Minor Scales on the Piano or Keyboard

You need to understand something right away to be a piano or keyboard player: Minor scales are no less important or smaller in size than major scales. They just have an unfortunate name. Minor scales come in a few varieties.

Like major scales, minor scales have eight notes, with the top and bottom (tonic) notes having the same name. But minor scales have their own, unique scale patterns: the natural minor, harmonic minor, and melodic minor patterns.

Each of the eight notes in a minor scale has a name:

  • 1st note: Tonic

  • 2nd note: Supertonic

  • 3rd note: Mediant

  • 4th note: Subdominant

  • 5th note: Dominant

  • 6th note: Submediant

  • 7th note: Subtonic

  • 8th note: Tonic

In the harmonic and melodic minor scales, the 7th degree is called the leading tone.

Natural minor scales

The natural minor scale uses the following ascending stepwise pattern:

Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Half-Whole-Whole (or WHWWHWW)

Sure, it may look similar to the major scale pattern, but make no mistake, this slight rearrangement of half and whole steps makes all the difference in the world. The best way to understand the difference is to play and listen to a major and a minor scale side by side. Here is the C major scale, followed immediately by the C minor scale.

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Hear the difference? Try something else: Play this melody, where the notes of a C minor scale are plugged into the same rhythms as the original “Joy to the World.” Notice the difference in the sound.

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You can play a minor scale on only the white keys, too — just start with A instead of C. Apply the same scale pattern to the tonic note A, and you get the A natural minor scale. (That’s because A is the relative minor of C.)

But apply the same pattern to other tonic notes and you encounter some minor scales with sharps (like E minor) and some with flats (like D minor).

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The notes from minor scales make great, memorable melodies, too.

Harmonic minor scales

The harmonic minor scale differs from the natural minor scale by only one half step, but in making that slight change, you achieve a scale with a whole new sound. For example, to play the A harmonic minor scale, follow these steps:

  1. Start out playing the A natural minor scale.

  2. When you get to the seventh note, G, raise it one half step to G sharp.

    This change makes the distance from the sixth to the seventh scale degree one and a half steps and gives the harmonic minor scale its unique sound.

The complete pattern for an ascending harmonic minor scale is this:

Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Half-1½-Half (WHWWH1½-H)

Play and compare the natural minor scale with the harmonic minor scale next to it. Sounds rather exotic, doesn’t it? You’ll encounter this scale in lots of classical piano music.

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Melodic minor scales

Another variation on the minor scale is the melodic minor scale, which is notable (forgive the pun) because it has a different pattern depending on whether you’re going up the scale or coming down. That’s right — a chameleon-like scale that ascends one way and descends another. This flexibility is useful when you want the scale to sound, you guessed it, melodic.

Try playing the A melodic minor scale, and you’ll hear that the scale sounds pleasingly melodic going both up and down.

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Notice that the sixth and seventh degrees of the scale are raised a half step when ascending and are lowered a half step when descending. You probably recognized that the descending scale is identical to the natural minor scale, so only the ascending pattern is really new:

Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Whole-Whole-Half (or WHWWWWH)

Composers sometimes combine scales for a song’s melody just to spice things up a bit.

Trying minor scale exercises

Get some practice with the C natural, harmonic, and melodic minor scales by playing the following exercises. You can use these as a warm-up along with the C major scale exercise.

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