Natural, Harmonic and Melodic Minor Scales

wes montgomeryThis post we’re going to be discussing three minor scales: the Natural Minor scale (Aeolian mode), the Harmonic Minor Scale, and the Melodic Minor Scale.

As you probably know already from my guide on the Modes of the Major Scale, the 6th mode of the major scale is always the natural minor scale, or the Aeolian mode. In the Key of C major, the Aeolian mode is A minor; therefore A minor is the relative minor of C major: every major chord has a relative minor. When you play an A Aeolian as part of the C major scale then they both share the same notes; for example, the pattern for the major scale is: (W = whole step – 2 frets), H = half step – 1 fret)

W – W – H – W – W – W – H
1    2    3    4     5    6    7

Which in C would = C D E F G A B (then back to C again, but at a higher octave.)

The A Aeolian scale (as part of the C major scale) uses the same notes, but the 1 (root) is now A, instead of C, so it looks like this: A B C D E F G

The scale sounds minor, and if melody is all you’re interested in, it does the job. The problem is that when you harmonize the scale, the chords don’t pull you to the 1, but rather to the 3. In other words, your ears tune into the relative major tonality of the scale rather than the minor, so if you’re playing in A minor, it will at times sound like you are playing in C major. This is easy to see if we look at the A natural minor scale harmonized…

G A B C D E F G
E F G A B C D E
C D E F G A B C
A B C D E F G A

The above cluster of notes are the chords that occur naturally in the A natural minor scale (Aeolian). They also happen to be the same chords as the key of C major. If you look at the chord built on G, you see it’s G7. That chord pulls your ear to CMaj7, not to the Amin7 which is the 1 chord. So, the natural minor scale was altered slightly for harmonic reasons; the 7th note of the scale was raised half a step, and the result is the harmonic minor scale –

G# A B C D E F G#
E F G# A B C D E
C D E F G# A B C
A B C D E F G# A

NOW, four of the chords are different. First of all, the G7 is now G#diminished, and doesn’t pull you to the C, while the C chord is now Caug – not a common sound your ear feels has resolution. Also, the Emin7 is now an E7, which pulls your ear to the 1 chord – the Amin.So basically the harmonic minor scale gives you chords that pull you to the tonic of the scale, as opposed to the natural minor scale which pulled you to the relative major (because the relative minor is built from the major). Seeing as this scale was constructed in order to harmonise the natural minor scale, it is no wonder that it has the name: harmonic minor scale.

However, that scale sounds a little weird because the minor 3 between F and G# jars the ear a bit (and sounds like instant Ritchie Blackmore too…). So to smooth things out, they raised the 6th a half step too, making it F#. That has some impact on the chords, but retains the essential E7 to Amin pull, and smooths out the melodies. So, it’s called the Melodic minor.

Now to truly understand the Aeolian scale, and also the Harmonic and Melodic Minor scales (both of which aren’t modes of the major scale) we need to look at it isolation, that is, away from it’s mother major scale. So let’s concentrate on the C Aeolian scale.

From now I will be referring to it as the natural minor scale to avoid confusion with mode theory. Now before I get to the theory, here is a great example of the natural minor scale being squeezed of all it’s juice, by none other than the great Wes Montgomery!

The formula for the natural minor scale is:

W – H – W – W – H – W – W
1    2    b3    4     5    b6    b7

As you can see the difference between the natural minor scale and the major scale is the 3rd, 6th and 7th notes have been flattened by half a step.

In C this would result in the following notes: C D Eb F G Ab Bb (or C D D# F G G# A#)

the chords that correspond to each of these notes are:

1 – Cm7 [minor 7]
2 – Dm7b5 [half diminished]
b3 – Ebmaj7 [major 7]
4 – Fm7 [minor 7]
5 – Gm7 [minor 7]
b6 – Abmaj7 [major 7]
b7 – Bb7 [dominant 7]

natural minor scale chart

The formula for the harmonic minor scale is:

W – H – W – W – H – WH – H 
1    2    b3    4     5    b6    7

(the WH being a whole step plus a half step, or 3 frets.)

As you can see the difference between the harmonic minor scale and the major scale is the 3rd and 6th notes have been flattened by half a step, the difference between this and the natural minor is the 7th note has been sharpened by half a step.

In C this would result in the following notes: C D Eb F G Ab B (or C D D# F G G# B)

the chords that correspond to each of these notes are:

1 – Cm(maj7) [minor major 7]
2 – Dm7b5 [half diminished] or Ddim
b3 – Ebaug7 [augmented major 7] or Ebmaj7#5
4 – Fm7 [minor7]
5 – G7 [dominant 7]
b6 – Abmaj7 [major 7]
b7 – Bbdim7 [diminished 7]

harmonic minor scale chart

The formula for the melodic minor scale (ascending) is:

W – H – W – W – W – W – H 
1    2    b3    4     5    6    7

(when played descending, it’s the same as the natural minor scale)

As you can see the difference between the melodic minor scale and the major scale is the 3rd note has been flattened by half a step, the difference between this and the natural minor is the 6th and 7th notes have been sharpened by half a step.

In C this would result in the following notes: C D Eb F G A B (or C D D# F G A B)

the chords that correspond to each of these notes are:

1 – Cm7 [minor 7]
2 – Dm7 [minor 7]
b3 – Ebaug7 [augmented major 7] or maj7#5
4 – Fm7 [minor7]
5 – G7 [dominant 7]
b6 – Adim7 [diminished 7] or m7b5
b7 – Bbdim7 [diminished 7] or m7b5

melodic minor scale chart

And there you have it! The natural, harmonic and melodic minor scales!

Below you will find a diagram of all three scales discussed in this guide, across the entire fretboard. Print it out and use it as a reference while you’re playing the guitar.

minor scales chart

Finally, here are some chord progressions for you to practice these scales over:

Natural Minor Chord Progressions

  • i – VI – VII – Cm7/Abmaj7/Bb7
  • i – iv – VII – Cm7/Fm7/Bb7
  • i – iv – v – Cm7/Fm7/Gm7
  • i – VI – III – VII – Cm7/Abmaj7/Ebmaj7/Bb7
  • ii – v – i – Dm7b5/Gm7/Cm7

Harmonic Minor Chord Progressions

  • i – iv – V – Cm(maj7)/Fm7/G7
  • ii – V – I – Dm7b5/G7/Cm(Maj7)

Melodic Minor Chord Progressions

  • ii – V – i – IV – vii – III -vi  – Dm7/G7/Cm(maj7)/F7/Bm7b5/Ebmaj7#5/Am7b5 or
    Dm7/G7/Cm(maj7)/F7/Bdim/Ebaug/Adim

Be sure to check out the other guitar guides scattered throughout the site!

Chord Theory

Scale Theory

General Music Theory

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15 thoughts on “Natural, Harmonic and Melodic Minor Scales

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  11. hi mate how are you? i hope everythings alright…can i ask something? if the chords plays on C-E-F-Fm what modes do i have to use? or can i use like harmonic scale too? thanks a lot for your help…

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    • you need to develop your ear enough so that you no longer have to ask that question. telling you what scales to play over what chords will get you nowhere in the long run. in future you should play various scales over the progression and decide which one sounds best. the progression you’ve suggested, C-E-F-Fm is quite strange and won’t work with modes as the chords don’t belong to any one major scale, but i would try playing a C major scale or C major pentatonic over it. harmonic, pentatonic minor, and modes won’t sound good with that progression.

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