Train Your Ears: Identifying Scales (Part III)

We’ve discussed the major and natural minor scales, as well as the harmonic minor. It’s time for another variation of the minor scale.

Melodic Minor

The melodic minor is created by raising the 6th and 7th scale degrees of the natural minor.

C Natural minor:  C   D   Eb   F   G   Ab   Bb   C

C Melodic minor:  C   D   Eb   F   G   A   B   C

melminor-1

It sounds like this:

Now I must admit that I’ve already lied to you. The scale written above is technically only the first half of the melodic minor scale. That is only how you play the scale while ascending. While descending, you play the natural minor scale. Therefore, the proper melodic minor scale in C is written as:

melodicminorfull

The ascending portion of the scale is better known as the jazz minor scale, which is the portion of the melodic minor that we primarily use today, whether we play it ascending or descending.

“Woah, woah, woah…why is the full version different depending on which direction you’re playing the notes?”

I don’t personally know the precise story behind this (perhaps someone can comment with a reliable source), but from my understanding this concept was developed in the classical music era. Composers found that the interval between the 6th and raised 7th of the harmonic minor scale was a little awkward to sing, so they decided to either raise the 6th or lower the 7th by a half-step in order to provide a smoother transition between the notes. The raised 6th was found to work best when the scale was ascending, forming the ascending melodic minor scale (or jazz minor). The lowered 7th worked better for descending melody lines, forming the descending melodic minor scale (which is identical to the natural minor).

That being said, the use of the ascending or descending patterns in classical music differs from composer to composer, and in most modern music the jazz minor is often referred to as the melodic minor, and is played whether the melody is ascending or descending. So in other words, don’t worry about it.

“Okay, well now I’m bored and this scale doesn’t seem to be much fun.”

Yes, the idea of the melodic minor scale is a bit confusing, and when you listen to the audio example above it may sound kind of strange, but that’s the beauty of it. If used in the right context this scale can sound incredibly interesting and unique. Here are a few videos to both inspire you and get you more familiar with the sound of the scale.

Listen as Tom Quayle from http://www.infiniteguitar.com switches between major and melodic minor scales:

Or take a look Andrew Wasson’s thorough explanation of melodic minor from http://www.creativeguitarstudio.com:

To me, the melodic minor scale has a mysterious and ambiguous sound. At first it clearly sounds like a minor scale with it’s lowered 3rd, but the rest of it sounds incredibly major. It sounds like a scale that is trying to be two things at once, giving it a sense of ambiguity.

Scale Summary

Okay, so I’ve covered four of the most common scales used in modern music, how they’re formed, and what they sound like. Here’s a real quick summary in case you’ve forgotten:

Major

What it looks like as a C scale:

Untitled

What it sounds like as a C scale: 

My personal keywords: Happy, standard, basic

What to listen for: Think about solfeggio (do re mi fa so la ti do).

Natural Minor

What it looks like as a C scale:

Untitled

What it sounds like as a C scale: 

My personal keywords: Sad, melancholy, sigh

What to listen for: It can be thought of as the major scale starting on the 6th note (or in solfeggio: la ti do re mi fa so la). You hear it begin with a major 2nd interval, which is the same as the major scale, but then you hear the lowered 3rd. Once you hear the lowered 3rd, you know it’s some sort of minor scale, at which point you listen to the 6th and 7th notes. If both the 6th and 7th notes sound lowered, it’s the natural minor.

Harmonic Minor

What it looks like as a C scale:

harmonicminor-1

What it sounds like as a C scale: 

My personal keywords: Dark, intense

What to listen for: The gap between the lowered 6th and natural 7th note is very obvious, giving the scale a distinct sound. The 7th note will lead back to the root nicely because it is only one half-step away. This creates a more intense sound than the natural minor scale, which isn’t as powerful.

Melodic Minor

What it looks like as a C scale:

melminor-1

What it sounds like as a C scale: 

My personal keywords: Mysterious, ambiguous

What to listen for: At first it sounds like a minor scale, but the second half sounds like a major scale.

Once again, please check out the exercises at http://www.musictheory.net. Try the scale ear training exercises and see how well you do!

Next post:  Identifying Basic Chords

Train Your Ears: Identifying Scales (Part II)

In my last post I discussed the standard major and natural minor scales and what they sound like. Now I’d like to focus on the harmonic minor.

Harmonic Minor

The harmonic minor is made by raising the 7th scale degree of the natural minor.

C natural minor:   C   D   Eb   F   G   Ab   Bb   C

C harmonic minor:   C   D   Eb   F   G   Ab   B   C

harmonicminor-1

It sounds like this:

This is done to build tension within the scale, making the resolve back to the root more powerful. It’s fairly easy to identify due to the large, minor 3rd gap between the 6th and 7th notes. It’s very often used while playing the V chord in a minor key.

“Why? And what do you mean by the ‘V’ chord?”

When talking about chords built off of certain scale degrees, we usually use roman numerals. I go over this topic in How to Know Which Chords to Play. In that post, I talk about building chords off of each scale degree in a major scale, in order to determine which chords “fit” within a particular key. The example I use in that post is a C major scale, which has a G major as it’s V chord. If you were to play a G major chord whilst playing in the key of C, it will sound like it really wants to be followed by a C chord. When you look at the notes in a G major triad, it makes sense.

