Learning the Melodic Minor Scale

We have already studied the harmonic minor scale and we saw that it has a “long” distance between degrees 6 and 7 (3 semitones). In order to reduce this distance, an intermediate note was added to bring the sixth degree closer to the seventh.

This would make the sound of the harmonic scale more melodic, giving rise to the so-called melodic minor scale. Therefore, the sixth degree that was previously minor on the harmonic scale became major on the melodic scale.

For you to see this difference, we will show you the scales of A minor harmonic and A minor melodic, one below the other. Compare them:

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

Notice how the only difference is in the sixth degree (in this case, the F note).

Check below the shape of the A minor melodic scale (degree 6 and 7 are highlighted):

A Minor Melodic Scale

melodic minor scale

Try playing this scale repeatedly to feel the melody. The flavor of the melodic minor scale differs somewhat from the flavor of the harmonic minor scale and is a little more difficult to analyze, after all it presents two alterations in relation to natural minor scale (6th and 7th degrees), while the harmonic minor scale shows only one alteration (7th degree).

Before we continue, it is worth mentioning that there are two melodic scales: the real melodic and the classical melodic. The classical melody is the one we have already shown. The name “classical” comes from the origin of its founder (Sebastian Bach), a great Baroque composer. Many prefer to call the classical scale the “Bachian Scale”.

The real scale is a scale that goes up like the melodic minor scale and goes down like the natural minor scale. That is, it has a shape on the way up that is different from the shape on the way down. Please see below:

A classic melodic minor scale

 classic melodic minor scale

This scale is used by musicians who don’t like the flavor of the melodic minor on the way down and prefer to use it only on the way up. Here in Simplifying Theory however, whenever we talk about the melodic minor scale, we are talking about the classical melodic minor (which goes up and down in the same way).

Melodic Minor Chords

The key generated by the A minor melodic scale is as follows:

a melodic minor key chords

More generally, the melodic minor key is formed by:

Im(M7) – IIm7 – bIIImaj7(#5) – IV7 – V7 – VIm7(b5) – VIIm7(b5)

An example of a song that has many chords in the melodic minor key is “Papel Machê” by João Bosco. Look it up on Youtube.

Very well, just as we said on the application of the harmonic minor scale, the melodic minor scale needs to be studied beyond the context of the key, after all only a few songs have the melodic minor tonality.

It’s time to drop this addiction of thinking only in “keys”. Let’s get loose. This scale is extremely used by musicians of different styles, especially jazz guitarists. And it is not by chance, after all, the melodic minor scale is a great option to achieve an alternative sound, which mixes tonal with atonal sensations. Learn how to follow the contexts in which you will use this scale most in practice!

How to use the melodic minor scale

The context in which the melodic minor scale most often appears is over a dominant chord. How come?

It’s simple! When a dominant chord appears in a particular song, you can use the melodic minor scale right then.

But which melodic minor scale? What tone?

Let’s show it with an example. If, at any point in a song, the G7 chord (dominant that resolves in C) was played, we could play the melodic minor scale of D on top of the G7. That is, the melodic minor scale of the fifth degree is played on top of the dominant chord.

Another way to think about it is to play the melodic minor scale that is two semitones above the chord that the dominant will resolve in. In this case, G7 is the dominant of C (resolves in C). Therefore, we would play the melodic minor two semitones above C, which is D.

The justification that makes this application possible is somewhat complex and will be addressed in more advanced topics. For now, be content with the fact that the dominant is an unstable and tense chord, which makes room for many “daring” melodic resources.

Just remember that the unaltered dominant is the one that has only the fundamental notes (tetrad). The altered dominant has an accidental note (for example, the augmented 5th).

In our example, G7 is an unaltered dominant. If it were an altered dominant, G7(#5), the melodic minor scale most suitable would be that of G sharp. That is, for altered dominant chords, you can play the melodic minor scale that is located a semitone above the dominant chord in question.

Due to this purpose, this scale became known as the altered scale after all it contains many accidental notes in relation to the tonic. We will talk about the altered scale in another topic, but it is important that you already know that the altered scale of a certain tone is the melodic minor scale played a semitone above it. For example, the altered G scale is the melodic minor scale of G sharp.

In short, we can think of using the minor melodic scale:

  • A fifth above an unaltered dominant
  • A semitone above an altered dominant

Note: In the case of the unaltered dominant, if the resolution chord is minor, it is more advisable to play the melodic minor scale one fourth above instead of one fifth above. For example, if the G7 chord were to resolve in Cm, the C minor melodic scale would be more advisable instead of the D minor melodic scale. Nothing prevents you from playing the D minor melodic scale in this case too (the dominant chord allows many “daring” options), but the C minor melodic scale would be more advisable for the simple fact that the G7 chord belongs to the key of C minor melodic.

Invest time in this study, get some songs, identify the dominants and wear the melodic minor scale out on top of them! By doing this, you will develop a rich vocabulary and bring new sensations to your improvisations. But the applications don’t stop there.

More applications for the Melodic Minor Scale

The melodic minor scale is one of the most widely used scales in jazz. Since the applications are numerous, we will address the most common ones here.

Before we continue, it is worth noting that the sound of the melodic minor scale requires a little more effort in its use than the scales we were used to up to now. In fact, this will be true for all the next scales that we will address. The gravy train is over.

Although this scale can be used in the most different contexts, to make it beautiful it will be important to have some phrases and licks well memorized and internalized. Otherwise, your solo can become ugly and clumsy.

It is important to know how to highlight the notes that characterize the sound of this scale, but returning to the tonal region at the right time, so that the listener can enjoy without feeling that there is something wrong with your solo.

So at this stage, in which we will show some usage contexts for this scale, understand that more important than knowing where to apply them is to actually have several licks memorized and well practiced. In each new application below, we will show you a new example of a lick, and you can also invent yours.

Contexts of application of the melodic minor scale:

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Read the continuation of this article and many other full articles in the Simplifying Theory PDF Booklet.

Go to: Altered scale

Back to: Module 9