Why harmonic and melodic minors?

July 12, 2020, 8:42 PM · 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.

Replies (30)

Edited: July 12, 2020, 9:57 PM · 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.

Modes of the major scale are really their own thing. I dunno if you can call phrygian and locrian "minor".

Edited: July 13, 2020, 12:59 AM · 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.

The harmonic minor, as Cotton points out, gives you the dominant 7 chord. I think you can end up seeing it a lot more as a formula in cadences, which, again, would have arisen from the common practices that happened to get popular and would later come to be seen as tropes of certain styles and time periods.

So essentially, the people writing the test must be assuming the primacy of the classical period in tonal music, and probably assume that with this basis, any skilled musician can make pretty good sense of other modes or synthetic scales. With jazz theory, I would think other kinds of scales would be foundational.

This website gives a few examples that I think illustrate the point pretty well

It's actually kinda fun listening to some late renaissance or early baroque music and hearing some wild harmonic or polyphonic ideas that you won't really hear for a while after, or are kinda sui generis.

Stuff like this blows my mind, and I wish I could find more music like this, rather than incessant tambourine music that I thought was all of that era:

July 13, 2020, 5:33 AM · 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:
1) a person is more likely to run into them in solo and orchestra music often so being prepared for the correct sound in the musician's ear is important, as well as being in the musician's fingering so it's not a strange-feeling passage;
2) major scales are so strong that a student can fake their way through them. We're taught "this is a scale" from early elementary school music classes, while the teacher plays the major scale. And the sequence of whole and half steps is so strong that it's immediately apparent if we've played it wrong. But harmonic and melodic minor scales require the musician to really know the notes in advance of playing them, since to many younger musicians they sound "wrong" until they've had more experience playing them. And many young music students will "fix" that "wrong" sound by playing the correct major scale note, which will sound more proper to their ear. Thus getting students playing all three minor scale forms as early as possible is an important of my teaching approach, so they are used to the sound early on and don't consider any of them to be more "right" or "wrong" than any others.

But that's just my opinion. :-)

Edited: July 13, 2020, 6:10 AM · As the names suggest - harmony and melody.

Eric Taylor's words are "melodies in a minor key tend to use sharpened 6th and 7th degrees when they are going up but the unsharpened notes when they are coming down; otoh chords in a minor key normally use just the unsharpened 6th degree and the sharpened 7th degree." for what that's worth

There are also "natural minor" scales (A to A using just the notes of the C major scale, where F natural would be the unsharpened 6th degree).

Cotton's "augmented 2nd" made me think. He means Ab to B in the scale of C harmonic minor, for example.

And it's also interesting to practise whole tone scales on the violin.

July 13, 2020, 6:48 AM · 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.
July 13, 2020, 6:58 AM · 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.
Edited: July 13, 2020, 8:08 AM · 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])

Originally I was confused about it because it made me think of the tonic and the supertonic. (I don't use theory from one year to the next, so I have to think about it, lol)

Edited: July 13, 2020, 4:02 PM · 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.

One of the interesting scales in the book is this traditional Sîrba from Muntania (Muntenia?) in Romania: (the "key" signature given is that of A maj)
Now when is the G# used? I think it is used only when it is the leading note rising to the A.

Edited: July 13, 2020, 8:12 AM · That's an excellent book, Trevor.

And since we're on the subject of harmonic minors, the Phrygian Dominant (aka Freygisch) is very common and worth knowing - take any harmonic minor scale and start and end on the dominant.

July 13, 2020, 8:29 AM · 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.
Albrecht. I'm not saying it doesn't appear in classical repertoire - I would just be interested to know more examples that justify it being schooled so rigorously over natural minor. I'm part curious, part suspicious that this is never really questioned.
Jean. When you sat melodic minor is used exclusively do you mean with the rules of a one scale going up and another going down? Examples? I think this was maybe done for a certain period but then not so much later in history. My theory is that Arabic music had an influence post Crusades.
David. I would agree that 3 minors is fine. My questioning came about as I remembered only being taught 2 for exams and it just seems strange to me that natural minor didn't feature in the scales for exams. I wondered if it was just a British thing as Americans seem more familiar with natural minor?
July 13, 2020, 9:12 AM · 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.

As for modes, I did have a teacher who talked about the "minor-sounding" modes versus the "major-sounding" modes, which was all defined by where the third scale degree was. In general, I don't see classical violinists routinely practicing modes. They learn them in theory for the most part. Occasionally they will pop up in a piece.

