LJS 86: 7 Chords You Can Play the Melodic Minor Scale Over

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Welcome to episode 86 of the LJS Podcast where today we are talking about the modes of the melodic minor scale and how you can use them to improvise over 7 different chords. The melodic minor scale can be a great tool to conceptualize some of these sounds. Listen in!

Listen to episode 86

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The melodic minor scale is used a lot in jazz theory textbooks and classroom settings because it’s a great way to conceptualize improvising over some more unique chords and chord extensions.

Now, if you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, you know how I feel about scales. They aren’t really musical by themselves, and it’s up to us to think of them as pitch collections and make real music out of them.

At the end of the day, I’m not really a chord-scale theory kind of a guy. It’s just not the way I was trained. I come more from the school of learning solos and tunes by ear and learning the language by ear. However, using chord-scale theory can be a great way to look at things from a different angle.

I personally have been working on the modes of the melodic minor and how to relate them to particular chords. And I’ll be honest, if you’re not very familiar with music theory concepts this episode might be fairly meaty for you. But don’t worry. I do my best to keep things simple, and at the end of the day, I would encourage you to take just one of these chords and put the melodic minor to practice.

The Melodic Minor Scale

Here’s a melodic minor scale in concert C:

Here are the modes of the melodic minor scale. Remember, to keep things simple, just think of the modes as simply starting and ending on the different scale tones.

Using the Melodic Minor Over 7 Different Chords

Here are the chords mentioned in this episode. I’ll list the spelling of the mode you can play besideĀ each chord. Keep in mind, you could simply play the melodic minor root parent scale over all of these.

1. Cmin(maj7): C-D-Eb-F-G-A-B-C

2. D7(b9): D-Eb-F-G-A-B-C-D

3. Ebmaj7(#11) also add (#5): Eb-F-G-A-B-C-D-Eb

4. F7(#11): F-G-A-B-C-D-Eb-F

5. G7(b13): G-A-B-C-D-Eb-F-G

6. Amin7(b5): A-B-C-D-Eb-F-G-A

7. B7(alt): B-C-D-Eb-F-G-A-B

To put these to practice, just take one of these and work on it this week. Not all of these will help you, and you don’t need to think about all of these chords this way. Pick one that connects with you and put it to work.

The next step is to turn these scales into music. Internalize these sounds and start creating melodies.

Further Resources

How to Play The Modes of the Melodic Minor Scale

Read the Transcript

What’s up, what’s up everybody. My name is Brent. I am the jazz musician behind the website, Learnjazzstandards.com, which is a blog and a podcast, all geared towards helping you become a better jazz musician. I am super pumped to be here. I’m equally excited that you’re here, to hang out with me, and listen in, whether it’s your first time ever listening to the show, or whether you’re a regular listener. I just appreciate you being here. Now we’ve been having special guests on the show. Last week, we had Steve Nixon, from Free Jazz Lessons.com. That was an awesome show. We’ve been doing a lot of other great shows lately.

We’re gonna have another special guest next week. But, we haven’t done a teaching episode in a while. We haven’t don’t a music theory episode, and so today’s episode, I’m gonna be talking about some music theory stuff. I’m kind of excited to do that, because, like I said, it’s been a while, but also because today’s episode, is kind of stuff that I’m personally exploring right now, whenever I have some down time, or some free time. It’s not necessarily something I’m a super pro at. I’m kind of excited just to, show you what I’m working on, or just check it out. I’m sure that you can get a lot out of this too, and start adding some of this to your practice routines, or at least just start fooling around with some of this stuff. Super excited for all of that.

Now, we do, like I said, we do have a special guest coming on the show next week. I’m excited to tell you who that is, but I’ll tell you that at the end of the show. Please stick around. Please listen in, and you know, I’ll tell you who that is then. Now, today’s episode, I’m gonna be talking about seven different chords that you can use the melodic minor scale over top of.

Now, straight up front, just full disclosure, I’m not really a chord scale theory kind of a guy. Okay? That just not how I was trained. That’s not how my teachers trained me. When it comes down to it, if you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, you know that I’m all about learning jazz solos by ear, learning licks, taking things at all 12 keys, just listening to the records, actually going out there, and playing. You know, that’s what it’s all about.

