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The Three Types of Minor Scale

Minor scales belong to a group of scales that are seven-notes long and diatonic. (Diatonic means that they are always in a specific key). The three different types of minor scale are the natural minor, the harmonic minor and the melodic minor. Minor scales are often used in music to evoke a feeling of sadness, although they has may other uses.
 

Before continuing to learn about minor scales, it is important that we understand what the major scale is. The Major scale begin on a starting note and use a set pattern of intervals (tones and semitones) to create the rest of the scale. There is also only one type of major scale so once you have learnt D major (for example) you then know the one and only major scale of D! When listening to the major scale, it is also often perceived as a 'happy' scale. If you would like to know more about major scales before embarking on this post then be sure to click here.

Both the major and minor scales have 12 different tone centres (there is one for each of the 12 availably notes).

Relative Major and Minor Scales

Before discussing the different types of minor scale, it is important to make sure that you are clear on how the major and minor scales are related.

 

To do this it is easiest to look at the circle of fifths diagram. If you would like to understand this in more detail then make sure to check out our post specifically on the circle of fifths.

As you can see, on the outside of the circle of fifths are the major scales. On the inside we write in the relative minors. Every major scale has a relative minor and it is found very easily by simply going to the sixth note of the major scale. So for example, A is the sixth note of C major and therefore C major's relative minor will be A minor!
Alternatively, finding the relative minor to a major scale is sometimes taught by using semitones. If you count backwards three semitones from C, you will also reach A.
Each relative scale shares exactly the same key signature. C major has no sharps or flats and therefore we know that A minor will also have no sharps or flats!

The Difference between Major and Minor Scales

The biggest difference between a major and a minor scale, no matter whether it is a natural minor, harmonic minor or melodic minor, is to do with the interval of a 3rd!

 

An interval of a third simply means two notes with the distance between them being a 3rd. With reference to a scale this would mean the third note above the root of the scale. If you would like to know a bit more about intervals then make sure to read up on them here.

The interval of a 3rd in a major scale is always a major 3rd. Take a look at the below A major scale and you can see A to C# which is a major 3rd.
The 3rd in a minor scale is always a minor 3rd, otherwise known as a flat third! Take a look at the A minor scale below and you can see the third note is C natural. A to C natural is a minor 3rd.
You can pretty much add any note to a minor scale without changing its tonality, but the one and only note you simply cannot change is the third. If you change the third then you change the tonality of the scale.

Chords and Arpeggios

The interval of a third is just as important in relation to chords or arpeggios. Using chords and arpeggios to demonstrate, the idea of the interval of a 3rd changing the tonality becomes even more clear.

A typical chord has three or four notes and these will be the scale degrees:

1, 3, 5

OR

1, 3, 5, 7

Notice how both of these include the third degree of the scale and will dictate whether this will be a major or a minor chord/arpeggio.

If you would like to know a little more about chords then do make sure to check out our blog post about chords!
 

Now let's explore the three different types of minor scale, natural minor, harmonic minor and melodic minor.

Natural Minor

The natural minor is perhaps the easiest scale to get your head around as it is simply the same as the major scale but starting on a different note. As we saw on the circle of fifths, each major scale shares its key signature with the minor scale, When playing a natural minor scale, we simply start on our new note and use the same key signature we would have done for the major scale.
As you can see above we have the scale of A natural minor. The key signature of A natural minor has nothing in it and therefore when we play A natural minor this has no sharps or flats.

There are no altered scale degrees or added accidentals in the natural minor scale.

You can also approach find out your natural minor scale by simply taking the tonic major (the major scale that shares the tonic note) and lowering the scale degrees 3, 6 and 7.

The interval pattern of a Natural minor scale is as follows:

T, St, T, T, St, T, T

Let's try one more minor scale. What is the relative minor to F major? Remember we must go to the 6th note of the scale to find out the relative minor.

