scale, like any other scale, is a certain pattern of notes. It is a very popular and useful scale that can be used in many practical and creative ways.

✌️ We can find the harmonic minor starring at the top of the charts as well as in renaissance music.

Learning about the melodic minor and harmonic minor scales, will open a new and exciting world for any musician, and comes hand in hand with an essential musical technique called modal-interchange.

*Modal interchange mixes different scales and will be discussed in the next articles.

The soundscape of the Harmonic minor (mode) can be described as sad, deep and dramatic but there’s a lot more to it, as said before, the true (modern) use of the harmonic minor is in combination with other scales.

The Formula of the Harmonic Minor scale

The formula of the harmonic minor is almost identical to the natural minor, the only difference between them is the 7th degree, In natural minor, we have a minor 7th degree and in harmonic minor a major 7th degree.

Natural Minor Formula: 1-½-1-1-½-1-1



the natural minor notes

Harmonic Minor Formula: 1-½-1-1-½--½ 


Harmonic minor notes

The Difference Between Natural and Harmonic Minor

In the natural, the flattened 7th degree creates a weak movement from the V degree (dominant) to I degree (tonic). In the major scale, the V→I movement creates a strong and decisive feel of resolution. This sense of resolution is deeply affected by the presence of a major 7th degree in the scale, which is called a leading tone!

The Leading Tone 

The leading tone’s effect on the harmonic functionality of a scale is tremendous, as mentioned in the “Harmonic Function” article, the Dominant functionality is determined by the presence of a 4th and a 7th degree in a chord, therefore, the harmonic minor creates a much stronger Dominant functionality.

The Intervals of the Harmonic Minor scale

The harmonic minor scale pattern creates a unique set of intervals. These intervals are the smaller building blocks of the scale. Here are all of the harmonic minor scale intervals, listen to them, and notice the different colors that each interval generates. 


 the harmonic minor intervals

the harmonic minor intervals

🛠 Building Chords using the Harmonic Minor Scale

Let’s start exploring the harmony of the harmonic minor scale and build its triad chords. We build triads using major and minor 3rd interval sequences.

For example, let’s try to build triads using the C harmonic minor scale. The scale notes are C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-B, let’s build our first triad from C. The notes of our first triad are C→Eb→G, which constructs the Cm chord.

Harmonic minor chords

Let's repeat the same process, starting from the 3rd degree of the scale - Eb. The notes sequence is EbGB, which constructs the Eb augmented chord.

Harmonic minor scale chords

Each triad has its own formula:

For example, C Minor chord - CEbG: The distance from C to Eb is  tones, and the distance from Eb to G is 2 tones, creating the Minor 3rd - Major 3rd Pattern.

Triad Chords in the major scale

For more information about intervals, check “Musical Intervals Explained”.

Let's repeat the same process over each step of the harmonic minor scale:

C minor
D diminished
Eb augmented
F minor
G major
Ab major
B diminished

☝️ These are the triads of the harmonic minor scale, notice that contrary to the major scale, we have 4 different types of triad chords (instead of 3 in the major scale).



Triad of the harmonic minor

To get the sense of the harmonic minor, listen to the next small composition. The melody consists of notes taken only from the harmonic minor and the harmony is only triads.



harmonic minor composition

The Harmonic Minor 7th Chords

Let’s keep on exploring the harmonic minor sound and add the 7th degree to each triad chord, creating the harmonic minor 7th chords.

For example, the triad Cm (CEbG) with an added 3rd interval on top creates the C-Eb-G-B sequence. It’s a minor chord with a major 7th! This chord is called minor-major-7 and will be written like this - CmΔ7.

Cm major7 notes

Now, let's do the same thing starting from the 2nd degree of the scale - D. The sequence of this 7th chord is D→F→Ab→C, these notes construct the D half-diminished chord which can also be written like this - Dø.

D half diminished notes

When repeating the same process of the rest of the harmonic minor chords, we get the following chords:

C minor-major 7
D half-diminished
D-7b5 / Dø7
Eb major-7 sharp-5
F minor 7
Ab major 7
B diminished
Bdim / Bo


These are the 7th chords of the harmonic minor scale, notice how many useful colors we can add to our musical pallet.



harmonic minor composition

The 2nd and 7th Degrees in the Harmonic Minor Scale

Let’s have a look at the harmonic minor 7th chords again, notice anything special? The 2nd and 7th degrees are both diminished chords! 

Note: The 2nd degree of C harmonic minor is Dø7, but because there is a B in the scale, the B diminished chord can also be built out of the diatonic scale notes.

Diminished 7th chords are constructed only out of minor 3rd intervals that create symmetry inside the chord. This symmetry is very interesting because it means that every diminished chord that begins on any of the diminished chord-tones will have the same notes.

Bdim,  B-D-F-Ab, has the exact same notes of Ddim, Fdim, and Abdim7.

 B diminished
D diminished
F diminished
Ab diminished


Each one of these chords is an inversion of the other and their functionality is the same. We can exchange these chords with one another when composing and improvising.

Let's try to play the same phrase over two exchangeable diminished chords. The melody and harmony are all in C harmonic minor.



Harmonic minor composition, 2nd and 7th degrees

Now, let's replace the B diminished chord with a D diminished chord and listen to how they function.


 harmonic minor composition, 2nd and 7th degrees

Modes of the Harmonic Minor

Like every other scale, the harmonic minor can also be broken into subsets, which are called modes. When playing the harmonic minor starting from each step, all the way one octave up, we get a mode.

