The harmonic minor scale is a slight variation on the natural minor
scale. In a moment, we'll
learn exactly what makes harmonic minor a unique scale, its
fingering on guitar, when to use it and which chords and chord
sequences it's "compatible" with.
The aim is not just to memorise a
scale pattern, but to really understand
the scale as intimately as possible.
From the perspective of western music, harmonic minor is often referred
to as an "exotic scale", because of its sound. It's most associated
with flamenco and middle eastern musical traditions.
minor scale basics
As mentioned in the intro, you may already be aware of the natural
minor scale. There's only
one tone difference between natural minor and harmonic minor, and
that's the position of the 7th.
both these minor scales using their first position patterns:
/ Aeolian (b7
So by raising the 7th of the natural minor scale, we get a very
different sound. It's a lot more tense when played over minor chords.
Look at the position of the 7th in relation to the root note.
It's now only a semitone/half step lower. Therefore, if we wanted to
add a leading tone before the lowest root note, on the low E string,
we'd know where to put it!
What do I mean by "leading
tone"? Well, by using the 7th immediately before resolving to the root
note, a semitone higher, we get a natural flow of harmony. The
resolution sounds... natural. When we get to playing harmonic minor
over chord sequences, you'll see how that natural resolution is
listen to some basic interval movements from within the A
harmonic minor scale to get a feel for its raw flavour:
Also try and get a feel for it yourself by jumping around different
interval sequences. Below is a suggested fingering, but you may need to
change this for certain movements.
the above is a movable
scale pattern, if the root note sits on the note
for example, you'll be playing the B
scale. If it
sits on the note F#,
you'll be playing F#
There's also a boxed harmonic minor pattern with the lowest root note
on the A string,
which is useful if you want to quickly build a scale around a chord
shape in that same position (e.g. A form barre chords):
Let's now see how harmonic minor works over chords.
the harmonic minor scale over chords
As mentioned before, harmonic minor is a
analysing a scale to see what chords it will be compatible with, you
need to look at the tones that make up the scale Vs the tones that make
up the backing chord.
Since harmonic minor has that major
7th, its minor chord equivalent must either
include the same, or not
have any 7th at all (e.g. just a basic minor triad).
For example, take a look at the D
minor chords below, the first being a regular D minor
triad, the other being that same triad with an added major 7th.
minor triad (Dm)
harmonic minor scale
minor/major 7 (DmM7)
harmonic minor scale (as above!)
we can see that the DmM7 chord uses that major 7th from the
harmonic minor scale, which means it would be compatible. However, just
using the standard triad above it will also be compatible, because it
doesn't use any tones that lie outside the harmonic minor scale.
You may want to try using the regular, natural minor scale
(with the flat 7th) if that major 7th sounds too harsh. Either that, or
just use the major 7th strictly as a passing tone - in
other words, don't
dwell on or hold the major 7th over minor chords!
What this also means is that, because of the major 7th, harmonic minor won't be compatible
over chords which use a flat
Learn more about how 7th chords are built here.
You just need to be able to distinguish between a dominant 7th (b7) and
a major 7th (7). This
tells us which minor scale will be compatible - a minor scale with a
7th (e.g. natural minor, Dorian, Phrygian etc.) or a minor scale with a
major 7th (e.g. harmonic minor!).
minor over a sequence of chords
So, we've established harmonic minor works over certain minor chords.
However, this does not simply mean you can play it over any instance of
those minor chords. It's best used, and most commonly used, over a tonic
minor chord. This means that the minor chord is the
resolution chord, or the "starting/finishing" chord of a chord
sequence. Chord progressions are covered in
a separate section on this site, but let's look at some examples here:
A very simple sequence there in which D minor is the tonic chord.
This is a typical progression that is derived from the harmonic minor
Most often, the tense DmM7 (which uses the major 7th of harmonic minor)
is only used as a finishing chord, and should be used sparingly because
of how unstable it sounds.
to how the A chord resolves to that D
minor tonic chord. This is where the 7th in the scale can be
used as a leading
tone, ready for that resolution back to D minor - example here
if you wanted a really tense, unstable "resolution", you could actually
end on that 7th, over the D minor tonic chord. This is used commonly in
jazz. You should experiment with using each of the tones of harmonic
minor as resolution notes. Each one offers a different flavour.
Ok, I think we now know enough to
try out some ideas over a backing track, using the boxed scale patterns
from earlier to start with (we'll expand out of these boxes soon!). I'm
playing the D minor chord progression from above in a continuous cycle,
an experiment with different interval movements of D harmonic minor).
Remember, you can play D harmonic minor using the A string boxed
pattern at fret 5,
or using the full boxed pattern rooted on the low E string at fret 10.
you'll want to eventually expand your scale fingering out of those 4-5
fret wide boxes.
Below, I've extended the boxed patterns from above
across the fretboard. We're in the key of C minor
this time, but remember that these patterns are movable and it's the
note positions that define the key - the interval
move with the root note.
In other words, you should be able to
move the patterns we've covered in this lesson into any key - A minor,
Bb minor, G minor, F minor etc. based on their root note positions.
tones have been highlighted, as these are the key tones of harmonic
minor - the minor triad (root, minor 3rd, 5th) plus the major 7th. The
tones in yellow can be seen as "dressing" in
between those key tones.
we can see the two boxed patterns we learned from earlier, although now
we're in the key of C minor, so they've changed position accordingly
notes now lie on... C).