Did you Ask Musicnotes? Read about the Melodic Minor

speech-bubble While many of your questions were related to transpositions, music notation and symbols, and learning how to play piano or guitar, there were a few that were quite technical like this question about the melodic minor. We’d like to address this question here today for our advanced music lovers out there.

    I have been teaching piano for over 15 years and have taught the 3 kinds of minor scales, but I have never understood the origin or the purpose of the melodic minor. I have continued to teach it along with the natural and harmonic minor scales so that if my students continue on with their music education they will know it and hopefully find someone to explain it to them later—perhaps in a college theory class?! I have asked many music-minded people over the years and have never received a satisfactory answer as to WHY we even have the melodic minor, let alone an example of a song with it in it. Any ideas??!

    Sincerely,
    Curious in Spokane, WA

Do you know what a melodic minor is? A melodic minor scale is based on a natural minor, but the sixth and seventh tones in the melodic minor scale will be raised by a semi-tone (half step) when the melody is moving upward toward the root note (tonic). The trick is that a melodic minor is the same as a natural minor when you play the descending scale.

Both the harmonic and melodic minor scales are used to increase the “weight” of a desire to resolve to the tonic. In the harmonic minor scale, the 7th is raised to make it a half-step below the tonic where it is referred to as a “leading tone.” If you’re in A minor and play a G sharp, you get a tangible sense that it REALLY wants to resolve upward to A – even more so than a G-natural due to proximity. Plus, the raised 7th gives us the traditional V7-i cadence.

The harmonic minor scale does present a problem, though: it creates an awkward augmented 2nd interval (3 half steps) between the 6th and 7th. Historically, going all the way back to early music and chant, this interval was considered dissonant (both melodically and harmonically) and was to be avoided or resolved immediately. By raising the 6th along with the 7th (melodic minor) this awkward interval could be avoided. The raised 6th also serves to further emphasize the upward motion toward a resolution to the tonic.

However, if you’re descending melodically in the scale – moving AWAY from the tonic, there’s no need to build “upward” motion or tension toward that resolution. The raised 6th and 7th can actually be confused for a major scale if you play them descending, resulting in a sense of tonal ambiguity. That is why the 6th and 7th in the melodic minor scale are usually employed as “raised ascending/natural descending.”

Many songs may employ the melodic minor as a phrase-shaping tool, so it can be challenging to find examples of a song that uses the melodic minor consistently. Typically, the melodic minor is usually used to shape singular phrases or passages when it is convenient for the harmony.

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2 comments

  1. Walter

    Composers may also use the melodic minor to produce a smoother melodic line. You can see a good example of it in the Mozart’s famous Rondo Alla Turca. You can see the first page for free at:
    http://www.musicnotes.com/sheetmusic/mtd.asp?ppn=MN0063860
    In the first four measures, we see the leading g# where the melody is rising. In the next four measures, where’s it’s falling, we see g natural in the melody. The result? A smooth and “singable” melody, as we so often find in Mozar’s music. At measure 21-23 we see G# used strongly and harmonically. That not only emphasizes the srong cadence on A minor, it smoothes the way for the abrupt transition to A major that follows.

  2. Ty

    Hey Curious,

    I think you have a point. Music theory was written to describe what composers had done historically. When Mozart writes a piece he doesn’t write in a “scale” using just 7 tones. He’s as likely to use a natural 7 as a flat 7… just he’s as likely to use a flat 3 as a natural 3. When he uses natural 6 and 7 in minor he’s not “using melodic minor,” he’s making a cadence.

    There are a lot of reasons to raise the 7th scale degree in minor and the Musicnotes staff has done a great job of explaining them. When you raise the 7th, then the line is smoother when you raise the 6th as well. You do this usually when you cadence and the line is stepping upward to 6-7-1… so you raise these tones when you step upward.. and there’s no need to raise them when stepping down. Composer do this all the time. Theory books do their best to explain all of this without going into the depths of tonality by creating this artificial “scale” wherein every time you go up you raise these scale degrees on the way up and lower them on the way down. It’s difficult to understand out of context. It’s not as if composers are like “I’m writing in melodic minor go up so natural 6 and 7 now!” … it’s more like “I’m writing in minor… oh, here comes a cadence, now I’ll raise these tones to make the cadence work.” Composers use chromatically altered tones all the time… they alter these particular tones often enough its been codified into a “scale.”

    But yes, Curious, it doesn’t surprise that you’ve had a lot of musical training and not seen the melodic minor scale laid bare in classical music or understood exactly why it exists in theory books. I think you have a point. If you can teach musicians why certain scale degrees are sometimes altered in minor and major scales as well that’s what it’s really about. A “melodic minor scale” is just a pedagogical tool.

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