The Minor Scales Explained
The minor scale is the scale which sounds negative – it is used by composers to depict sad, melancholic or even angry/dramatic moods.
However, there are in fact 3 minor scales which you will come across and can use:
- Natural Minor Scale
- Harmonic Minor Scale
- Melodic Minor Scale
Each scale sounds similarly “minor-like”, but they each also have their own unique flavour.
Let’s have a look at each minor scale in turn.
The Natural Minor Scale
The natural minor scale is the most basic form of the minor scale.
It follows a set pattern of note intervals.
The set pattern of intervals for the notes of the natural minor scale is:
Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone
It is the same pattern of notes when going up the scale as when going down the scale.
The natural minor scale follows the notes set out in the key signature for the scale without any changes.
Let’s have a look at two examples of natural minor scales:
A Natural Minor Scale
The key signature of A minor tells us that there are no sharps or flats (in other words, you play all the white notes on a keyboard and none of the black notes).
Look at a keyboard and play a scale (of all the white notes) starting on A and going up until you reach the A above it (I have highlighted these notes in red on the keyboard above).
You have just played an ascending A Natural Minor Scale.
Come back down again and you have just played the descending A Natural Minor Scale.
Have a look/listen to the A Natural Minor being played on the piano:
You will also notice that the pattern of steps follows the set pattern of Natural minor scale intervals given above (Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone).
Let’s try a different example of a natural minor scale starting on a different note:
D Natural Minor Scale
By following our set pattern of note intervals for a natural minor scale (Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone) we can easily work out the natural D minor scale.
This set pattern of note intervals beginning on D leads us to a scale with all white notes except for a B Flat instead of a B natural:
So, in order to play a D Natural Minor Scale we play all the white notes starting on D except for B (which we replace with a B Flat):
Notice how we have added a B Flat to the key signature at the start of the scale.
This tells the performer to play a B flat instead of a B natural each time.
This is because the key signature of D minor has one flat, B Flat.
The Harmonic Minor Scale
The harmonic minor scale has a slightly more intense feel to it than the natural minor scale. This is caused by the raised seventh note of the scale.
It’s easy to work out any harmonic minor scale.
Simply work out the natural minor using the set minor scale intervals outlined above (Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone).
Now raise the 7th note by another semitone so the pattern becomes:
Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Semitone – Tone and a half – Semitone
Let’s have a look at some examples:
A Harmonic Minor Scale
In order to build an A Harmonic Minor Scale we simply play the natural minor scale, but raise the 7th note.
You can see from the sheet music below how the 7th note of the scale (G) has been raised a semitone (half tone) to become G sharp:
Have a listen to the scale played below – can you hear the intensity of the raised 7th note?
Note: the key signature does not change between the natural and harmonic minors.
The raised 7th is an added note and so you will see a sharp sign added as an accidental each time.
D Harmonic Minor Scale
Once again, it is important to note that the key signature remains the same – the C sharp is an added note.
The Melodic Minor Scale
This is the trickiest of the minor scales as the pattern for going up the scale is different from that coming down the scale!
However, it’s still pretty easy to work out if you can remember which notes to raise.
The crucial thing to remember is you only need to change the natural minor scale on the way up.
The melodic minor descending scale is the same as the natural minor scale.
On the way up you need to raise each of the 6th and the 7th notes by a semitone (half tone).
So, your melodic minor pattern will be:
Tone – Semitone – Tone – Tone – Tone – Tone – Semitone
Let’s have a look at a couple of examples:
A Melodic Minor Scale
I think the melodic minor scale is a really interesting sound due to the difference between the rising and descending scales.
D Melodic Minor Scale
Remember, the melodic minor is only used on the ascending scale.
When coming down the scale you use the natural minor.
All The Minor Scales For Piano
Hopefully this lesson has helped you understand the 3 different minor scales.
Ideally, you should try playing the minor scales on a piano or keyboard to get used to the sound and feel of them.
Here are all the minor scales (natural, harmonic and melodic) for you to have a go at.
I have added piano fingering marks for the right hand to the sheet music to help you.
The audio examples play all 3 minor scales in turn – the natural is 1st, then the harmonic and finally the melodic.
This will mean that you can easily check whether you are playing the scales correctly.
I hope you enjoy playing them!
Minor Scales Composing Task
Here is a composing task for you to have a go at to develop your ability to compose in minor keys.
Click on the image to download the PDF file.