Edited: July 13, 2020, 9:27 AM · @ 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.
In natural intonation these intervals are:
C/D = 9/8 (major whole tone)
D/E = 10/9 (minor whole tone)

To my mind the practical way to get the true octave in the whole tone scale is to tune the violin to a piano's equal temperament, and use the equal temperament scale in which the ratio of adjacent intervals is always the same. Note that the 5th in ET is not quite the same as the 5th in natural intonation, which is why you should tune the violin to ET if you want to work on the whole tone scale and still use an open string for the 5th. In ET the ratio between any two notes a semitone apart is approximately 1.05946, or more approximately 2119/2000. Best of luck!

July 13, 2020, 10:57 AM · 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.
July 13, 2020, 11:59 AM · 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?
Edited: July 13, 2020, 12:07 PM · Something interesting from Wikipedia on Harmonic minor:
"While it evolved primarily as a basis for chords, the harmonic minor with its augmented second is sometimes used melodically. Instances can be found in Mozart, Beethoven (for example, the finale of his String Quartet No. 14), and Schubert (for example, in the first movement of the Death and the Maiden Quartet). In this role, it is used while descending far more often than while ascending.

The harmonic minor is also occasionally referred to as the Mohammedan scale[4] as its upper tetrachord corresponds to the Hijaz jins, commonly found in Middle Eastern music. The harmonic minor scale as a whole is called Nahawand[5] in Arabic nomenclature, as Bûselik Hicaz[6] in Turkish nomenclature, and as an Indian raga, it is called Keeravani/Kirwani."

I guess my suspicions were correct in the Arabic origins. So much of that influence does not appear in the history books.

Also, it mentions how the melodic minor is more commonly chosen in one of its forms, ie. ascending form for both up and down or descending form both up and down.


Edited: July 14, 2020, 4:03 AM · @Trevor. All I said was that it was interesting! :-)

"In natural intonation these intervals are:
C/D = 9/8 (major whole tone)
D/E = 10/9 (minor whole tone)"

Hmm, are you sure those maths are current? That's part of one of the "Pythagorean" systems. Combined they make 90/72=5/4, a major third.

Notice that 9/8=(8+1)/8
the need for the numerator to be one greater than the denominator was dictated by Pythagorean mysticism.

Or were you joking?

July 13, 2020, 3:54 PM · 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.
July 13, 2020, 4:07 PM · 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.

And I was playing the Allemande from Partita 2 in D minor, which opens with a 2-bar passage in D harmonic minor.

So I am surprised to hear that these scales do not appear in the repertoire. ;)

July 13, 2020, 5:37 PM · Was it ascending differently to its descent?
July 13, 2020, 6:59 PM · 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.
July 14, 2020, 6:57 PM · 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.

Now, the harmonic minor scale is useful for underpinning the development of harmony, and it "came first", with the melodic minors used to overcome the shortcomings of the harmonic minor scale.

The melodic minors (ascending and descending forms) are widely used in many music styles.

On string instruments, the harmonic minor is a fine teaching aid, or, to put it another way, it is a good bridge between the major scale and the melodic minor scales. Muscles are involved, as well as the ear.

(But the same reasoning does not apply to trumpet, with three valves, for example, where I think that learning the harmonic minors is a waste of time. You can easily learn the melodic minors by altering the major scale. Muscles are irrelevant.)

July 14, 2020, 8:02 PM · 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.
July 15, 2020, 5:12 AM · 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.

Regarding your comment about easily learning the melodic minors by altering the major scale applies to all instruments -- I don't know why you included that as an aside to your comment about trumpets.

Edited: July 15, 2020, 11:09 PM · 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 harmonic minor scales are technically more useful to practice than the other two because they help to stretch the hand. The other church modes are mechanically the same as the major scale, you just start and stop on different notes.
I would not use the words "major, minor" to label the wide and narrow whole steps. That is another topic - intonation.
Another way to think about scales and modes is to split them into two half-scales or Tetrachords (Greek for 4 notes). That also matches our finger patterns, or "attitudes" if you did the Doflein books. There are the 3 easy patterns; major, minor, Phrygian (sounds Spanish). Then add the whole-step/augmented, one diminished , and 3 varieties of the gapped/harmonic pattern. That gives us 8 Tetrachords. The total number of possible scales and modes is now 8 X 8 = 64 (!), and most of them do not have formal names. You will encounter these odd scales in Hindemith, Prokofiev, Bartok, etc. Tchaikovsky also has the annoying habit of adding an extra random note at a half-step whenever he wants 8 notes in a scale instead of 7.
July 16, 2020, 6:33 PM · The "natural" minor, is the aeolian mode, is the descending melodic minor.

Edited: July 16, 2020, 8:11 PM · 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?


(snippet from a piece for violin and piano by Georges Delerue, circa 1983)

Edited: July 17, 2020, 7:20 AM · 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.
Edited: July 17, 2020, 9:11 AM · 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.
July 17, 2020, 11:24 AM · 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.
July 17, 2020, 3:31 PM · 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.

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