Melodic Minor Scale

Once you start learning guitar scales, you discover that there are seemingly endless ones to learn. You don't have to know everyone to be a great guitarist. But if you play jazz, and especially if you're interested in jazz improvisation, the melodic minor scale is a must-learn. Let's dive into this beautiful and unusual-sounding scale.

The Melodic Minor Scale: A Guide

Before we start, as a general disclaimer, this is probably not the very first scale you should learn on guitar. Most guitarists and instructors recommend learning the minor pentatonic scale first. This one has fewer notes per string and is a bit more manageable.

1. What Makes A Melodic Minor Scale?

There are three main minor scales in the guitar world: the melodic minor, the natural minor (also known as the Aeolian mode of the major scale), and the harmonic minor. The melodic minor is favored by jazz and metal players, although you can of course use it in any genre of music.

The melodic minor's name lets you know that this is a great scale for melodies, but it also gives you a clue as to how the scale evolved. The harmonic minor scale has a very unusual step-and-a-half (three half-steps) interval between its sixth and seventh notes (we'll dive into this in more detail later on). When you're writing a melody, a jump that big gets awkward. So the melodic minor turns that 1.5-step interval into a simple whole step interval, creating smoother-sounding melodies.

For a very in-depth introduction to this useful and distinctive scale, check out this helpful video. It may seem strange to learn so much background on a given scale before using it. But when you really understand why any given scale works the way it does, that scale becomes much easier to memorize and use.

2. What Notes Are In A Melodic Minor Scale?

If you're getting ready to dive into the melodic minor, you probably want to know what notes are in the scale. And as you likely know already, the exact notes in any given scale depend on the root note (often called a "tonic" in music theory). However, the scale degrees, or distance between the notes, remains the same. The A melodic minor looks like this as it ascends:

A B C D E F# G# A

Here's a breakdown of the scale degrees:

  • A -- tonic (the root note)
  • B -- major 2nd
  • C -- minor 3rd
  •  D -- perfect 4th
  • E -- perfect 5th
  • F# -- major 6th
  • G# -- major 7th
  • A -- perfect 8th (octave)

If you want to very quickly hear what the notes of the melodic minor sound like in relation to each other, this video gives you a demonstration with a visual!

Especially if you're not too familiar with music theory, it can be a challenge to build up a scale this way. Luckily, the formula of intervals (combination of half steps and whole steps) can help. In music theory, a half step is one semitone, while a whole step is two semitones.

To create the ascending form of the melodic minor, pick your root note. Then, move up like this: whole step – half step – whole step – whole step – whole step – whole step – half step (W H W W W W).

3. Ascending Vs. Descending Melodic Minor Scale

If you just jump into learning this scale without reading about it first, you might discover something that seems very odd: the ascending melodic minor and descending melodic minor has different notes. There's even a general guideline on when to use each of the melodic minor scales: as the names suggest, use the ascending form when you go up in pitch, and use the descending form when you go down in pitch. This isn't an absolute rule, as many songs use the scale the "wrong" way.

Basically, the ascending form of the melodic minor is just a natural minor scale where the sixth and the seventh are raised by a half step. The descending form is just a natural minor scale.

Let's look at an example. As we noted above, the ascending form of the A melodic minor looks like this:

A B C D E F# G# A

In this scale, the sixth and seventh are F# and G#. For the descending melodic minor form (the natural minor scale), we need to lower the sixth and seventh by a half step. So the descending form looks like this:

A G F E D C B A

This video lesson does a good job of going over the differences between the melodic minor ascending and descending.

It's also worth noting that many musicians only refer to the ascending form of the scale as the "melodic minor." Since the descending form is identical to the natural minor scale, this form is often just called the natural minor scale. Referring to the ascending and descending forms this way helps avoid confusion.

4. What's The Difference Between A Harmonic And Melodic Minor Scale?

The harmonic and the melodic minor have similar names, but their sounds are distinctively different. The harmonic minor scale has a unique sound that has been called "haunting" and "Middle Eastern." This video does a great job of illustrating how the melodic minor sound is different from the harmonic minor scale.

So we know they sound different, but why? The intervals and scale degrees of the harmonic minor scale are different from those of the melodic minor. Recall that to create the melodic minor, you use this step pattern: whole - half - whole - whole - whole - whole.

The harmonic minor scale formula looks like this: whole – half – whole – whole – half – whole + half-half. That big jump of a whole plus a half step gives it its unique tone, but it also means it isn't ideal for all applications.

