In addition to learning the major scale in all 12 keys and the 7 diatonic or “church” modes derived from the major scale, the melodic minor scale is one of the most important and useful scales for jazz improvisers to master.
In this post, I’m going to make sure we have a firm grasp of the melodic minor scale and its modes and then we can look at examples of how melodic minor can be used in jazz improvisation.
To review, in the jazz context, a melodic minor scale is just the ascending version of the “classical” melodic minor scale. Basically, a melodic minor scale is identical to a major scale except the third scale degree is lowered one half-step.
For example, here’s C melodic minor:
You can create modes based on this scale by playing the same melodic minor scale but starting on a different scale degree, just like you can with the major scale.
There is a lot of confusion over what to call the various modes derived from melodic minor, so I’ll give you multiple names for each scale. It’s important to know all the different “aliases” or nicknames that are used to refer to the same scale so that you’ll know which scales other jazz musicians are talking about.
I’ll also tell you what I think is the most “correct” mode name. By correct, I simply mean the mode name that makes the most sense theoretically, not the name that is most commonly used to refer to a given mode.
A note on mode names:
To avoid confusion, it doesn’t make sense to duplicate mode names, and the order of mode names for melodic minor should follow the same pattern as the major mode names. That’s why I designate the “most correct” mode names the way that I do, even though some mode names might seem counter-intuitive.
For example, it doesn’t make sense to have two different scales both called “Mixolydian” in the same system of modes. So to avoid duplicating a mode name and to make the melodic minor mode names follow the same logic as the major mode names, I call a melodic minor scale played from the 5th scale degree an “Aeolian natural 3” mode. This is because it parallels the Aeolian mode in the system of major modes, except the 3rd note is natural instead flat (i.e. it has a “major” 3rd not a “minor” 3rd). Calling this mode “Aeolian natural 3” is a trade-off though because most people think of a minor scale when you say “Aeolian,” but what I call “Aeolian natural 3” sounds and looks more like a dominant scale.
Here is a table of melodic minor modes in the key of C melodic minor. Note how each mode name is used only once to avoid confusion on the list of “correct” mode names, and note how the “correct” mode names follow a logical pattern which mirrors the major mode names and preserves a clear modal pattern:
|“Correct” Mode Name
|Also Known As
|Related Major Mode
|C melodic minor: “Parent” scale/mode or “root mode”
|C D Eb F G A B C
|Dorian natural 7
|C- (maj. 7)
|C melodic minor played from D
|D Eb F G A B C D
|Phrygian natural 6
|“Dorian flat 2”
|D7 sus4 b9 or
|C melodic minor played from Eb
|Eb F G A B C D Eb
|Lydian sharp 5
|Eb aug. maj. 7 (#11) or
Eb maj. 7 (#5, #11)
|C melodic minor played from F
|F G A B C D Eb F
|Mixolydian sharp 4
|C melodic minor played from G
|G A B C D Eb F G
|Aeolian natural 3
|“Mixolydian flat 6”
|G7 sus4 (b13) or
|C melodic minor played from A
|A B C D Eb F G A
|Locrian natural 2
|“Minor 7 flat 5” or “Aeolian flat 5”
|A half dim. 7 (nat. 9) or
|C melodic minor played from B
|B C D Eb F G A B
|Ionian sharp 1
|“Altered scale” or “Super Locrian” or “Diminished whole-tone”
|B7 (alt.) or
B7 (b9, #9, #11, b13)
|Ionian (“root” mode or “parent scale” of major)
Here are the modes from the table above in notation with the appropriate chord symbols:
Learn these super useful modes and start hunting for places to use them to help you generate melodic material!
To help you get started, here’s an example of a single melody or “lick” derived from the parent scale of C melodic minor followed by a list of how you can use it for each of the various melodic minor modes in different contexts, using real jazz standards as examples:
Use this lick over the C-(maj.7) chord in bar 1 of Solar.
Transpose this lick down a whole step to the key of Bb melodic minor and play it over the first 8 bars of Caravan (for the best results, the chordal instruments should treat the first chord of Caravan as a C7sus4(b9) while you use Bb melodic minor in this context).
Transpose this lick up a perfect 4th to the key of F melodic minor and use it over the Abmaj.7(#5,#11) chord in the 2nd to last bar of Dolphin Dance.
Transpose this lick up a minor 3rd to Eb melodic minor and use it over the Ab7(#11) chord in bars 5-6 of the bridge (bars 21-22 overall) of Stella by Starlight.
Use this lick over the G7(b13) chord on the first two bars of the bridge of (bars 17-18 overall) of Stella by Starlight.
Use this lick over the A-7(b5) chord in bar 21 of I Love You.
Use this lick over any B7(alt.) chord, for example in bar 2 of the bridge (bar 18 overall) of My One and Only Love.
I hope this inspires you to start practicing the modes of melodic minor in all 12 keys and seek out useful applications of this highly adaptable and “exotic” sound scale. Happy practicing!