Why harmonic and melodic minors?
Way back in the day I did my 8 grades with the Associated Board back in the U.K. I remember the scales were major, chromatic, but the minors were melodic minor and harmonic minor. Harmonic and Melodic minor scales, interesting as they were, did not seem to feature as much in day to day music in any genre as much as natural/aeolian minor and dorian minor. It always seemed like a curious thing to me, so I just looked at the ABRSM requirements these days and it seems that nothing much has changed - candidates still required to play harmonic and melodic minors. There is something on the site about natural minor scales being introduced in 2012 as an optional alternative at grades 1 and 2. They cite a quote from Groves, saying that there are (only) 3 permutations of minor: natural, harmonic and melodic. No mention of dorian. phrygian or locrian minors, not to mention other exotic scales. I get that if you learn a major scale you will basically have the other modes (sort of) but I am just curious why the emphasis on melodic and harmonic? I don't remember coming across it too much in the classical repertoire. Other than Eric Satie I cannot think of any Classical repertoire with the minor third gap in the scale - seems more East European gypsy, klezmer or further Eastern. Certainly the melodic minor is very much like Arabic and Asian scales that play differently on the ascent than they do on the descent.
I now live in the USA where it seems natural minor is practiced more by default (please put me right if I am wrong).
What are people in other countries doing? Any theories why the big emphasis on the H and M minors? Is this some throwback that has less relevance these days?
I'm just curious really. I'm not saying we shouldn't do them - in fact I found when I did my jazz post-grad that it was essential to learn a whole bunch of other scales. Just that the two unusual minors always seemed arbitrary to an extent.
The augmented second in harmonic minor is maybe rarely featured in melodic passages, but is what gives you the dominant 7 chord in a minor key. That's very important. As for why we insist on learning these 2 particular scales, I'm really not sure.
I will preface this with hardly knowing the first thing about music theory, but I think the reason the melodic shows up is that it became a trope in the classical (and somewhat before) era enough, so that when theorists decided to write down the music theory of how music tended to be written by the most popular composers, they realized that the practice that had arisen was regular use of the melodic minor in the music at the time.
From my perspective as a music educator, the reasons for including harmonic and melodic minors in auditions (and as lesson assignments even for those who aren't auditioning for anything) are twofold:
As the names suggest - harmony and melody.
It is not true that the "diminished third gap" appears nowhere in classical music except for Satie. It is all over the place (not always in the leading voice but often enough). And its use can be quite expressive. BTW it used to be called augmented second when I was learning the three minor scales.
Classical music in a minor key uses essentially almost always melodic minor actually. Just look at string quartets for example as there it is very obvious.
Technically it's an augmented second, which is why I specified Ab and B. (apologies to the Germans if that's a confusing choice, lol. For them it's As and H, maybe it serves them right if they are confused![/joke])
A useful source book for anyone who would like to explore unusual scales, together with asymmetric rhythms, is Pete Cooper's Eastern European Fiddle Tunes (publisher Schott, ISBN 978-1-902455-89-1). It was drawn to my attention some years ago by my violin teacher, an enthusiast for Eastern European music.
That's an excellent book, Trevor.
Cotton. Locrian and Phrygian are considered minor at least in jazz terminology because of the minor third. Also, according to my training at least, a dominant 7th is a minor 7th. Accepting differing terminologies, I would say the arpeggio of the harmonic minor is a minor chord with a major 7th.
In the US, the violinists I know -- at least past the beginning levels -- all practice melodic minor. Routine daily practice is almost always melodic minor, with only an occasional harmonic minor, and almost never natural minor. This makes sense, as melodic minor is most likely what they will play in pieces.
@ Gordon Shumway The trouble with practicing the whole tone scale is, starting with C, if you play accurately use the major whole tone (C-D) or the minor whole tone (D-E), but not both (that's cheating!), you're going to end up with an octave that isn't true, which you can hear - it will be either sharp or flat on the true octave, depending on whether you are using the major or minor whole tone respectively.
I meant the actual dominant chord—the V7—which is used very often in classical music. Confusing terminology. The tonic seventh will be a crunchy minor-major 7 as you noticed.
I would say on the whole that the natural minor or relative minor/aeolian is more common in music generally. Dorian minors used a lot in rock/folk music. Melodic minor where it appeared seemed to be a certain period?
Something interesting from Wikipedia on Harmonic minor:
@Trevor. All I said was that it was interesting! :-)
Gordon, those figures were from my usual reference source, Roland de Candidé's Dictionnaire de Musique, the lengthy section on "Intervalles". I must confess I had overlooked the Pythagorean aspect! Nevertheless, the main point remains: the interval C-D is slightly larger than D-E, which happens elsewhere in the diatonic scale, so should the two interval types be combined when playing a whole-tone scale? I don't think so, because doing so would harm the special effect of the whole-tone scale.
Today I was playing the Prelude from Bach's sonata 1 in G minor, which opens with a G minor chord and then a descending G melodic minor scale.
Was it ascending differently to its descent?
If you look at the score, which obviously you have not too far away if you're taking part in a conversation about violin repertoire, then the answer is readily apparent.
I don't know of a formal examination system that doesn't ask for both the harmonic and melodic minor scales to be learned. And, this is for all instruments.
I'm not saying they're not good to learn or that they are not used ever. I would think that at least natural minor would be good to add though rather than excluded. It's more the exclusions that I question seeing as natural minor is more common.
Graeme Webster -- speaking as a life-long trumpeter I have to disagree that learning the harmonic minors is a waste of time. Learning all the different scales used in music evolved from western Europe is of great value on all instruments.
The standard explanation is that starting in the Baroque music era the dominant V chord in a minor key piece is preferred to be major instead of minor. That raises the 7th note of the scale and puts a gap of an aug. 2nd (= minor third) between notes 6 & 7 of the scale. That gap is usually avoided in West Europe melody but is common in East Europe, the Moslem countries and India. Most of us think "gypsy" or Klezmer when we hear it. The 6th note is then raised to give us the ascending melodic minor scale.
The "natural" minor, is the aeolian mode, is the descending melodic minor.
I have been looking at my violin sheet music for a melodic minor scale. I think I found one. Could someone confirm? Is it in the key of C minor?
Hi Raymond yes that measure definitely seems to be in melodic C minor, also the piece seems to be in A minor so a C minor modulation within it is certainly plausible. By the way what happened to Scott Cole? I would expect him to react on a thread like this one. I hope he is well.
Since Christopher was asking for examples, here is another one: the Gigue from Bach's partita no.2 in D minor. From measure 4 until the third beat of measure 5, is a solid passage in melodic D minor.
Here, in my country, Argentina we are taught from the beginning of learning 4 types of minor scales, and in the exam we are supposed to play them all. We have the melodic, harmonic, and we are supposed also to play the natural or eolic, which here we call it "Antigua" which translates from Spanish literally to old, ancient, old-fashioned, or antiquated, opposed to the melodic, which is the "modern day common use scale". And then, we are also taught the "Bachiana" scale which translates something like "Bach-esque" which is, the melodic minor BUT not changing anything when going down, so it's essentially the major scale but with the minor 3rd. For example, a c minor bachiana scale would be C D Eb F G A B C B A G F Eb D C. Anyway, when practicing scales for violin we often only play the melodic.
Santiago: Interesting that you mention the Bachiana, as indeed in the Bach passage I mention in the post above yours, indeed the scale is maintained also going down.