But, when it comes to being a better musician, becoming a better musician, we need to be drawing from all sorts of areas right? We need to be finding different avenues, and ways to improve our playing. Music theory, in particular, is a great way to conceptualize improvisation, to conceptualize music. I find that, whenever I work on chord scale theory, kind of stuff, it can kind of help open up my mind to look at things from a different angle.

Everyone once in a while, I do like to practice that. If you’ve been listening to the show for a while, you already know my schpeal on scales. I think of them as pitch collections. They’re not musical by themselves. You have to make music from them. They’re a way to map out the notes that you can possibly use, on a particular chord or chord progression, whatever it may be. You already know that, that’s the way I feel about that, but there are a lot of benefits you can get from diving in, to music theory, concept, and chord scale theory.
Today, I’m gonna kind of show you some stuff that I’m working on right now, just in my free time, whenever I have some time, just kind of looking over this stuff. Now, you can find today’s show notes over at learnjazzstandards.com/episode86. That’s Episode eight, six. I’m gonna have all this stuff outlined for you, so that you can take a look what I’m talking about, because it is, kind of wordy. Without further ado, let’s jump into today’s lesson.

All right now, so today’s episode, like I said, can be a little bit wordy, can be a little bit meaty, and you know, we have tons of different skill levels listening to this podcast right now. You know, some of you are listening and you’re like, “But what, I don’t even know what a melodic minor scale is.” Well then, that’s fine. Then that’s all you’re gonna take away from today’s show and that’s completely okay. Others of you are gonna be like, open to learning about some of this stuff, but you might only grab one, or two concepts from this. Honestly, that’s ideal. I wouldn’t expect you to work on every single one of these seven chords. You know, that would be a lot. In fact, that’s not what I’m doing personally.

Personally, I’m just kind of grabbing onto one or two of these at a time, and just being like, “Oh. That’s an interesting way to think about this.” And so, that’s all I want you to do. I’m gonna talk a little bit at the end about what you can do to actually take some of this stuff I’m talking about, into action. I want you to know that up front. No matter what skill level you’re at … You can just grab one thing from the show today. Like I said before, this is all but the melodic minor scale. We’re talking about the melodic minor scale, and how we can use it over seven different kinds of chords.

One thing I really like about this lesson today, and I’m gonna give you some demonstrations. I have my guitar out. I’m gonna play some stuff for ya. One thing I really like about this lesson today, is that a lot of these chords are the chords that … I find a lot of students are like, “Well, what do I play over top of a half diminished chord?” A minor seven flat five chord. “Oh. I don’t know what to play over top of an altered chord. What do I play over top of a flat 13 chord?” You know, all these questions that come up, or a sharp 11 chord … These are really common questions that I get. They’re kind of bizarre chords that people don’t really know what to do over top of them.

And, here’s one option, to use the melodic minor scale. This is just one option. Okay? One way to think about it. This is gonna be a value packed episode, just because of that. Now, to discover these different seven chords that we’re gonna play, we’re essentially gonna be going over the modes of the melodic minor. Now, there’s a possibility you just heard that word mode, and you’re just like, “What does that mean? I don’t even know.” Don’t worry about it that much. At the end of the day, a mode is simply taking each tone, each scale tone, and just starting the scale on that tone. If that is confusing, it’s gonna make sense in one second. I promise. I totally promise.
Let’s start by just, figuring out what is the melodic minor scale? Okay? What is the melodic minor scale? Well, let me play it for you for starters. Okay? That was a two octave C melodic minor scale. That’s concert C melodic minor. All right, now let’s go over those notes, just in case you don’t know what those are. So, first note is of course C. That’s the root, then D, E flat, F, G, A, B, and then back to C. Okay? Finishing off on the octave there.

Okay, let’s go over the scale tone formula. It would essentially be one, two, flat three, five, or sorry, four. My bad. Four. Five, six, seven, and then we’ll end on eight. So, one, two, flat three, four, five, six, seven, end on eight. As far as a formula, it would go, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step.
Now, another way to think about this is, it’s the natural minor scale, starts on the natural minor scale, so if you know that … Okay? So, one, two, flat three, four, five, but then we end as if we were ending a major scale. It’s almost like you’re combining the two of them. Then it goes to that natural six, the major 7, and then the root again. Okay? That’s another way to think about it. You’re combining this natural minor, and this melodic minor together. Okay? That’s one way to perceive it.

