Learning the Harmonic Minor Scale

The harmonic minor scale is very similar to the natural minor scale. The only difference between the two is in the seventh degree. On the natural minor scale, the seventh degree is minor, while in the harmonic minor scale, the seventh degree is major.

For you to see this difference, let’s use the natural A minor scale and the A minor harmonic scale as an example. Compare them:

  • Notes from the Am Natural scale: A, B, C, D, E, F, G
  • Notes from the Am Harmonic scale: A, B, C, D, E, F, G#

Notice how the only difference is in the seventh degree (in this case, the G note). This seventh major degree on the minor harmonic scale increased the distance between degrees 6 and 7, shortening the distance between degrees 7 and 8. This change provided a very interesting sound. See the shape of the harmonic minor scale of A (the seventh major degree is highlighted in red) below:

A harmonic minor scale:

harmonic minor scale

Try playing this scale repeatedly to feel the melody. Notice how this scale alone already has a pleasant flavor.

Harmonic minor chords

The chords of the key generated by the A minor harmonic scale is as follows:

harmonic minor key chords

Note: the method we use to form this chords is the same that we used to form the chords of the major key from the major scale. The only difference is that the scale used here was the harmonic minor scale. We will not do this whole procedure again so as not to get boring.

More generally, the harmonic minor chords can be seen as follows:

Im(M7) – IIm7(b5) – IIImaj7(#5) – IVm7 – V7 – VImaj7 – VII#dim

Great, so theoretically whenever we identify one of these chords/degrees in a song, we can apply the harmonic minor scale to our solo, since the harmony allows for this.

The problem is that, in practice, the chords Im(M7), IIImaj7(#5) rarely appear, and the other chords with the extensions m7(b5), m7, 7, maj7, appear in numerous contexts, which makes the approach difficult, because it may be that these chords belong to another key that is not the harmonic minor.

In this case, to use this scale on top of these chords, you would need to identify, for example, if the chord with the extension m7, let’s say Em7, is the fourth degree of the song (IVm7) as we see in the shape for this progression:

Im(M7) – IIm7(b5) – IIImaj7(#5) – IVm7 – V7 – VImaj7 – VII#dim

For that, the song would need to be in B minor, so you could play the harmonic B minor scale at the time that this Em7 chord appears, because the associated key would be:

b harmonic minor key chords highlight

However, if the song were in G major and the Em7 chord appeared, it would be the sixth degree (VIm7) that belongs to the major key, that is, it would not allow the use of the harmonic B minor scale over it (generically speaking). See the key of G major:

g major key chords highlight em7

This makes our life a little difficult, because we would always need to be paying attention to the corresponding degrees and tonalities to know when we can and when we cannot apply the harmonic minor scale.

Thankfully, in practice, as we already mentioned in the article “How and where to apply scales“, you will hardly apply this scale thinking about the key in this way. The easiest way to discover the context in which you can use this scale is to pay attention to the fifth degree, as we will explain below.

How to use the harmonic minor scale

The context in which the harmonic minor scale most often appears in solos, riffs or arrangements is when a V7 chord resolves in a minor chord. This resolution is typical of the harmonic minor context, as it does not exist in the natural major key or the natural minor.

In the major key, the V7 resolves in a major chord, as we already know. And in the minor key there is no V7, because the fifth degree is minor (Vm7):

natural minor key

Therefore, the “V7 – Im7” resolution is typical of the minor key. This is very important to know, as this is the chord progression that appears most in the songs when the subject is harmonic minor.

In addition, the dominant V7 is very easy to identify with the ear, especially in a context of a minor tonality.

We will show you some examples of how to use this scale. Notice that in the “V7 – Im7” resolution, the harmonic minor scale is played on top of the V7 chord, as this chord characterizes the harmonic minor tonality.

Note: when we say “played on top of the V7 chord” it means that it is the harmonic minor scale of the first degree (Im7), only played when the V7 chord appears. Do not get confused, since we are not saying that it is the harmonic minor scale of the fifth degree. For example, if the E7 chord appears resolving in the Am chord, we would use the A minor harmonic scale at the time that E7 was being played. We wouldn’t use the E minor harmonic scale! Be careful not to confuse these ideas!

Practice this scale a lot in this context and try to identify songs that contain this  V7 – Im7 progression. Your ear will quickly get used to this resolution and will be sharp to perceive it when it appears.

As a curiosity, a musical style that is based a lot on the minor harmonic scale is Spanish music.

Go to: Melodic minor scale

Back to: Module 9