The Melodic Minor Scale

The Melodic 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 Melodic Minor Scale?

The Melodic 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 Melodic minor in almost every Jazz tune ever created, and it is an important piece in your musical knowledge puzzle.

Learning about the melodic 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 Melodic minor can be described as Film Noir sound, sophisticated and dynamic. It shares a half-minor half-major sense which makes it very useful in many situations.

The Melodic Minor, as its name, aimed towards melodic ideas. The classic approach to this scale also states that when ascending it uses the melodic minor notes and descending in natural minor. This rule is, obviously, flexible as many other rules in music.

The Formula of the Melodic Minor scale

The formula of the melodic minor is almost identical to the major scale, the only difference between them is the 3rd degree, In the major scale, we have a major 3rd degree and in melodic minor a minor 3rd degree.

It also differentiates from harmonic minor only by one note, the 6th. In Harmonic minor, the 6th degree is minor and in melodic minor it is major.

The Major Scale Formula: 1-1-½-1-1-1-½

 

  

Major scale notes

The Melodic Minor Scale Formula: 1-½-1-1-1-1-½

 

 

 The melodic minor scale formula

Now, let’s take that formula and apply it using different root notes:

the notes of the A melodic minor scale (ascending)

the notes of the A melodic minor scale (ascending)

the notes of the F melodic minor scale (ascending)

the notes of the F melodic minor scale (ascending)

Melodic, Harmonic, and Natural Minor Comparison

There are a few key differences between these 3 popular minor scales.

In this table, we can see that the 6th and 7th degrees are different on every minor scale and the rest of the notes are similar.

Minor scales comparison

The difference between the harmonic and melodic minor can be derived from their names. One was aimed towards harmonic ideas while the other one functions better in melodic ideas.

These classifications of scales are not obsolete, the rules of music can always be bent and the human ear always evolves. Always trust your ears!

The best way to understand the musical concept of melodic minor vs harmonic minor is by listening to it!

In the next example (the “Autumn Leaves” jazz standard), notice how the composer used the melodic minor (ascending). Try to play it with a natural minor, like the rest of the melody, and see that it just sounds wrong!

Melodic minor in Autumn Leaves

So… Why is the melodic minor scale different ascending and descending?

When we study about the melodic minor for the first time, we are taught to play it using one set of notes when ascending and another (natural minor) and descending (melodic minor).

 

  

C melodic minor scale

This way of presenting the melodic minor is merely an academic approach and quite a confusing one!

This method is basically a way to train students to master both scales.
This is an incomplete definition of the melodic minor! There are many ways you can use the melodic minor ascending and descending and there are many examples of that in the writings of composers such as Bach, Vivaldi, Beethoven, and more.

The Natural Minor VS Harmonic/Melodic Minor

One key element differentiates the natural minor from his other minor friends, it is the only minor without a major 7th degree, meaning, it is the only scale with no leading tone. 

The Leading Tone ✊

The leading tone’s effect on the melodic and harmonic scales functionality is tremendous, as mentioned in the “Harmonic Function” article, the Dominant functionality is determined by the presence of a 4th and a major 7th degree in a chord, therefore, the harmonic minor creates a much stronger Dominant functionality that firmly leads us to the Tonic.

The Intervals of the Melodic Minor scale

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

 

 the intervals of melodic minor

the intervals of melodic minor

🛠 Building Chords using the Melodic Minor Scale

Let’s start exploring the harmony of the Melodic 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 melodic 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.

melodic minor triads

 

Let's repeat the same process, starting from the 2nd degree of the scale - D. The notes sequence is D→F→A, which constructs the D minor chord (Dm).

 

melodic minor triads

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 melodic minor scale:

 C-Eb-G
C minor
D-F-A
D minor
Eb-G-B
Eb augmented
F-A-C
F major
G-B-D
G major / G augmented
A-C-Eb
Ab diminished
B-D-F
B diminished / B augmented

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

As we can see in the table, the 5th and 7th degrees generate more than one triad chord (written enharmonically).

 

 

melodic minor triads

 

To get the sense of the melodic minor, listen to the next small composition. The melody consists of notes taken only from the melodic minor and the harmony is made only triad chords. 

 

melodic minor composition

The Melodic Minor 7th Chords

Let’s keep on exploring the melodic minor sound and add the 7th degree to each triad chord we've already learned, creating the melodic 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.

 

melodic minor 7th chords

 

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→A→C, these notes construct the D minor chord which can also be written like this - Dm7.

