Mastering Melodic Minor

Question: What do jazz, metal, and classical guitarists have in common? Answer: More than you might think. Sure, generally speaking, these three disparate breeds of guitar slinger perform vastly different styles of music on vastly different gear at vastly different volume levels. But, harmonically speaking, if there’s one common thread running through each of their repertoires, it’s the eternally useful pattern of whole- and half-steps known as the melodic minor scale.

Many guitarists have at least heard of melodic minor. Some are keenly aware of how this 400-year-old scale has for centuries given composers and improvisers the ability to resolve chord progressions in minor keys as easily as they can in major tonalities. Others have practiced the scale for months on end and can burn through it in any key at any tempo. But no matter how fast or slow you play it, the real fun with this scale—despite the implications of the word “melodic” in its title—comes in all of its wonderful harmonic applications. Nowadays, the scale is often referred to (at least in jazz circles) as the “jazz minor” scale, but under any name, one thing remains the same: This seven-note pattern holds so many exotic musical colors, it’s a path to musical riches for any composer or improviser willing to follow it.

Classical Roots

From about 1600 to 1900, the V-I (or “perfect”) cadence was very important in classical music. In order to get the satisfying resolution that only the leading tone resolving up a half-step to the tonic (the root of the I chord) provides, composers were expected to use only major V chords, even in minor-key situations. Built on the fifth degree of the scale, the V chord was typically a triad (1, 3, 5), a major-6th chord (1, 3, 5, 6), or a dominant-7th chord (1, 3, 5, m7). Because the natural minor scale (1, 2, m3, 4, 5, m6, m7) generates a minor V chord, composers achieved the perfect cadence by raising the V chord’s m3 a half-step to a maj3, thus creating the leading tone—the note that literally “leads” one’s ear back to the tonic. For instance, in the key of A minor, the natural minor scale is A, B, C, D, E, F, G, which generates the minor V chord Em (E, G, B). By raising the chord’s 3 (G) a half-step, E (spelled E, G#, B) results—a V chord with a leading tone. To hear the leading tone in action, strum an E followed by Am, and notice how G# resolves up a half-step to A, the root of Am.

By raising the minor V chord’s 3 a half-step, the parent scale becomes a natural minor scale with a major 7 (A, B, C, D, E, F, G#, in the key of A minor). This new scale—natural minor with a leading tone (1, 2, m3, 4, 5, m6, 7)—is called the harmonic minor scale. In order to smooth out the awkwardly large augmented-second interval of three half-steps between the m6 (F) and the 7 (G#), composers began raising the 6th degree a half-step as well, creating what could be called a major scale with a minor 3 (A, B, C, D, E, F#, G#)—or, as it became known, the melodic minor scale.

The traditional practice with the melodic minor scale was to play it only when ascending [Ex. 1], switching to the natural minor scale when descending [Ex. 2], because, by raising the 6 and 7 on the way up a melody and lowering them on the way down, a sort of tonal gravity is created that helps the overall flow of the tune. Ex. 3 demonstrates the melodic minor ascending and natural minor descending over a Im-IVm6-V-Im progression in G minor. Notice how the melody tags the 6 (En) and 7 (F#) while ascending, and the m7 (Fn) and m6 (Eb) when descending. For a vivid excerpt of this practice from “the literature,” observe how Bach’s Boureé in E minor relies heavily on contrary motion and traditional use of melodic minor to keep the melody flowing [Ex. 4]. Content to abide by these rules, practitioners of Western music saw three hundred-plus years of blissfully perfect voice leading and tonic resolutions. Nowadays, in contemporary classical, shred metal, jazz, and other more modern forms of music, most musicians don’t worry so much about descending strictly on the natural minor pattern.