One more quick note, just so that you’re fully educated here. In classical music, the melodic minor scale, you go up the scale, just as I demonstrated for you, but when you descend the scale, you essentially flat the 7th, and then you flat the 6th. Basically you’re descending a natural minor scale. You go up the melodic minor as described, but you descend the natural minor.

Now, in a jazz context, that’s completely unnecessary right? That’s completely left out. I just wanted you to know that in the classical sense, that’s what we do. Now, when we’re talking about the modes of the melodic minor, okay? This is where things kind of get a little complex. I’m gonna attempt to make it as simple as possible. I’m not gonna bore you with the names of the melodic minor scale. I’m gonna link in the show notes to a great post that we have about the modes of the melodic minor, so if you wanna learn more about those, and really get to know the names better, and all that stuff, then you can go to that in the show notes today.

For now, I’m just gonna speak very plainly. The root basically, of the melodic minor, is just the plain C melodic minor scale. Right? Now, if we’re gonna do the second mode of the melodic minor scale, all that simply means is we’re gonna be starting on the second tone of the melodic minor scale. If you know your major modes, it’s the exact same concept. Now, instead of starting on C, we’re starting on D. The third mode of the melodic minor scale, we’re starting on the third tone, so it’s gonna be the E flat. We’re starting and ending on it. And so on and so forth. That’s how the modes work. The reason why it’s important that we’re going through the modes right now, is because each root of each mode of the melodic minor scale here, is going to be a chord associated with it. That’s where these seven chords that we’re gonna learn, come into play.

Okay, so I’m gonna go through them. Let’s start with the root mode here, just the melodic, the regular C melodic minor scale. What chord can we play the scale over top of? Okay? This is a chord that a lot of people wonder about. They wonder what do I actually play over this chord? It’s the C minor, major 7 chord. The C minor major 7th chord. Essentially, it is a minor 7th chord, with a major 7th in it. It would be the root, flat three, the fifth, and a major 7th. Okay? The root, flat three, fifth, major 7th. That’s the basic, just the basic, you know, from the root up voicing for a C minor major 7th chord. It sounds like this.

All right. I’m gonna play a little bit of rhythm here. I’m gonna play the scale over top of it. I’m gonna record a rhythm, and then play the scale over top, so you can hear what it sounds like here. Did you hear that outline, the sounds of that chord? Okay, so, just all those sounds were there. All right. I’m not gonna spend too much time on each one of these, cause we have a lot to go over.

Let’s go over to the second one, the second mode of the melodic minor and the chord associated. This is gonna be what we’d also call … They call it the Dorian flat 2. Again, I’m not gonna bore you with the names here. What you can play over this one is a D7 flat 9. Consider this any flat 9 chord, right? That’s what that sounds like. Okay. Essentially, you can just play the C melodic minor over top of this. I mean, it doesn’t really matter that you start on the D, but for the sake of this lesson, I’m gonna be starting the scale on the D. Again, it’s gonna go, D, F flat, F, G, A, B, C, D. Okay? All right. Let me record this D7 flat 9. I’ll play the scale over top of it for ya.
Just to put this in a little bit more context, what would you play a D7 flat 9 chord in conjunction with? Right? When we have these isolated chords, that’s cool and all, but we wanna know what chord is coming before it, what chords coming after it. Well, for a second, let’s think about that D7 flat 9 as the five chord. If the D7 flat 9 is a five chord, what’s the one chord? It would be G. G major 7. You’d have this D7 flat 9 resolving to a G major 7. Okay? Imagine you have a little line like this, based off of the melodic minor we just played. Something like that. Right? You could use that melodic minor. You can use that. You can think about that as the five chord going to the one chord. That’s just a little bit of context for you on that.

This is all exploring this kind of stuff. Right? You can figure out what melodic minor scale, what chord you can play the melodic minor scale over, but then after that, you gotta figure out how to actually make it musical. You don’t wanna play the scale in order. Remember, you wanna think about it as a pitch collection. Then, you wanna think about stuff like, “Which chord would that go to?” You know, or, “Which chord would proceed that cord?” That’s the important musical information. You ultimately really wanna know.

