What do you call a zombie who writes music? … A decomposer!
Ok ok, but what about a zombie who is just trying to write a satisfying chord progression while playing in a minor key? (Because zombies don’t play in Major keys).
For maximum satisfaction, this zombie might consider reaching for something called the “harmonic minor scale.”
When you think of the most satisfying chord progressions in a major key, they often end with something called a 5-1 cadence (also known as “dominant” or “perfect” cadence).
This is where you play the 5 chord (the dominant or V chord) which sets you up for a strong resolution on the 1 chord (or “tonic” or I chord). In the key of C Major, a 5-1 cadence is G Major to C Major. Listen to an example of that sweet dominant cadence in this ii-V-I chord progression.
We’re going to show you how to give your music maximum thrill-factor by getting all the benefits of a major-sounding “dominant” V-I cadence, whilst still keeping things spooky by playing in a minor key scale.
C Major Scale
Here’s how the pattern of chords on each scale degree in a Major key goes:
1. Major 2. minor 3. minor 4. Major 5. Major 6. minor 7. diminished
C Natural Minor Scale
But when you’re in a minor key, the chords are going to be a little different.
In natural minor this pattern is:
1. minor 2. diminished 3. Major 4. minor 5. minor 6. Major 7. Major
As you can see the 5 chord in the minor scale is a minor chord, so the satisfying 5-1 cadence is not so satisfying anymore. There is not the same tension and release, and it can feel a little lack-lustre. For more oompf, the 5 chord needs to be Major.
C Harmonic Minor Scale
The way we can get around this is with the harmonic minor scale.
The harmonic minor scale is almost identical to the natural minor scale — there’s only one note different, but it makes a big difference in how the scale sounds.
To change a natural minor to a harmonic minor scale, you raise the 7th degree by a half step. So in C minor, the Bb is changed to a B. This is the same in any other key — just remember that the only difference between the natural and harmonic minor scale is that the 7th degree is raised one half-step (to the next closest note).
Now instead of the 5 chord being G minor (as you find with the natural minor scale), with the harmonic minor scale it’s G Major which brings the life back to the 5-1 party. You could say it’s re-animated 😱
In most popular songs, this is how the harmonic minor scale gets used. While the song is basically written normally in the minor key, to make the chord progression work “better” the minor 5 chord gets changed to Major. A simple trick!
That’s cool for chords and the undead. But what about the melodies to play over them?
The raised 7th degree in the harmonic minor scale is pretty cool (that’s the difference between the minor and major third when you’re playing the G major 5 chord). Instead of a whole-step between the 6th and the 7th, it’s now 3 half-steps (also known as an augmented 2nd — or minor 3rd). Having such a wide interval between these two notes is unusual in western music, which is what gives the harmonic minor a pretty exotic sound (some might say Spanish or Arabic) which can also sound mysterious or spooky to some ears. Give it a try!
C Melodic Minor Scale
This is great if we want to use that creatively, but if we’re wanting something smoother without all the baggage and expectations which can come with something sounding exotic, we can turn to the equally-evil minor twin: the melodic minor scale.
This scale is similar to the harmonic minor, but gets rid of that minor third sound. To achieve this, we also raise the 6th degree of the scale by a half-step. Now the interval between the 6th and the 7th is a whole step again so it sounds much smoother. In fact, when you compare a melodic minor to the major scale side by – the only difference now is the minor 3rd note.
Reviewing all the scales
Here’s the weird bit. Given how close the scale is to the major, you play the melodic minor scale differently going up vs going down, but we won’t go into that here…
The best way to learn it is by doing – hear how odd an melodic minor sounds if you play it descending (too close for comfort to a major scale really…)
But this is the best thing about the minor key! With all three of these minor scales at your disposal, you can blend or combine elements from each at any time you like to lend what you’re playing different flavours.
Learn to play all the minor scales
So here’s something to learn for Halloween! The Harmonic & Melodic Minors course is in Melodics to teach you:
- To perform melodies using both scales, and recognize their structure and sound.
- The difference between the ascending and descending forms of the melodic minor scale and how it’s used.
- To become proficient at playing in minor keys by mixing tonalities and recognising their distinct qualities.
If you’re not at your instrument right now, here’s a playlist of music to start prepping your
brains ears to the sounds of the minor scale family. Remember to keep your ears peeled for whether or not a dominant V-i cadence is being used instead of the natural v-i minor cadence.