Harmonic minor modes

We can repeat this process from every step of the harmonic minor and get 7 different modes.

The Names and Formulas of the 7 Harmonic Minor Modes (C):

 Harmonic Minor
played from C to C
1-½-1-1-½-1 ½- ½
Locrian ♮6
played from D to D
Ionian  ♯5 / Major Augmented scale
played from Eb to Eb
1-1-½-1½-½- 1-½
Dorian  ♯4
played from F to F
1-½-1½-½- 1-½-1
Phrygian Dominant / HM 5th below
played from G to G
½-1½-½- 1-½-1-1
Lydian  ♯9
played from Ab to Ab
1½-½- 1-½-1-1-½
Altered Dominant bb7
played from B to B
½- 1-½-1-1-½-

The more we explore music, the more we can notice the patterns and symmetry that lies within the musical systems.

In the context of the harmonic minor modes, we can name them a little differently and understand the way of this pattern better.

If you already know the Modes of The Major Scale, This will be an easy way for you to conceptualize this.

1st HM Mode
2nd HM Mode
3rd HM Mode
5th HM Mode
5th HM Mode
6th HM Mode
7th HM Mode

How and When to Use the Harmonic Minor Scale

The harmonic minor can be used when improvising as well as in compositions. When composing using the harmonic minor, we can address it as an independent scale or we can borrow chords from it. This technique is called modal-interchange and as said before, will be discussed in later articles.

When composing or improvising, we always need to know the functional qualities of the scales and chords we use.

Let’s look at the harmonic function of the harmonic minor. In the harmonic minor there 3 types of harmonic functions - Tonic minor, Subdominant minor, and Dominant.


Tonic minor will function as a resolution chord, these chords will feel more stable than Dominant or Subdominant chords.
The Dominant chords are the ones that carry more tension and will aspire for resolution more than the other chords.
The Subdominant minor is somewhere in the middle, it carries some level of tension but not as much as the Dominant chords.


Harmonic Minor harmonic function

In order to build a strong cadence, we need to remember that each chord has its own functionality and will push us into the next chord. Let's look at a few examples of harmonic minor chord progression.


Example #1: CmGCm | Listen to the movement between the 5th major key to and Tonic minor, which is a very essential sound of the harmonic minor.



Harmonic minor chord progressions


Example #2:CmDdimGCm | The minor II-V-I is also a very basic HM chord progression and is being used very often in Jazz. 



Harmonic minor chord progressions, II V I


Example #3: In this progression, we can listen to the bVI sound which is also a very characteristic harmonic minor sound. 



Harmonic minor chord progression


Example #4: In this chord progression, notice the use of IVm and the use of the diminished chords. 



Harmonic minor chord progression

🎸 Improvising Using the Harmonic Minor

When improvising, we will usually attach a mode to its diatonic chord. When we want to “spice-up” the colors of our melodic line, we can mix in different modes from different scales.

The harmonic minor is less popular than the melodic minor when it comes to improvising and playing jazz, but it is used in various does have a few useful modes.

The Harmonic Minor 5th Below

The harmonic minor 5th below is the 5th mode of the harmonic minor scale. The phrase is using the harmonic minor notes and emphasizes the chord tones of each current chord. Listen to the colors of this mode over a I-V-I chord progression in C harmonic minor.



harmonic minor improvisation

Now, let's add the 2nd degree into this chord progression and write a phrase over each chord's mode.

CmHM, DdimLocrian ♮6, G7→HM 5th below (Phrygian dominant). 



harmonic minor improvisation

Composing and Harmonizing with the Harmonic Minor Scale

The harmonic minor scale has a very distinctive and beautiful sound. In order to capture that sound when composing, it’s much easier to start with a melody while using the characteristic notes of a scale.

Note: always look for the location of the semitones in the scale, this is where the “important” notes are located, the notes that will help you capture the scale (or mode) sound. This tip refers to every scale, not just the harmonic minor.

In this short melody, notice how we use the G-Ab semitone and the B-C semitone which emphasis the natural colors of the C harmonic minor.




melody in harmonic minor

Now, let’s start harmonizing this melody. We want a good and functional cadence, and we want a strong resolution into the tonic. Take a look at the functionality table above for reference.



  harmonic minor composition




Two basic questions that have been popping up that we would like to address:

Is harmonic minor a mode? It depends on how you look at it, from a scale perspective or a mode perspective. A mode is a musical approach and the major-minor is also a musical approach and not a certain sequence of notes. 

A mode will usually emphasize the specific sound of that mode and will stay more “in the boundaries” of the mode while the major-minor system will more often mix different chords from different scales, using a technique called modal-interchange.

Important to clarify: a mode and a scale is basically the same thing but with different names. The rules of each musical approach can be bent in many ways. The best thing you can do in order to control these two systems is to practice them as much as you can.

Is harmonic minor diatonic? Diatonic is a word used to describe scales, notes, intervals, and chords “involving only notes proper to the prevailing key without chromatic alteration”. “Diatonic” will always refer to one musical element to a scale.

For example, the note E is diatonic to C major, the note F# is not diatonic to C major scale.

Okay fellas, this is all for now!

We recommend studying the "Melodic Minor Scale" along with the Harmonic minor!

Don't forget to check our variety of music theory articles and guitar lessons!

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