Melodic 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 melodic minor scale = W-1/2-W-W-W-W-1/2,
or A-Mel.Minor = A-B-C-D-E-F#-G#-A we can find the intervals (from the root note) to be 1,2,b3,4,5,6,7.

Looking at the numbers, we can deduce that the melodic 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 similar to THE minor scale. The aeolian mode (THE minor scale) has the intervals 1,2,b3,4,5,b6,b7; and the Melodic minor scale has the intervals 1,2,b3,4,5,6,7. So we could view the melodic minor scale as an aeolian scale with a major seventh ( a major sixth in the place of a minor sixth, and a major seventh in place of a minor seventh).We also note that it is very similar to THE dorian mode/scale. The dorian mode has the intervals 1,2,b3,4,5,6,b7; and the Melodic minor scale has the intervals 1,2,b3,4,5,6,7. So we could view the melodic minor scale as an dorian 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 dorian 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. So we could think of Mel. min. as Ionianb3, or Doriannat7, or Harm. min.nat.6, gypsy min. nat 4, etc. if we wanted to.

* Note: Due to the major seventh, we will not be able to substitute pent. min. for mel. 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 melodic minor scale.


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

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

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

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

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

two adjacent strings:
Seperated by a P4

seperated by a M3

We recall, that we can derive chords by harmonizing scales. We've previously harmonized the minor scale in thirds to get triads, and seventh chords (see Aeolian and harmonic minor scale lessons)

We found for the minor scale (aeolian mode) The following triads:
and from the harmonic minor scale:

We can create chords from the melodic minor scale the same way we created chords from the minor, and harmonic minor scales. Doing so, we get the following triads:

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

We create the following chords for melodic minor:
in triads: i-ii-bIII+-IV-V-vio-viio
in 7th chords: imaj7-ii7-bIIImaj7+5-IV7-V7-vi7b5-vii7b5
in 9th chords: imaj9-ii7b9-bIIImaj9+5-IV9-V9-vi9b5-vii7b9b5
in 11th chords: imaj11-ii11b9-bIIImaj9#11#5-IV9#11-V11-vi11b5-viib11b9b5
in 13th chords: imaj13-ii13b9-bIIImaj13#11#5-IV13#11-V11b13-vi11b13b5-vi11b13b9b5

So we could take any of the chords in the above paragraph and create a melodic 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 melodic minor scales.
Aeolian = i-iio-bIII-iv-v-bVI-bVII
Melodic minor = i-ii-bIII+-IV-V-vio-viio

They share only the root chord in common, and that disapears when you get to the seventh chords.

If we compare to some other scales though, we can find more similar scales to compare and contrast with so as to understand the subtle differences between them.

Melodic minor = i-ii-bIII+-IV-V-vio-viio
Dorian = i-ii-bIII-IV-v-vio-bVII
Ionian = I-ii-iii-IV-V-vi-viio
Harmonic Minor = i-iio-bIII+-iv-V-bVI-viio

Melodic Minor and Dorian share the following chords (triads):

Melodic minor and Ionian (the Major scale) share the following chords:

And The Melodic minor and Harmonic minor scales share the following chords:

Creating a progression using only these chords would be slightly ambiguous, and could be interpreted as either One scale or the other. 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 the two scales (try switching from i-Melodic Minor to i-Dorian and back, etc. over say a i-IV progression and see what different moods are created).

If on the other hand, you want to create a progression that has a more melodic minor character, you should include at least one of the other chords not found in the other scale.

Where/when does one usually decide to use melodic minor?
- some would use it over the ii7 chord in the major scale/key context (play ii-melodic minor over ii7)
- many jazz players use melodic minor (also called jazz minor) over any/every m7 chord that pops up (ex. play C-melodic minor over Cm7, etc.), as a substitute for dorian.
- over several chords that fit within a melodic minor context (see above chords for melodic minor). ex. over Dm-Em-A (i-ii-V) you could play D-melodic minor.
- over a related modal progression, use the relative melodic minor scale (ex. over a lydianb7 progression i.e. I7#11-II9, play the #4-melodic minor scale).

As easy as it would be to think of melodic minor as another scale with an altered note (i.e. that it's the harmonic minor scale with a different sixth). I would make a plea that you take the time to get to know the dorian scale for its own sake. It takes time to breed familiarity with any scale/chord/rhythm/progression/effect/genre.

an aside... (repeated from the lesson on the dorian scale)

many (most) jazz songs can be broken down harmonically as being composed of progressions from the circle of 5ths, typically: ii7-V7, ii7-V7-Imaj7, (also ii7b5-v7-i, iii7-vi7-ii7-V7-Imaj7,etc.) The most basic progression used, reused, disguised, etc. is ii7-V7, which can be seen as a Dorian progression (i7-IV7), an Ionian progression (ii7-V7-Imaj7), or a melodic minor progression (ii7-V7). When deciding what to improvise over such progressions, the first thought should be to play what's in your head.

Nice ideal. How do you get there? the jazz adage is "fake it till you make it". When deciding what to do when you don't know what to do, it may be helpful to understand the relationships between harmonic structures (chords, progressions, etc.) and melodic structures (scales, , etc.)

To give just a thought (within the jazz context), it could prove useful to take every two consecutive chords that follows the pattern m7 chord to dom7 chord a perfect 4th higher as being a ii7-V7 progression in some key (with which you could solo over in i-melodic minor). This should give you an option to "fake" with for 80% of what you find in jazz. This is an oversimplification but you have to start somewhere. if you're into jazz, you should pick up a copy of "the real book" ( or "the new real book") and listen to as much jazz as you can.

More on jazz and other genres coming up at an appropriate time.

Next lesson is on modes of the melodic 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 January 10, 2003
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