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The Harmonic Minor

 

In an earlier tutorial I mentioned that there are three minor scales: the natural minor, the harmonic minor and the melodic minor. We've already seen the natural minor in action, so let's take a look now at the harmonic minor.

The harmonic minor scale is like a natural minor scale, but it has a natural 7th rather than a flattened 7th degree. Compare the two - below are the notes of A natural minor and A harmonic minor:

So how do we play the harmonic minor scale on the guitar? Well, the easiest way to formulate a shape is to take the scale box used for the natural minor scale and to raise the flattened 7th degree by a semitone. This gives a shape like this:  

Play this scale through a few times and listen to how the harmonic minor scale sounds. It certainly sounds a lot different to the natural minor - what a difference a single semitone can make! The scale's sound is variously described as gothic, classical or even eastern. The former two definitions are quite apt, as this scale was used frequently in baroque and classical music. More recently, it has seen a resurgence thanks to the so-called neo-classical rock guitarists like Yngwie Malmsteen, Vinnie Moore, etc. who brought the scale right back into the rock mainstream.

But of course, to really know a scale, you need to know its harmony. This scale, like any other can be harmonised into triads and other chords - as a starting point let's look at the triads contained in the harmonic minor scale. Building triads out of this scale is the same process as for the major and natural minor scales: taking groups of alternate notes based on each degree of the scale (if you aren't familiar with this idea, then take a look at an earlier tutorial covering the basics of chord construction).

There are a couple of interesting things here. Firstly, there's a type of triad that you may not have come across before. The biii triad in the harmonic minor is called an 'augmented' triad - this is because of the interval of an augmented fifth (perfect fifth plus a semitone) between the 1 and #5 degrees. Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that the fifth triad is major rather than minor (compare this with the natural minor scale's harmony). More about this major-on-the-fifth-degree business in a moment, first let's just take an overview of the triads in the harmonic minor:

Triad Notes Interval 1 3 Interval 1 5
Am A, C, E Minor third Perfect Fifth
Bo B, D, F Minor third Dimished Fifth
C+ C, E, G# Major third Augmented Fifth
Dm D, F, A Minor third Perfect Fifth
E E, G#, B Major third Perfect Fifth
F F, A, C Major third Perfect Fifth
G# G#, B, D Minor third Diminished Fifth

OK, I mentioned just before that the major triad on the fifth degree is particularly interesting. But why? Because this means that the harmonic minor does not have the same chord types in the 1st, 4th and 5th degrees. Remember that the major scale has major chords on the 1st, 4th and 5th degrees while the natural minor scale has minor triads on these degrees. The harmonic minor is different because it has minor chords on both th 1st and 4th degrees, but it has a major chord on the fifth degree. This provides some very interesting harmonies - the full potential of which will be covered in a later tutorial.

In the meantine, get familiar with the harmonic minor scale and the triads contained therein. Don't just dwell on the theory - get playing the thing. For the scale, use a variety of exercises (triplets, alternate notes, etc.) as discussed in one tutorial or another to really get proficient.


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