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!

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