 

melodic minor 7th chords

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

 C-Eb-G-B
C minor-major 7
CmΔ7
D-F-A-C
D minor 7
D-7
Eb-G-B-D
Eb major-7 sharp-5
Ebmaj7#5
F-A-C-Eb
F 7
F7
G-B-D-F
G7
G7
A-C-Eb-G
A half-diminished
Abø / Ab-7b5
B-D-F-Ab
B half-diminished / B7b5
Bø / B7b5

"ø" and "-7b5" are the same chord in two different ways of writing.

"ø" and "7b5" are two different chords! The melodic minor contains the notes needed in order two build these 2 different chords.

These are the 7th chords of the melodic minor scale, notice how many useful colors we can add to our musical toolbox. Here is a small composition made out of notes and chords taken only from the melodic minor scale. 

 

 Melodic minor composition (7th chords)

Modes of the Melodic Minor

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

melodic minor modes

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

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

 Melodic Minor
played from C to C
1-½-1-1-1-1-½
Dorian b2
played from D to D
½-1-1-1-1-½-1
Lydian Augmented
played from Eb to Eb
1-1-1-1-½-1-½
Lydian Dominant / Lydian b7
played from F to F
1-1-1-½-1-½-1
Mixolydian b6 / Melodic minor 5th below
played from G to G
1-1-½-1-½-1-1
Aeolian b5
played from A to A
1-½-1-½-1-1-1
Altered Dominant Scale / Super Locrian
played from B to B
½-1-½-1-1-1-1


How and When to Use the Melodic Minor Scale

The melodic minor can be used when improvising or composing. When composing using the melodic 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 Melodic minor scale. In the melodic minor scale, there 3 types of harmonic functions - Tonic minor, Subdominant, 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 is somewhere in the middle, it carries some level of tension but not as much as the Dominant chords.

 

melodic 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 melodic minor chord progression.

 

Example #1CmDmGCm | The minor II-V-I is almost similar to a major II-V-I progression. The only difference between them is the tonic chord that appears at the beginning and the end of the progression. 

 

 

melodic minor chords examples

 

Example #2: In this progression, we can hear two distinctive colors of the melodic minor - the IV7 degree which serves as subdominant, and VI-7b5 which serves as a Tonic chord 


 

Melodic Minor cadence

 

🎸 Improvising Using the Melodic 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 melodic minor is often used when improvising and playing jazz. From its name, we can conclude that it is generally a good scale to use in a melody, not just when soloing but when composing as well.

Improvising 💢

The first thing you need to know when you start improvising using modes is to match a mode to its diatonic degree. When we stumble upon a melodic minor cadence, we will use the melodic minor modes.

A strong sign of a melodic minor tonic presence is the Xm6 chord. The minor 3rd and major 6th degrees are the most essential characteristic notes of the melodic minor scale.

For example, in the next melodic II-V-I, the 2nd degree is D-7 and will get the Dorian b9 scale, the 5th degree is G7 and will get the Mixolydian b6, and the 1st degree is Cm6 and will get the melodic minor scale.

 

 

melodic minor improvisation

 

When it comes to improvising with the melodic minor modes, we need to pay attention to 2 very useful (and therefore important!) modes:

The 4th mode - Lydian b7 (also called Lydian Dominant), and the 7th mode - the Super Locrian (also called Altered Dominant or Diminished Whole tone)

Lydian b7 (Lydian Dominant / Mixolydian #4)

This mode is extremely useful, especially in jazz improvisation. It "upgrades" the normal major dominant sound that is much more familiar to our ears (Mixolydian) and spices it up with a sharp 4th degree.

When and How to use the Lydian b7 (Lydian Dominant)

1. One common use of Lydian Dominant is in a Tritone Substitute. When you recognize a substitute dominant chord you can improvise over it using the Lydian b7.

2. IV7 - When you come across a dominant 4th degree, you can improvise over it using the Lydian b7 scale.

3. Dominant 1st degree (I7) - Most commonly used in blues, and can also fit a Lydian b7 melody.

4. Any Dominant Chord! - The Lydian b7 scale can basically fit any dominant chord so you'd better learn it carefully and add some Lydian b7 licks into your arsenal.

The Altered Dominant Mode (Super Locrian / Diminished Whole tone)

When and How to use the Altered Dominant scale (Super Locrian / Diminished Whole Tone)

1. Augmented Dominant Chords - when you come across a X+7 chord you can improvise over it using the Altered Dominant scale.

2. X7 altered chords - in many jazz standards you will come across chords that are written like this - "X7alt". This symbol just indicates that a 

Composing and Harmonizing with the Melodic Minor Scale

The melodic 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 the 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 melodic minor.

In this short melody, notice how we use the D-Eb semitone and the B-C semitone which emphasis the natural colors of the C melodic minor.

Melody

 

 

melodic minor composition

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.

Harmonized

 

 Melodic Minor composition harmonized

Okay fellas, this is it!

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