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

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