Modern Melodic Minor

In the early 20th century, composers such as Stravinsky, Bartók, and Schoenberg began exploiting the various modes of melodic minor, which, combined with other exotic scales (such as the symmetrical diminished), led to some radical and even (at least for the period) downright outrageous harmonic colors. These new textures began spilling over into popular music, too. Composer George Gershwin combined the sophistication of melodic minor harmony with a bluesy melody to create the perennial “Summertime” for the 1934 Dubose Heyward play Porgy and Bess. Listen to an original cast recording or arrangement of this timeless classic and you’ll hear the distinct sound of two minor-6th chords repeating back and forth a whole step apart. These are the Im6 and IIm6 chords found in the A melodic minor scale [Ex. 5]. Play the example a few times while humming Gershwin’s famous melody. Next, inspired by Joseph Kosma’s 1947 classic “Autumn Leaves,” Ex. 6 takes a melodic pattern down a stepwise sequence through the key of G major to its relative minor, E. Notice C# and D# in the second measure—they’re the raised 6 and 7 of the melodic minor scale.

Don’t forget that many great musicians and composers don’t even have names for certain musical colors or concepts, yet employ them masterfully. Paul McCartney is primarily (if not completely) self-taught, yet Ex. 7, based on the former Beatle’s gem “Yesterday,” clearly demonstrates that he heard an A melodic minor scale when sitting down to compose this modern standard.

The Chords of Melodic Minor

If you know how to derive chords diatonic to A natural minor, you can use the same process to find the ones generated by A melodic minor. Stacking thirds (i.e., skipping every other note) in natural minor is a quick way to create diatonic triads built on each degree of the scale. To get melodic minor’s chords, do the same thing, but remember to raise the m6 and m7 to the 6 and 7 throughout. For instance, in A melodic minor, all F and G notes become F# and G#, as the arpeggiated triads in Ex. 8 demonstrate. To create 7th chords, simply stack an additional third interval atop each triad [Ex. 9] and find some convenient fingerings for these harmonies [Ex. 10].

The Altered Scale

Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and other early bebop musicians of the 1940s were also fascinated by melodic minor—specifically, they were captivated by the 7th mode of the scale (the pattern of half- and whole-steps resulting from playing melodic minor starting on its 7th degree). The resulting scale has been called by many names—Locrian b4, super Locrian, diminished whole-tone—but “altered dominant” (or simply “altered”) seems to be the name that has stuck, at least in jazz jargon. Building on the 7 of A melodic minor results in a G# altered scale that can be fretted like this [Ex. 11] and is spelled G#, A, B, C, D, E, F# (again, the same notes of A melodic minor, only starting on the 7, G#). Because the term “altered” refers directly to chord coloration, we’ll analyze this scale from a harmonic perspective: Those seven notes correspond enharmonically to the root and these altered chord tones: b2, #2, 3, b5, #5, m7. (Remember: the b2 and #2 can also be called the b9 and #9.)

One way to ease into the altered sound is to play the altered scale over a dominant or altered-dominant chord with the same root. For example, try recording yourself strumming a G#7#5 chord and then run the G# altered scale (A.K.A. A melodic minor) on top of it, and you have instant altered hipster coolness!

Most commonly, the altered scale is used over an altered V chord. In bebop, for example, playing the E altered scale over an E7alt chord often signals a coming resolution to A or Am (the I or Im chord). Ex. 12 demonstrates this practice while touching on two different melodic minor scales (as well as the natural minor scale) within a line that soars gracefully over a IIm-Valt-Im progression. Here, A natural minor handles the IIm chord, F melodic minor acts as the E altered scale over the altered V, and A melodic minor suits the resolution chord, Im. Moving to the key of C major, Ex. 13 works equally well, though the harmony contains no obvious V chord. That’s because, using tritone substitution, the Db7 chord is acting as the V (or dominant) chord in this II-V-I progression. Notice the use of triplets in the line to create “three-against-four” phrasing that adds rhythmic color.

Melodic Masterworks

Even though much of the melodic minor material in this lesson may seem geared towards classical and jazz, there’s nothing stopping players of any genre from integrating this simple, yet colorful and powerful scale into their own sound. Just be patient as you put melodic minor (and the modes it offers) through the same paces you did major, minor, and other familiar scales, and before long you’ll own the scale. Perhaps you’ll even pen the next “Yesterday. ”