The Harmonic Minor Scale

This weeks lesson is on the harmonic minor scale.

Recall that we defined scale as:
a group of notes within an octave (and any octaves of those notes) usually played one at a time.

We can describe (define) a scale in any of these ways:
- by letters (representing specific pitches)
- by numbers (representing specific intervals)
- by step pattern (describing intervals from note to note)

So for example the major scale (ionian mode) can be described/ defined as/by: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C (in the key of C), 1,2,3,4,5,6,7, and W-W-1/2-W-W-W-1/2.

We define a minor scale as a scale containing the notes (intervals) 1,b3,5.
(In other words, using the notes in the scale we can construct a minor chord off the root note)

From either harmonic minor scale = W-1/2-W-W-1/2-m3-1/2, or A-Harm.Minor = A-B-C-D-E-F-G#-A we can find the intervals (from the root note) to be 1,2,b3,4,5,b6,7.

Looking at the numbers, we can deduce that the harmonic minor scale is a minor scale (not THE minor scale everyone talks about - that would be the aeolian mode, but a minor scale none-the-less). that is, it contains the notes 1,b3,5.

We also note that it is very similar to THE minor scale. The aeolian mode (THE minor scale) has the intervals 1,2,b3,4,5,b6,b7; and the Harmonic minor scale has the intervals 1,2,b3,4,5,b6,7. So we could view the harmonic minor scale as an aeolian scale with a major seventh ( a major seventh in place of a minor seventh). We can use this idea as a stepping stone to learning the scale. If you already know the aeolian scale (THE minor scale), then you could play those patterns , replacing the b7 with the 7. This idea of thinking of one scale as being another scale with altered notes (e.g. ionianb7, lydianb7, etc.) or with missing notes (e.g. pentatonic major, etc.) occurs from time to time, and may give some perspective/context/comfort in learning new scales.

* Note: Due to the major seventh, we will not be able to substitute pent. min. for harm. min. with root on the same note (parallel scales) without running into dissonance between the sevenths.

So lets look at some patterns (moveable shapes) with which we can play the harmonic minor scale.


harmonic minor scale "E-shape" (root note on the 6th string)


harmonic minor scale "D-shape" (root note on the 4th string)


harmonic minor scale "C-shape" (root note on the 5th string)


harmonic minor scale "A-shape" (root note on the 5th string)


harmonic minor scale "G-shape" (root note on the 6th string)


We recall, that we can derive chords by harmonizing scales. We've previously harmonized the major scale in thirds to get triads, and seventh chords (see August 19th's, and august 16th's lessons)

two adjacent strings: Seperated by a P4


seperated by a M3


We found for the major scale (ionian mode) The following triads:
and for the aeolian mode (minor scale)

We can create "harmonic minor scale" progressions. Doing so will give us a framework to analyze songs, and find good opportunities to employ the harmonic minor scale. it's also good practice for songwriting, etc.

We see above the following chords for harmonic minor:
in triads: i-iio-bIII+-iv-V-bVI-viio
in 7th chords: imaj7-ii7b5-bIIImaj7#5-iv7-V7-bVImaj7-viio7
in 9th chords: imaj9-ii7b9b5-bIIImaj9#5-iv9-V7b9-bVImaj7#9-viio7b9
in 11th chords: imaj11-ii11b9b5-bIIImaj11#5-iv9#11-V11b9-bVImaj7#9#11-viio7b11b9
in 13th chords: imaj11b13-ii13b9b5-bIIImaj13#5-iv13#11-V11b13b9-bVImaj13#11#9-viio7b13b11b9

So we could take any of the chords in the above paragraph and create a harmonic minor progression out of it. We really should include some type of I chord (i, imaj7, imaj7sus4, imaj9, etc.) and it should be the predominant chord in our progression, with a feeling of resolution when we come back to it.

Take a minute to compare and contrast the chords from the aeolian, and harmonic minor scales.
Aeolian = i-iio-bIII-iv-v-bVI-bVII
Harmonic minor = i-iio-bIII+-iv-V-bVI-viio

They share the following chords (triads) in common: i,iio,iv,bVI. Creating a progression using only these chords would be slightly ambiguous, and could be interpreted as either natural minor or harmonic minor. In fact, such a progression would be a good one to record (or have a friend play) and solo over to uderstand the subtle differences between natural and harmonic minors (try switching from i-Aeolian to i-harm.min. and back, etc. over such a progression and see what different moods are created).

If on the other hand, you want to create a progression that has a more harmonic minor character, you should include at least one of the other 3 chords (bIII+,V,viio) not found in aeolian.

Where/when does one usually decide to use harmonic minor?
- some would use it over the imaj7 chord in the minor scale/key context (play i-harmonic minor over imaj7)
- over several chords that fit within a harmonic minor context (see above chords for harmonic minor). ex. over Am-E-F (i-V-bVI) you could play A-harmonic minor.
- over a related modal progression, use the relative harmonic minor scale (ex. over a spanish major progression i.e. I-II, play the iv-harmonic minor)

We can increase our familiarity by singing every note as we practice our scales/soloing. In previous lessons on scales i've given some basic pointers on starting to solo. Those things transfer here too. Just replace the scale in question with the dorian scale (see lessons from May 24th, june 7th, july 5th, and august 2nd). Here are two more using harmonic minor:

2.) (1-7-5-4)-(2-1-b6-5)-(b3-2-7-b6)-(4-b3-8-b7)-(5-4-2-1)

One might consider changing between Aeolian (natural minor), and harmonic minor, over a progression such as a descending bass note. Consider the (fairly common) progression:

i - i/maj7 - i7 - i6 - ib6 - V7 - i
Am - Am/maj7 - Am7 - Am6 - Amb6 - E7 - Am (key of Am), also
Am - Am/G# - Am/G - Am/F# - Fmaj7 - E7 - Am (same progression)

One way to play these chords would be:
Am=X02210, Am/G#=402210, Am/G=302210, Am/F#=202210, Fmaj7=Am/F=Amb6=102210, E7=020130

Another possibility would be slightly different chords using open notes:
Amadd9=X07500, Am/maj9=X06500, Am9=X05500, Am6/9=X04500, Amb6/9=X03500 {Fmaj7#11}, E7#9=076780, E7b9=076760

You could use Aeolian to solo over Am, Am7, Amb6, Fmaj7. And you could use the harmonic minor to solo over Am/maj7, Amb6, E7. All other chords correspond to these except Am6 , you might try either Dorian or Melodic minor (jazz minor) to solo over this chords. You should try playing just one scale over all these chords and seeing how it sounds different from switching scales per chord.

I might note for historical reasons that some people believe this scale was created by western composers to facilitate a V7 chord in the minor scale. And i would be wise to note also that the same scale has been known in middle eastern musics for longer than it has been known in classical musics. Without taking a strong opinion on this, i note that Austria was at the edge of the Ottoman empire and that Spain was over-run by the Moors (both groups Muslim). The harmonic minor scale (and it's modes) is often heard in Flamenco music, which was heavily influenced by the Moors.

Next weeks lesson is on the modes of the harmonic minor scale.

Christopher Roberts

How do I change all those numbers to letters (for notes, chords, etc.)? Here's a transposition chart

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Last updated October 21, 2003
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