The Minor Scales: Natural, Harmonic and Melodic

The first scale that most people learn about is a major scale but they are just one type of scale.

There are lots of other different types of music scales one of which is a minor scale.

What is a minor scale?

We tend to say that major scales have a ‘happier’ and ‘cheerier’ sound, whereas minor scales have a ‘darker’ and ‘sadder’ sound.

Minor scales have a different formula of tones and semitones (whole steps and half steps) to major scales.

The main difference is that all minor scales have the third note of the scale ‘flattened’.

By flattened, I mean that the third note is lowered by one semitone or half step.

Study bass has written a good post going into more details about the difference between major and minor that you can read here.

The three types of minor scales

Unlike major scales where there is only one type to know about, minor scales have three variations.

The three types of minor scale that we’ll look at are:

All three of these minor scales start the same but have some slight differences after that.

Side note: Melodic and harmonic minor scales are nothing to do with melodic and harmonic intervals. They’re completely different things but we use the same word.

The natural minor scale

The first minor scale we’ll look at is the natural minor scale.

A natural minor scale uses this formula of tones and semitones (whole steps and half steps).

T S T T S T T

Or in whole steps and half steps it would be:

W H W W H W W

If we wanted to play a natural minor scale starting on the note A using this order of tones and semitones it would work out as using all the white notes on the keyboard (the same as C major).

A natural minor scale

A natural minor scale ascending
A natural minor scale descending

We can use this combination of semitones and tones to form a natural minor scale starting on any note.

For example here is a natural minor scale starting on D:

D natural minor scale

Or here is another natural minor scale this time starting on E:

E natural minor scale

The natural minor is also known as the Aeolian mode. I’ll do another post on modes soon but for now, here’s a guide to musical modes from Classic FM explaining them in a bit more detail.

The harmonic minor scale

The second type of minor scale that we’ll look at is the harmonic minor scale

Harmonic minors use this combination of tones and semitones:

T S T T S T1⁄2 S

Or in whole steps and half steps it would be:

W H W W H W1⁄2 H

Note that harmonic minors have an interval that is a tone and a half or three semitones. 

So using this order of tones and semitones we can construct a harmonic minor scale starting on the note A: 

A harmonic minor scale

A harmonic minor scale ascending
A harmonic minor scale descending

As you can see the harmonic minor is very similar to the natural minor.

The only difference is that the 7th degree of the scale is one semitone higher

In A natural minor it’s a G natural but in the harmonic minor it’s a G#. 

Keeping this pattern of semitones and tones we can then work out a harmonic minor scale starting on any note.

For example here is D harmonic minor scale:

D harmonic minor scale

And here is E harmonic minor scale:

E harmonic minor scale

The melodic minor scale

Now onto the third type of minor scale which is the melodic minor.

Melodic minor scales are quite different from natural and harmonic minors as they use different notes when ascending (going up) and descending (going down).

Ascending melodic minors use this combination of tones and semitones:

T S T T T T S

Or in whole steps and half steps:

W H W W W W H

But on the way down they use this combination (from the top down):

T T S T T S T

Or in whole steps and half steps

W W H W W H W

A melodic minor scale

Ascending melodic minor scales

Let’s look at A melodic minor ascending:

A melodic minor scale ascending

Here you can see that it’s similar to the natural minor but has the 6th and 7th notes of the scale raised by one semitone.

Another way I like to think of ascending melodic minors is that they are the same as the major scale but with a flattened third.

For example, A major scale has a C#, that’s the only difference:

A major scale

Descending melodic minor scales

But, melodic minors are different in that they don’t use the same notes when descending. 

When descending the 6th and 7th notes are lowered by one semitone.

A melodic minor scale descending

Here You might notice that descending melodic minors are exactly the same as the natural minor scale.

Now that we know how to form melodic minor scale we can work them out starting on any note.

Here is a melodic minor scale starting on the note D:

D melodic minor scale

Or here is E melodic minor scale:

E melodic minor scale

The differences between natural, harmonic and melodic minors

Let’s do a quick recap of the three types of minor scales.

Natural minors:

  • are the same ascending and descending
  • Use the formula T S T T S T T

Harmonic minors:

  • are the same ascending and descending
  • Use the formula T S T T S T1⁄2 S
  • Have a raised 7th note

Melodic minors:

  • are different ascending and descending
  • ascending they use this pattern: T S T T T T S
  • descending they use this pattern: T T S T T S T
  • raised 6th and 7th notes ascending (like the major scale)
  • flattened 6th and 7th descending (like the natural minor scale)

But remember, the three minors scales ALWAYS have a flattened 3rd note. 

By that, I mean that it’s one semitone lower than the major scale. 

That’s what makes them a minor scale rather than a major scale.

Learning minor scales for an ABRSM theory exam

If you’re thinking that learning all the different types of minor scales is going to be a headache (you’re not alone) then I have some good news.

For an ABRSM music theory exam, you only need to know about one type of minor scale.

When questions come up about minor scales you can choose whether to answer using harmonic minors OR melodic minors.

You don’t need to know both. But you have to know which one you are using.

You won’t be required to know about the natural minor scale for an ABRSM music theory exam.

But I highly recommend you know how they work.

Which minor scales should I learn?

I recommend and encourage most of my students to learn harmonic minor scales really well.

This is because they are the same ascending and descending rather than being different like melodic minors.

It’s a lot less confusing.

But, I do encourage them to be familiar with melodic minor scales as if you’re doing a practical instrument exam you’ll be required to be able to play both harmonic and melodic minor scales when doing the scales part of your exam.

Afterall, it’s why we learn music theory, to help us understand and play better music.

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