In earlier lessons I’ve hinted at the connection between the minor scale and the major scale, but avoided a full explanation until now because the minor scale is a little more complex.

Let’s recap:

The major scale contains 3 major chords on I, IV & V.

It contains 3 minor chords on vi, ii & iii.

These 3 minor chords are the i, iv & v chords of the relative Minor Key!

So, in C major the I chord is C major. The vi chord is A minor. The Key of A minor is the Relative Minor of C major, and they share the same key signature. The major chords within the key have the same relationship to one another as the minor chords have with each other. This is why C Major = A Minor.

In the lesson on the Intervals we learned the structure of the Major and Minor scales, but to refresh your memory:

The Major Scale is made of all Major and Perfect Intervals.

The Minor Scale is made of all Minor and Perfect Intervals (except for the Maj. 2nd)

The Formula for the Minor Scale is:  W-H-W-W-H-W-W

We call this form of the minor scale the “Natural Minor.”  This is where things get tricky… there are 2 other forms of the minor scale, Harmonic Minor & Melodic Minor.

The Harmonic Minor

If you recall the Formula for the Major Scale:  W-W-H-W-W-W-H

Notice the last Step is a Half Step, this is called the “Leading Tone” or the 7th degree of the Scale.  In Minor, the 7th degree creates a Whole Step, which doesn’t have the feeling of tension that the Leading Tone in Major has.  Composers developed a technique of altering the Minor scale by raising this 7th scale degree by a Half Step, creating a true Leading Tone in Minor.  We call this altered scale the Harmonic Minor.

It is called “Harmonic”, because the modified 7th degree has the effect of changing the Minor v chord to a Major V chord. Now the V-i cadence in Minor has a similar powerful resolution as the V-I cadence in Major.

The Melodic Minor

Equipped with the “Harmonic” Form of the Minor Scale, Composers could create more powerful effects of tension and resolution. There was a problem though, in raising the 7th step, they created a skip of 1 & 1/2 tones, or a Minor Third between the 6th and 7th steps.  This creates a very interesting sound, but not one that is smooth and melodic. So the Composers altered the scale further, by raising the 6th degree as well! Now we have a smoother melodic stepwise motion, as well as an increased harmonic effectiveness. This form of the scale is called the Melodic Minor.

This scale is interesting in that it often appears different when ascending and descending. The Ascending form uses the Melodic form, and the Descending uses the Natural Minor form. This is not always the case in music, but it does happen frequently.

So now you must be a little worried. “I just finished learning the 12 Major Scales, and now instead of 12 Minor Scales, I have 36 new scales to learn!?” Try not to think about it this way though. Please don’t make the mistake of confusing these altered scales with the Minor Key. There are only Major and Minor Keys! There is no such thing as a “Harmonic Minor Key.” The Minor Mode is simply a more fluid concept, open to alteration in various ways. So you really are only learning the 12 Minor Keys, the “Natural” Minor Scales. The other “scales” are simply alterations that happen in Music for different reasons, but it’s important to explain the reason why you see these changes in Music!

Put your mind at ease- Since the 12 Minor Keys are already a part of the 12 Major Keys, you really aren’t learning any new scale patterns or fingerings, you’re just starting the patterns you already know from a different note! Look at the Bright Side! Things aren’t so difficult!

Minor Key Harmony

The Key of A Minor

Most often when we deal with chords and harmony in Minor, the ‘Harmonic’ form is used.

*The Augmented Triad on III+ is very rare.  Usually the Major Triad III is used, because it is the natural Relative Major.

The ‘Melodic’ form of Minor is generally used only for Melodic motion, not Harmony.

Possible Chords in the Minor Key

You can see that the Harmonic options available in the Minor Keys are more numerous than those in the Major Keys!

*The Major Flat-II chord (bII) is a special case, called by Theorists, the Neapolitan Chord.  This is actually derived from the Phrygian Mode (which we will explore further), but it happens very often in Minor (for example LvB’s Moonlight Sonata is full of this sound.)

Finally, let’s look at the Circle of Fifths for the Minor Keys.

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