If you'd rather see the harmonic minor scale broken down by scale degrees, here they are:

  • Tonic (root)
  • Major 2nd
  • Minor 3rd
  • Perfect 4th
  • Perfect 5th
  • Minor 6th
  • Major 7th
  • Perfect 8th (octave)

Like we mentioned earlier, the scale degrees of the melodic minor are as follows:

  • Tonic (root)
  • Major 2nd
  • Minor 3rd
  • Perfect 4th
  • Perfect 5th
  • Major 6th
  • Major 7th
  • Perfect 8th (octave)

So the harmonic minor and melodic minor differ in terms of the sixth: the harmonic minor has a minor sixth, while the melodic minor has a major sixth. This may seem like an incredibly mild difference, but these two minor scales sound remarkably different.Enter your text here...

5. What's The Difference Between The Natural And Melodic Minor Scale?

You already know that the descending form of the melodic minor is the same as the natural minor. But what's the difference between these two scales? In terms of scale formulas by steps, the melodic minor uses this one: whole - half - whole - whole - whole - whole.

The natural minor scale uses this formula: whole - half - whole - whole - half - whole - whole. Here are its scale degrees:

  • Tonic (root)
  • Major 2nd
  • Minor 3rd
  • Perfect 4th
  • Perfect 5th
  • Minor 6th
  • Minor 7th

In short, the 6th and the 7th of the melodic minor are both major. The 6th and 7th of the natural minor are both minors. Check out this video lesson to learn about the differences between the scales and how they sound in practice.

6. What Are the Different Patterns?

Hopefully, you now have a grasp of the melodic minor and how it differs from other minor scales. But how do you use the scale in playing across the guitar neck?

Just like with most other scales, this one can be broken down into five movable patterns. Due to the complexity of the scale, writing it out can cause confusion. This video demonstrates them in detail and includes clear scale diagrams. And if you prefer a visual diagram of the patterns and how they overlap, this resource gives you an excellent illustration.

If you intend to play the notes of the scale ascending and descending, bear in mind that the descending part is just the natural minor scale. Be patient with yourself -- if you're used to drilling through scales like the minor pentatonic scale backward and forwards, practicing a scale whose ascending and descending forms are different can be a challenge.

As far as mastering the movable melodic minor shapes goes, it's a good idea to use the same process you've used to master scales in the past. And there's no need to wait until you know all five patterns before you start creating licks -- using what you learn as soon as possible will keep you engaged and make learning more fun.

7. Melodic Minor Modes

If you have more than just a passing familiarity with guitar scales, you probably know that a given scale will have different modes. While learning the modes of any scale might sound intimidating, a mode is just an existing scale that starts on a different note. The melodic minor has seven different modes:

  • Melodic minor (the scale as we've learned it today)
  • Dorian b2
  • Lydian augmented
  • Lydian dominant (overtone scale)
  • Mixolydian b6
  • Aeolian b5
  • Altered scale (super Locrian)

Going into each of the modes in detail takes considerable time and effort, and it's a good idea to master this scale on its own before studying and mastering the modes. But if you'd like an intro, this helpful resource lets you see and hear each mode.

This useful resource offers a breakdown of the differences between the modes of the scale. If you want a preview (or if you're ready to start learning the modes), check out this helpful video.

8. What Songs Use The Melodic Minor?

Before you start applying this scale yourself, it can be helpful to see what it sounds like in context (and not just being played straight through). Since this scale was developed specifically for writing melodies, it can lead to some truly captivating songs when used well.

Perhaps one of the best-known songs in a minor key that also uses the melodic minor is "Yesterday (Above Right)" by the Beatles. Another example is the classic song "Greensleeves(Above Right)." Interestingly enough, the melody for "Greensleeves" was also used in writing the Christmas song "What Child is This." One other memorable example is "I Just Called to Say I Love You" by Stevie Wonder -- check it out in this video.

Want To Learn More?

Learning scales like this one can be rewarding. But often, it helps to have an experienced instructor take you through each scale and offer guidance on how to incorporate it into your music. Lots of guitarists assume the only way to do this is to attend in-person lessons, but that's not the case.

With an online learning program, you can access seemingly endless courses on chords, scales, techniques, and even whole genres. It's an efficient and streamlined way to take your playing to the next level.

Final Thoughts

If you're looking to learn the melodic minor scale, we hope our list has at least given you the background and the guidelines to help you succeed. What do you think? Do you have any helpful tips for learning this scale or other guitar scales? Let us know in the comments, and please don't forget to like and share if you found our list useful!

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