Chords of the Melodic Minor Scale

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!

All sound examples were recorded with the neck Alnico II Pro pickup in this Brian Moore Custom Guitar.
All sound examples were recorded with the neck Alnico II Pro pickup in this Brian Moore Custom Guitar.

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:

The Alnico II Pro is a vintage output humbucker with a really buttery, warm sound ideal for blues, jazz and classic rock.
The Alnico II Pro is a vintage output humbucker with a really buttery, warm sound ideal for blues, jazz and classic rock.

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?

Join the Conversation


  1. You know I’ve tried studying the minor scales on my own and never could figure out why the melodic minor was different ascending and descending. Thanks for the great explanation! Also thanks for making this a practical lesson! I never heard of the Jazz melodic minor but now that I have….:)

  2. “Scales by themselves are not much more than finger exercises.”
    I couldn’t possibly disagree more. Subdominant? Dominant? Leading Tone/Subtonic? There’s a whole world in scales to explore before we even get to chords.

      1. I can hear it and I don’t even have the best ear. I know dozens of musicians who can hear it: those with perfect pitch and those with varying degrees of relative pitch acuity. Every scale, key, and mode has its own sound and while playing them against chords can absolutely highlight their “sound,” no chord can bring out what isn’t there to begin with.
        By calling them useless you’re pretty much dismissing the theoretical foundations behind every single note melody ever written. If you’re writing strictly to a guitar player audience, who do often have a tendency to play “in the box,” I can understand why you’re framing things this way. They’re far too often more focused on learning scales through visual associations with patterns on a fretboard than through listening to what those patterns produce – not always a good path to developing one’s ear. Having them play patterns of scales over chords is a great way for them to better hear the “sound” of those scales, but in no way does that imply the “sound” doesn’t exist independent of the chord.

        1. I do understand what you are saying, but scales without the applied harmony is only applicable in eastern music. Most musicians don’t have perfect pitch, although they can learn relative pitch- they can only achieve this through either memorizing intervals (which isn’t really music), using the scale in improvisations over chords, or playing songs over and over that use those particular scales. Either way, in western music, there are always chords behind the scale- and you’d absolutely need chords to understand what mode of a particular scale you are using.

      2. one must know a scale to build any chord ….unless you just memorize a few patterns instead of actually learning the formulas …. good luck playing those 3 chord patterns while the rest of us build chords anywhere on the neck 😉

        1. Exactly! Which is why learning the formula and the notes is so important. Just practicing scales is great for a warm up, but unless you can build chords, and play them over the chords, they just remain a warm up with no real understanding of how they sound in context of actual music.

  3. no formal training using melodic diatonic ? I smell Theador Adorno aka ian iachamoe ! Paul didnt write this song….

  4. “but that is really up to you how you want to learn it!” Is this Eastern scale or just jazz?

  5. I love Jazz Minor or melodic minor having the same notes ascending and descending. Or else, just think of a major scale, having a minor 3d.

  6. Very interesting. Why do people doubt that Paul wrote Yesterday? I’ve heard plenty of “untrained” musicians come up with some really interesting stuff by just following their ears.

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