Scales by themselves are not much more than finger exercises. However, you can unlock the sound of each and every scale by learning to use what chords to use them over. The secret to this arcane knowledge is in the scale itself. This article focuses on a very popular but certainly very strange sounding scale, the melodic minor, and how we can figure out some chords to play behind our rockin’ solos.
What Exactly Is It?
The melodic minor scale is derived from the natural minor scale. In A Minor (or the white keys on the keyboard), you would raise the 6th and 7th note*:
A Natural Minor: A B C D E F G
A Melodic Minor: A B C D E F# G#
Or, if we assign these scales numbers:
Natural Minor: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Melodic Minor: 1 2 3 4 5 #6 #7
On guitar, we would play it like this:
Now, this is the strange thing: In theory class, they would tell you that if you are playing the scale ascending (from low note to high note), you would sharp that 6th and 7th degree. If you were descending (from a high note to low note), you would revert to the natural minor. So, this scale is different, in that classically speaking, if you are climbing up you have to have one fingering and climbing down, you would need another. This has to do with ascending melodies needing that leading tone to reach the tonic, but not so much in descending melodies.
Who has got time for that? While in classical music, you can find plenty of examples of this scale working this way, you can also find many examples of it working the same way as other scales: this is how we will approach the scale here. In non-classical music, the melodic minor scale played the same way ascending and descending is sometimes called the jazz melodic minor.
*some people think of melodic minor as a major scale with a b3.
OK, I know what it is…I want to know about the chords!
Well, if we know the scale, we should be able to figure out how to get the chords. For basic triads, it is easy, and explained in a previous article. For the first chord, start with the first note (1) skip over the 2, then add the 3, skip over the 4, and then add the 5, giving us three notes, the A, C, & E:
1 2 3 4 5 #6 #7
Add these three notes together and get an Am chord! That is pretty easy. In fact, the same formula exists for the next chord:
1 2 3 4 5 #6 #7
This gives us a B, D, & F#. This is simple too: a Bm chord. If we go through the rest of the chords, we get some ones we probably already know mixed with some strange ones:
These are the seven triads of the melodic minor scale. The fun begins when we want to add one more note to each chord, making the triads into 7th chords. The theory behind this is the same as the triads, and also is explained in my article about 7th chords:
We start with the notes:
A B C D E F# G#
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
The first chord contains notes A, C, E, G#. This is the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th note of the scale. This is an Am/Maj7 chord. That name tells us that it is an A minor chord but with a major 7- the G#. It is a dissonant sounding chord, for sure, especially when heard for the first time.
We can derive the rest of the chords in the same exact manner as above. This is one way to play them all:
Wow, do they sound odd! Weirder still is putting these into a chord progression. Our music is generally built on chords of tension, and those of release- of dissonance and consonance. With these chords, it is difficult to find any that are not full of tension.
OK, I Now Know These Wacky Chords…What Do I Play Over Them?
Here is a pattern for the A melodic minor scale.
There are many others, as well as modes of the A melodic minor. To make things worse, many guitarists use the melodic minor of one key over chords of another, like using D melodic minor over a G7 in the key of C. I think of the melodic minor not as a set of fingerings, but as a modification of the major or minor scale: if I know the notes on the guitar, I just sharp 6 and 7 of a minor scale, or 3 of a major scale to get the melodic minor, but that is really up to you how you want to learn it!
Here is someone with no formal training who composed a pretty popular song using the melodic minor scale:
What artists use the melodic minor scale in their playing? What are some of your favorite strange-sounding scales?