One of the best ways to level up your skills on guitar is to learn scales and then use them to solo. And one of the most versatile scales you can learn is the natural minor scale. Also known as the Aeolian mode, the natural minor scale is often found in popular music. It has a somewhat sad feel, much like that of minor chords. Today we’ll dig into the A natural minor scale — both the music theory behind it and how to apply it to your own musical endeavors.
The A Natural Minor Scale: A Guide
1. What’s The Natural Minor Scale?
The natural minor scale, also called Aeolian mode, is a mode of the major scale starting and stopping on the major scale’s sixth note. Since the relative major of A minor is C, the A natural minor scale is identical to the C major scale and has the same notes. It just starts on A instead of C. As you may know, the key signature for both of them is the same.
So how do you find the notes in the A natural minor scale? There are a few different ways. One is a pattern of half steps and whole steps. A half step is equal to one semitone, while a whole step is sometimes called a whole tone. This pattern applies to natural minor scales in every key signature.
To get the seven notes in the natural minor scale, you start with the root note and follow this pattern: whole step – half step – whole step – whole step – half step – whole step – whole step, or [W H W W H W W ]. So following this pattern and starting with A, we get this:
A – B – C – D – E – F – G
After the seventh note, it returns to A and repeats an octave higher. As you can see, the scale has no sharp or flat notes, so it’s one of the easier ones to remember.
There’s another way to find the notes in the A natural minor scale: simply take the parallel major scale and lower the third, sixth, and seventh scale degrees by a half step. Here’s the A major scale:
A – B – C# – D – E – F# – G#
Lowering the third degree by a half step gives us C, lowering the sixth degree by a half step gives us F, and lowering the seventh degree by a half step gives us G. That results in A – B – C – D – E – F – G, or the A natural minor scale.
Similarly, we can derive the notes for the 12 natural minor scales with the 12 chromatic notes as their root. The table below shows them.
It can sometimes be helpful to know the names of the scale degrees of natural minor scales. Lots of people just use numbers to indicate the scale degree, but you may sometimes run into degree names. Here are the scale degree names of the notes in this one:
- Tonic – A
- Supertonic – B
- Mediant – C
- Subdominant – D
- Dominant – E
- Submediant – F
- Subtonic – G
For some more information, check out this helpful video on the natural minor scale.
2. How Is It Different From Other Minor Scales?
There are three types of minor scales. Generally speaking, the differences between them are somewhat small. But having some music theory of more minor scales can give you a better idea of the key differences between the natural minor and other minor scales.
You already know that the natural minor scale is identical to the Aeolian mode. We mentioned above that the natural minor scale is effectively a major scale with lowered third, sixth, and seventh scale degrees.
The harmonic minor scale differs from the natural minor scale by one note. You just take the natural minor scale and raise the seventh degree by a half step.
The melodic minor scale is a little different. Depending on your degree of familiarity with scales, you may or may not know that the ascending and descending melodic minor scales are different. The ascending melodic minor scale takes the natural minor scale and raises two notes, the sixth and seventh scale degrees, by a half step.
The descending melodic minor scale has the exact same notes as the natural minor scale. Melodic minor scales might seem complex, but it adds some welcome variation to musical performance. In particular, the melodic minor scale is used a good bit in jazz. This video offers some more useful information on these types of minor scales!
3. Box 1 Pattern
One of the easiest ways to learn the natural minor scale pattern is to break it into “boxes,” much like many of us do with the pentatonic scale. Of course, this isn’t the only way to learn minor scales, but it’s a method we’ve found helpful. If you want to see the general pattern of the natural minor scale (Aeolian mode), this resource has excellent diagrams.
This first pattern is probably the easiest, as the root note is on the sixth string. So this pattern applies to any key — you just shift the root note on the fretboard.
Here’s the pattern of notes. We’ve organized them by string (starting with the sixth string) to make the list easier to follow:
- Sixth string – 5th fret – 7th fret – 8th fret
- Fifth string – 5th fret – 7th fret – 8th fret
- Fourth string – 5th fret – 7th fret
- Third-string – 4th fret – 5th fret – 7th fret
- Second-string – 5th fret – 6th fret – 8th fret
- First string – 5th fret – 7th fret – 8th fret
You probably notice that natural minor scales largely have three notes per string. This can seem a little intimidating if you only have experience with major and minor pentatonic scales. But once you’ve played through it a few times, the natural minor scale starts to make a lot more sense. This video offers some more guidance on how to play it.