G   B   D

The B is one half-step below C. Since your brain processes the note C as the foundation of the key, you get a sense that you’re almost there. This is what we like to call tension. If you were in A major, the same thing would go with an E major chord.

E   G#   B

The G# is one half-step below A. These “almost there” notes are called leading tones. Technically, any note is a leading tone to the notes immediately surrounding it, but this term is generally applied to the 7th scale degree leading back to the root.

Note: This effect is magnified when you add the 7th to the V chord (G   B   D   F), but that’s for another post.

In minor land, it’s a little different. Take a look at the chords built off of a C minor scale. Remember, all you do is stack thirds on top of each note, and add the accidentals that occur in a C minor scale (which are Bb, Eb, and Ab).

minorchords-1

Notice that the v chord is minor instead of major (remember, lowercase roman numerals are used for minor chords). It’s made up of:

G   Bb   D

Bb is a whole-step below C, so you don’t really have the same, “almost there” kind of feeling. Because of this, composers will often opt to play a G major in place of the G minor by raising the Bb to a B.

Listen to the difference between the two examples below. In the first example, a C minor chord is played, followed by a G minor, then back to C minor. In the second example, the G minor is changed to a G major.

C minor – G minor – C minor: 

C minor – G major – C minor: 

They both work musically, but the chords in the second example sound darker. The extra tension adds a little more intensity.

I’ll leave you with the second example above, but with the harmonic minor scale played on top of it. Pay attention to the raised 7th note, and how well it resolves when the C minor chord is played the second time. This is the harmonic minor sound. Get it in your head!

Move on to part III!

Train Your Ears: Identifying Scales (Part I)

Learning how to distinguish one type of scale from another by ear is a great skill for any musician. It allows you to better understand the purpose of each scale and how they fit into the music you like to play.

Most scales can ultimately be boiled down to one of two foundations:  major or minor, with minor having three fundamental variations:  natural, harmonic, and melodic. For your exciting leap into scale ear training, I suggest you start with these four scales.

Major

The major scale is usually the first scale you learn while learning an instrument. If you play all of the white keys on a piano from one C to the next C, you play the C major scale. You can refer to my post on basic scale theory for more detail about constructing this scale, or you can just trust me these notes make a C major scale:

C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C

Which looks like this on sheet music:

Untitled

And sounds like this: [audio http://danflorio.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/majorscale.mp3 ]

Fun fact:  That little “8” below the treble clef means that all of the notes actually sound an octave LOWER than how they’re written. This is common for written guitar music. I plan on going over written music in a future post, so don’t feel horribly sad if this confuses you.

In theory this should be the easiest scale to identify by ear. Think of when vocalists warm up using solfeggio (Do re me fa so la ti do). In fact, singing along with the scale using solfeggio is a great way to solidify its sound in your head. Try it (while no one is listening).

Natural Minor

The natural minor scale is usually the second type of scale you learn. It is created by lowering the 3rd, 6th, and 7th notes of the major scale by one half-step. Here is the C natural minor scale:

C   D   Eb   F   G   Ab   Bb   C

Which is written as:

Untitled

And it sounds like: [audio http://danflorio.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/minorscale.mp3 ]

Notice the distinct change in emotion from the major scale. Most people would agree that the minor scale has a sad sound to it, where a major scale has a happy sound (I posted my own thoughts on why in this post).

What’s cool about the natural minor scale is that you can play one by starting on the 6th note of the major scale. In fact, if you read my post on modes you would already know that the natural minor scale corresponds with the aeolian mode. So for example, if you begin your C major scale on the 6th note, A, you will be playing A natural minor.

“I don’t believe you”

No? I can easily prove it to you by rewriting that C major scale while starting and ending with A.

A   B   C   D   E   F   G   A

The key of A major should have three sharps, which would be F#, C#, and G# (I talk about how to determine this in my post on the circle of 5ths). Keen observers will notice that there are no sharps in the scale written above. They are all natural notes, which means that those three sharps that should be there have been lowered. Do you notice where those three notes are in the scale?

A   B   C   D   E   F   G   A

How about that! They are the 3rd, 6th, and 7th notes. This right here is an A natural minor scale, and we got to it by writing the C major scale starting from A. Please remember this:

***Every major scale has a relative natural minor scale starting from the 6th scale degree***

Knowing this will help form a bond between major and minor in your head. It also helps for improvising music. If you’re jamming with your friend and they’re playing chords in the key of C major, you know you can play A minor over it and it will work nicely.

In solfeggio terms, you sing this scale by starting on the la in “do re mi fa so la ti do”. So the solfeggio for a natural minor scale is “la ti do re mi fa so la”. Again, I highly suggest trying to sing the scale using the solfeggio, as it really helps in solidifying the intervals and overall sound of the scale.

Relative minor exampleListen to the above example and really try to compare the two scales. It will climb up the C major scale, then drop from C to A to begin the A natural minor scale:

[audio http://danflorio.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/relativeminor.mp3 ]

For now, focus on these two basic scales. If you play an instrument, try playing them in different keys. Really compare the sounds, feelings, and emotions they produce. Again I have to recommend www.musictheory.net. Go to the scale ear trainer (http://www.musictheory.net/exercises/ear-scale) and change the settings so that ONLY the major and natural minor scales are involved. It will play either a major or minor scale randomly, and you’ll have to guess which one it is.

Next post:  Identifying Scales (Part II)