The relative minor to F major is D minor. This means that both the F major scale and the D minor scale share the same key signature of B flat. So the notes in the D natural minor would be:
 

D, E, F, G, A, B flat, C, D

Below we have the natural minor scale starting on D.

The natural minor scale pattern has the exact same notes as the Aeolian mode. To find out more about modes then make sure to read the blog post on modes here.

Harmonic Minor

The harmonic minor scale is the most common minor scale that you will come across, particularly if you take part in music exams. The harmonic minor scale is exactly the same as the natural minor but with the 7th degree of the scale raised by one semitone (half step). The 7th degree is also referred to as the leading note in a scale, so we are raising the leading note.
The pattern of intervals for a harmonic minor scale is as follows:

 

T, St, T, T, St, T 1/2, St

Let's work out the relative minor scale to the major key of G major. What is the sixth note of G major?

The sixth note of G major is E, so E minor is the relative minor to G major. Both these scales will share the same key signature of F sharp and so the notes of E natural minor are:
 

E, F sharp, G, A, B, C, D, E

Melodic Minor

The melodic minor scale is our third and last type of minor scale. When looking at the melodic minor we have to firstly recognise that the ascending and descending sections of the scale are different.

In the ascending form of the melodic minor we raise the 6th and 7th degree of the scale up by a semitone (half step). The pattern of intervals is:

T, St, T, T, T, T, St

When descending we lower the sixth and seventh notes by a semitone (half step). The pattern of intervals is:

T, T, St, T, T, St, T

If you look carefully at the descending melodic minor scale below, you will notice that it is essentially just the natural minor scale.

Let's take a look at one more example. What is the relative minor to B flat major? Remember to count to the 6th scale degree.

The 6th note of B flat major is G and therefore the relative minor key is G minor. We now need to write the melodic G minor but making sure we show both the ascending and descending version of the scale.

When writing out the ascending version of melodic minor scales, remember we must have a raised 6th and a raised 7th.

The notes of the ascending G melodic minor are as follows:

G, A, Bb, C, D, E, F#, G

Notice how we have an E natural instead of an E flat because we have raised the E flat to an E natural and an F sharp instead of an F natural.

Minor Scale Variations

On top of our three main different types of minor scale - natural, harmonic and melodic there are a few other slightly more obscure types of minor scale.

Minor Pentatonic

The minor pentatonic scale is a variation on the natural minor scale. In order to turn a natural minor into a minor pentatonic, you simply need to eliminate the 2nd and 6th degree. This will then leave you with the following notes:

Tonic

Flat third

4th

5th

Flat seventh

Remember a pentatonic scale is simply a scale with five notes!

Minor Blues Scale

A blues scale is simply a pentatonic scale with extra notes. These extra notes can vary between performers! You can add nearly any note to the minor pentatonic except a major third which as we have seen earlier in the post will clash with the minor tonality -making it major.

For example if you have a E minor blues scale you cannot play a G sharp.

Some good additional notes to create a minor blues scale is a major seventh in addition to the flat seventh which is already in the scale. This additional note can only be used passing between the flat seventh and the root. So for example in E minor :

Hopefully this has helped you to understand your minor scales in greater detail.

FAQ's

What are the 12 minor scales in music?

To fully understand this you must make sure you understand the circle of fifths! But the 12 different minor scales in music are:

a minor, e minor, b minor, f# minor, c# minor, g# minor, d#/eb minor, bb minor, f minor, c minor, g minor, d minor

What are the 3 types of minor scale?

Natural minor

Harmonic minor

Melodic minor

How do you tell if a piece of music is in a major or a minor key?

In order to tell if your piece of music is in a major or a minor key, you need to first check out the key signature. Once you know what major key your key signature is from you then must check out if there are any accidentals in the piece. If the piece includes the relative minor scales sharpened seventh then the piece is in the relative minor key!

It is also advisable to check out what chords are used.

Author: Jade Bultitude
Jade is an experienced musician and teacher as well as being the founder of Music Theory Foundations.

She has been helping people learn music theory for more than 10 years from pre school children all the way to degree level studies.

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