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HomeLearning JazzJazz TheoryHow to Use the Harmonic Minor Scale Over a Minor 2-5-1

How to Use the Harmonic Minor Scale Over a Minor 2-5-1

In my recent post on the harmonic major scale, I talked about ways to construct II-V-I lines using one single scale. I have also mentioned the harmonic minor scale in passing when talking about minor II-V-I’s.

In this post, I want to cover more in depth the main way the harmonic minor scale is often used over II-V-I’s. I kept this as a separate post because the harmonic minor is so specialized that it deserves its own dedicated post.

The harmonic minor scale is used a lot in jazz, especially in vocabulary from the bebop and hard bop eras (the melody to “Donna Lee” is just one example).

You can read my recent post for a recap of what the harmonic minor scale is and how it’s derived.

As a refresher, here it is notated:

LJS Harmonic Minor Scale

When you use this scale over a minor II-V-I in C minor, you end up with a D Locrian (natural 6) scale over the II (half dim.) chord, a G Phrygian (natural 3) scale over the V7 chord, and C Aeolian (natural 7) – the tonic harmonic minor – over the I- chord.

Here’s what I mean notated visually:

LJS Harmonic Minor Scale ModesThe harmonic minor is perfect for generating hip II-V-I lines because it has the b9 and b13 of the V7 chord embedded in it and it allows you to simplify the entire II-V-I into one single reductive scale. It works over all three chords and has a strong sense of tonality and unity.

In addition to simplifying the way you think about a II-V-I, the harmonic major automatically liberates you from that often droll “church mode” sound and gets you playing a hip, “exotic” sounding scale.

The harmonic minor scale works great over minor II-V’s. To use it, simply play the harmonic minor scale built off of the root of the tonic or root of the I chord – so for a minor II-V-I in C minor, play a C harmonic minor scale.

Here are some examples of minor II-V-I lines using the harmonic minor scale:

LJS Harmonic Minor ScaleI hope you find this helpful and inspiring, and I hope you feel empowered to go out and practice and explore the harmonic minor scale!

Josiah Boornazian
Josiah Boornazian
Josiah Boornazian is a saxophonist, composer, educator, and scholar primarily active in Brownsville, New York City, Miami, and California. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Jazz and Applied Saxophone at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. For more information, please visit:

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