The Harmonic Minor Scale Explained
Weekly Newsletter #47
June 30, 2022
If you see this chord progression: Am-E7, what one scale would you use to solo over it?
If you said the A minor scale, or A minor pentatonic, you’re close but you could be even closer.
The correct answer should be A harmonic minor.
This often under-utilized scale serves an incredible purpose in music and yields some very familiar and yet exotic sounds and chords.
Ranging from gypsy jazz, to neo-classical shred, flamenco, Latin rock and many more styles of music, the Harmonic Minor scale is a tool you definitely want in your bag!
What Is Harmonic Minor?
There are three main types of minor scales you’re likely to encounter: Natural Minor, Harmonic Minor, and Melodic Minor.
Presumably you know the natural minor scale already…most people just refer to it as the “minor scale”. But let’s break it down quickly:
The natural minor scale consists of a b3, b6 and b7. If we were using A as a root note that would be spelled as: A-B-C-D-E-F-G or 1-2-b3-4-5-b6-b7.
The harmonic minor scale in contrast has one note that is different, but it creates a whole variety of sounds and chords that differ from the natural minor.
The one note that changes is the 7. In harmonic minor scales, the 7 is actually raised so that it is a major 7th, instead of a minor 7th or b7.
Putting that into context in A minor we would end up with: A-B-C-D-E-F-G# or 1-2-b3-4-5-b6-7.
Why Is This So Unique?
What makes this scale special is the use of an “augmented second” interval. If you’re unfamiliar with intervals, please read Newsletter #15.
Normally speaking, there are two types of second intervals: major 2nd and minor 2nd. A major 2nd is equal to a whole -step, while a minor 2nd is equal to a half-step.
The distance between A and B is a whole-step or major 2nd, while the distance between B and C is a half-step or minor 2nd.
But take a look at the distance between F and G#, the last two notes of the A harmonic minor scale.
They are in fact, 1 ½ steps apart, however the notes names “F” and “G#” are alphabetically right next to each other, meaning that this is some kind of a 2nd interval (if it were a 3rd the letter names would not be next to each other, but instead would be “F” and “Ab”).
This means that we are dealing with an augmented 2nd interval. This augmented 2nd is the hallmark of the scale and creates the “Arabic” or middle eastern sound that is often associated with harmonic minor.
It also creates some very unique chords.
Harmonic Minor Chords
If you were to map out the 7th chords of every note within the harmonic minor scale, you would notice some very interesting things.
So let’s do that!
Across the top row in green you can see the scale degrees 1 through 7. Down the left hand column in blue are the chord tones 1-3-5-7.
Let’s take a look at the first chord spelled A-C-E-G#. This is not your normal Am7 chord!
This chord has a G# in it meaning that it can’t be a m7. However, the 3rd is a C which means it’s some type of minor chord... It’s a minor chord, with a major 7!
It’s called AmM7 or “A minor-major 7”. I know, it’s a strange name, but it describes the chord perfectly: an A minor triad with a major 7 attached to it.
Play the chord and listen to how it sounds, it’s quite dissonant and has a lot of character.
The second chord simply spells out a Bm7b5 chord, as would normally occur in an A natural minor scale.
The third chord however, is not the Cmaj7 that normally appears within the A natural minor scale. The presence of the G# in this chord creates a new type of chord.
The E is a major 3rd and the B is a major 7, so we should have a Cmaj7 chord, but instead of G it has a G# or a #5, creating a Cmaj7#5. Once again, this is a very unique chord and one that can be used to create many new and interesting sounds.
The fourth chord is just a normal Dm7.
The fifth chord however is different yet again from what would appear in an A minor scale. In A natural minor, the V chord is an Em7 chord. But here we have E-G#-B-D. The presence of that major 3rd (G#) and the D makes for an E7 chord!
This gets back to my initial question at the beginning. The chord progression Am-E7 would come directly from the harmonic minor scale because the Am triad is simply the 1-3-5 of the I chord and the E7 is the normally occurring V chord within the harmonic minor scale.
This means that soloing over these two chords can easily be done using only one scale instead of switching between an A minor scale and an E mixolydian scale, which many players who aren’t experienced with harmonic minor harmony might try to do.
Simplifying your playing down to one scale instead of two can help streamline your improvisations and create a more uniform harmony within your solos or melodies.
Moving on the the sixth chord, it is just a normal Fmaj7 chord.
The seventh chord is now a totally new chord from anything seen in a major or natural minor scale. G#-B-D-F spells out a fully diminished 7th chord. G#dim7 can actually function as a substitute for E7 (creating an E7b9) as well as having many other uses within music.
The theory behind diminished 7 chords can be profound and I encourage you to explore it.
Real-World Examples Of Harmonic Minor
There are many instances where harmonic minor is used in songs you’ve probably heard before.
- The intro to Santana’s “Smooth” utilizes the A harmonic minor scale which has a chord progression of Am-F-E7
He begins by introducing an A natural minor scale, obvious from the presence of the G as the third note in the pickup measure, but then moves to an A harmonic minor scale in the third measure during the F-E7 chord progression.
- “Miserlou” by Dick Dale also uses an A harmonic minor scale.
In this case it is almost entirely A harmonic minor with the exception of the b5 or E5 in measure two. He uses this as a color tone or “blue note”, however the entire second half fits perfectly into A harmonic minor.
- The traditional song “Hava Nagila” is another great example of harmonic minor.
This entire song uses the A harmonic minor and expresses the Middle Eastern feel of the scale perfectly.
There are many more examples of this amazing scale being used in music, ranging from the Beatles to Britney Spears.
I encourage you to take time and truly explore this amazing pool of harmonic and melodic wealth and I guarantee you’ll enjoy the fruits of your labor…who knows, you might just write a hit song using this awesome scale!