4. Box 2 Pattern
This second box has some overlap with the first one:
- Sixth string – 7th fret – 8th fret – 10th fret
- Fifth string – 7th fret – 8th fret – 10th fret
- Fourth string – 7th fret – 9th fret – 10th fret
- Third-string – 7th fret – 9th fret – 10th fret
- Second-string – 8th fret – 10th fret
- First string – 7th fret – 8th fret – 10th fret
As you learn each “box,” it’s a good idea to practice connecting them. One of the best ways to do so is to put on an appropriate backing track (a track in the right key) and then improvise a lead. Make sure that the riffs you play move seamlessly between the boxes. This video (below left) will help you learn how to connect your scale boxes. And if you need a backing track in the key of A minor, you can find one here (below right).
5. Box 3 Pattern
Similarly, box 3 overlaps with box 2:
- Sixth string – 10th fret – 12th fret – 13th fret
- Fifth string – 10th fret – 12th fret
- Fourth string – 9th fret – 10th fret – 12th fret
- Third-string – 9th fret – 10th fret – 12th fret
- Second-string – 10th fret – 12th fret – 13th fret
- First string – 10th fret – 12th fret – 13th fret
Similarly, it’s a good idea to practice connecting this box to other scale boxes. It may be more manageable to practice connecting this one to the second box before connecting all three. Check out this video for another overview of the natural minor scale.
6. Box 4 Pattern
Box 4 also overlaps with box 3:
- Sixth string – 12th fret – 13th fret – 15th fret
- Fifth string – 12th fret – 14th fret – 15th fret
- Fourth string – 12th fret – 14th fret – 15th fret
- Third-string – 12th fret – 14th fret
- Second-string – 12th fret – 13th fret – 15th fret
- First string – 12th fret – 13th fret – 15th fret
As you practice, it can be useful to remember where the root note sits in each pattern. That way, you can use any of the boxes anywhere on the fretboard. This resource highlights the root notes. And if you want to go ahead and memorize all the notes on the fretboard, this video will help.
7. Box 5 Pattern
And lastly, box 5 overlaps with box 4:
- Sixth string – 15th fret – 17th fret
- Fifth string – 14th fret – 15th fret – 17th fret
- Fourth string -14th fret – 15th fret – 17th fret
- Third-string – 14th fret – 16th fret – 17th fret
- Second-string – 15th fret – 17th fret – 18th fret
- First string – 15th fret – 17th fret
Natural minor scales are much like the minor pentatonic scales in that connecting the boxes will let you solo across the fretboard. If you get familiar enough with the scale boxes to memorize their overlap, you can just use the first box to find the root note. That makes it especially easy to improvise on the fly. If you’d like some advice, this video can help you start improvising.
8. Putting It All Together
One of the best ways to really commit natural minor scales to memory is to practice them. When playing through the natural minor scale, make sure to practice the scale in both ascending form and descending forms. Playing it ascending and descending will help give you excellent muscle memory and the ability to use this minor scale in more contexts.
Make sure you understand relative major and relative minor scales, as that will help you get the most use out of the natural minor scale. In this case, the relative major key of A minor is C (whose key signature also contains no sharps or flats). Likewise, Am is the relative minor of C major. That means that the A natural minor scale works well in the key of either A minor or C major.
You might wonder how to make a chord progression from the natural minor scale. Luckily, there’s a simple formula you can use to figure out which chords in a progression are major, minor, and diminished. You just apply this pattern to natural minor scales:
i – iidim – III – iv – v – VI – VII
As you might have guessed, lowercase Roman numerals are minor chords, while uppercase ones are major chords. Recall that the A natural minor scale is A – B – C – D – E – F – G. Apply the pattern, and we get the chords Am, Bdim, C major, Dm, Em, F major, and G major. This video offers some advice on writing chord progressions, too.
Want To Keep Learning?
If you want to get more out of your guitar learning sessions or work on new skills, taking an online music course or two can really make a difference. Having some professional guidance can prove to be very useful when tackling major scales, minor scales, and other relatively challenging topics. Plus, online courses make learning more convenient than ever — you have access to video lessons 24/7, and it costs substantially less than in-person music lessons!
Hopefully, you now have a better sense of the natural minor scale and how you might be able to use it (and other natural minor scales) in your own playing. And if it poses a challenge, don’t give up — once you’ve mastered one, learning more minor scales gets a lot easier. But what do you think? Do you have any useful tips for learning the natural minor scale (or other minor scales)? Let us know in the comments, and please don’t forget to like and share if you found it useful!