The Harmonic Minor

This lesson deals with is an incredibly important scale in your study of music theory, the harmonic minor. Quite simply the harmonic minor scale is a natural minor scale with a raised seventh degree. Some people think it sounds exotic because that raised seventh degree, also called a leading tone, draws your ear back to I, or the root note, in an unusual but still in a very clear and strong manner. The melodic structure of the last four notes of the scale frequently appears in the Arabic and Middle Eastern musical traditions. Use the interactive diagram below to learn the sound of the harmonic minor scale.

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When we harmonize the harmonic minor scale a different set of chords arises. The most important one is the V chord is now a major chord, if we are playing triads but it is also a dominant chord if we are playing seventh chords. This is the substitution we studied in the previous lesson when we were dealing with common knowledge progressions and cadences associated with the minor key. Now you understand the reason for this substitution.

I think of the harmonic minor scale as promoting harmony,or pleasing and interesting combinations of chords. Use and study the interactive illustrations below to familiarize yourself with the chords associated with the harmonic minor scale.

Chords Associated With The Harmonic Minor

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Of all the chords associated with the harmonic minor scale the most important one is undoubtedly the V chord because it contains the G sharp note, the leading tone which draws your ear back to the root in a strong and decisive manner. When assembling educational material for this and other courses I am always surprised to see that most of the minor scale melodies we are familiar with are based on the harmonic minor and not the natural minor. This is surprising because most of the minor scale melodic guitar and lead guitar work I was exposed to was done with the natural minor and not the harmonic minor. As a lead player I find the natural minor scale easier to work with and inherently quite melodic, the natural minor scale can also be played over chords derived from the harmonic minor scale because the G sharp note and the G natural note both work over the V7 chord or E7 in the case of the key of A minor.

Guitar Wise

As I have said many times during this course that it is a course on music theory not one that deals with scales and guitar playing per se. However this is a course for guitarists who want to learn music theory so, it is absolutely imperative that some of these lessons include guitar exercises such as a common knowledge fingering for the A harmonic minor scale which appears to the right. As you play along with the interactive illustration just below notice the root notes of the scale are highlighted in red, as you listen you will hear that the root note is repeated at the end of the first octave of the scale. I have found that repeating the root notes can be quite helpful in learning the sound of the scale.

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Melodic Work

Below is an excerpt from the world famous melody Anitra's Dance by classical master Edvard Greig, which is one of the greatest and most famous melodies in the world of classical music. This melodic passage relies heavily on the V7 to I minor cadence as a means of supporting the A harmonic minor scale which is the basis of that melody. As a general rule of thumb it is important that each time you learn a new scale you learn to play some music associated with that new scale. I refer to this study of and playing of melodies as melodic work and firmly believe that it is one of the most important types of practicing you could possibly do -so do your melodic work!

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Songs Written Using The Harmonic Minor

The musical examples in this lesson consists of traditional melodies, which are extremely potent, informative and educationally very powerful because we know the sale of such material sound so well. I highly recommend using traditional and classical melodies as a way of understanding the sounds of scales and how chords and scales relate to one another in well known, common knowledge musical compositions.

The first example is Hava Nagilah in many ways is the perfect song for learning the sound of the harmonic minor scale. Not only because it is so deeply ingrained but because that leading tone, the G sharp note is so prominently featured in the song. In addition the chord pattern is V7 to I minor which again and really supports the melody beautifully and highlights the sound of chord progressions derived from the harmonic minor scale.

 

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Our next musical example is the famous Greensleeves, which features the two strongest cadences found in the harmonic minor scale. The first one is obviously V7 to I minor (E7 to A minor) and the second one is bVII to I minor (G major to A minor). Note how both the E7 and G major provide a sense of tension, or a pull back to the A minor in completely different ways. This example is rich with chords resident in the key and this song in general deserves study and memorization. Finally, the G sharp notes are indicated with the red arrows, note the musical effect of the leading tone, the G sharp note, in both Greensleeves and Hava Nagilah.

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Common Harmonic Minor Chord Patterns And Cadences

In my mind the idea of the harmonic minor scale is harmony, or creating interesting and pleasing combinations of chords. The most interesting and pleasing chord in the harmonic minor scale is probably the V chord with its strong and unmistakable cadence back to the root. As you can see by the iconic musical examples I have chosen the V7 to I minor is quite common and an effective tool in the art of musical composition. Below are musical examples which have been written in a contemporary context, meant for the student to gain expertise in the area of creating chord progressions. The the smaller bits of harmonic material that I am calling chord patterns could in many cases also be called cadences. The difference is that cadences are essentially theoretical concepts while chord patterns are actual bits of harmonic material placed in a musical setting.

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The Harmonic minor scale is not used as frequently as the natural minor scale in modern and contemporary music although there are many notable exceptions. What is very often used in pop rock jazz and blues music are two of the cadences derived from the harmonic minor scale of vourse V7 to I minor being the star of the show so far. The second date is most commonly derived cadence from the harmonic minor scale is quite naturally a II - V - I, only in this case it's classified as a minor II - V - I. The resulting chords would be B mi 7 (b5) and E7 (b9) or in proper music theory terminology is called:

 

II mi7 (b5) - V(b9) - I mi 7

This minor II - V is undoubtedly one of the most common cadences in all of modern and contemporary music but it has found a special place in Latin music and the bossa nova. As a guitarist what interests me most concerning the harmonic minor scale are the cadences and chord patterns I have discussed in this lesson. Below you see two musical examples which employ a B mi 7 (b5) to E7 (b9) cadence in their chord progressions. Play through and study the sound of these examples as a means of increasing your ability to recognize and also use these chords in compositions and arrangements.

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