Okay, Let’s move onto the next one. We’re going to the third mode of the melodic minor scale now. Essentially, we are starting on the flat three of the scale. That’s gonna be E flat, right? It’s gonna sound like this. It’s gonna go, E flat, F, G, A, B, C, D, E flat. Now, the chords you can play this over, is classic. It’s a chord that you really need to know, you really need to be able to play. That is the major 7 flat 5, or the major 7 sharp 11 chord. Okay? In this case, it’d be an E flat major 7 sharp 11. That sounds like this. Here’s another voicing, or this.

Okay. Let me play a little rhythm over this. We’ll play the scale. Okay? That’s just one approach. It’s up to you to make this sound musical. You know, just start messing around with melodies throughout that melodic minor scale, so that you’re not tied down to the scale. That’s just what you should be practicing ultimately here. Right.

Let’s move onto the next one in the next mode, and this one starts on F. Okay? It’s gonna sound like this. It’s gonna go, F, G, A, B, C, D, S flat, F. Okay? Okay, now what chord can you play this over top of? I love this one, because this is one that a lot of people never know how to do, especially if you play a lot of Thelonius Monk tunes, you see this chord come up all the time. It’s the Dominant 7 sharp 11 chord. In this case, right? It’s the fourth mode. It’s gonna be F. It’s gonna sound like this, or this. Okay. It’s a lot different voicing on the guitar. Anyways. This is the chord that we’re gonna be playing over the top of, so … Let’s hear what that sounds like.

All right. Let’s move onto the next mode of the melodic minor here. This one is G. It starts on G of the scale, so it sounds like this. It goes G, A, B, C, D, E flat, F, G. Over this one, the chord that you can play is the G7 flat 13, or a dominant 7 flat 13. In this case, a G7 flat 13. It sounds like this. All right, and what does that resolve to?
Again, let’s think about this as being a five chord in the key of C major. G7 flat 13, to a C major 7. Or, you could do it to a C minor 7 too. Right? Something like that. It’s kind of a tension chord that extension, the flat 13, it’s a tension chord that wants to be released to a resolution. Either the one major, or the one minor works really well. Okay, let’s hear this mode of the melodic minor on top of this chord.

All right. Only two more modes of the melodic minor left. This last one, or, sorry, the sixth one. The sixth mode of the melodic minor. The chord associated, a lot of people ask about this one. Let me play it first. This one starts on A, the sixth tone of the melodic minor, A, A natural. It sounds like this. It goes A, B, C, D, E flat, F, G, A. Okay?
Now, the chord associated, like I said, it’s one that a lot of people ask me questions about. That’s the half diminished chord. Okay, the half diminished, or the minor 7 flat 5 chord, as it’s also called. The, A minor 7 flat 5, it sounds like this, or this. Okay. It often functions as the two chord in a minor 2-5-1 chord progression, which sounds like this. Right? 2-5-1. Okay? A lot of people don’t know what to do with that minor 7 flat 5. They don’t know how to play over top of it. Well, again, this is one option, one option to conceptualize this with the melodic minor. Again, I’m gonna use the mode, so I’m gonna start on that A. Here it is. Heres’ what it sounds like in context. That one just works really well over top of that right? It’s a nice set of pitch collections you can work with. Right? Lots of notes in there that completely work and match up with that half diminished chord.
Okay? Now, the last one I want to go over today, last one I wanna go over, just, of course the last mode of the melodic minor. It’s gonna start on B. Okay? It’s gonna start on B, so here’s what it sounds like. It goes, B, C, D, E flat, F, G, A, B. Okay? The chord you play over this one, again, we’re dealing with a B here. It’s gonna be a B7 altered chord.

Now, when you say an altered chord, that means that it can have all, or any really extensions in it. Okay? Altered extensions that is. It can be a B7 flat 9, or B7 sharp 9, or sharp 11, or flat 13, or all of the above. This case, I’m just gonna go for a flat 13, so … B7 flat 13. You could add that sharp 11 in there, or right, that’s the flat 9 in there too. It’s reminding me of the Wayne Shorter tune, JuJu. Right? It’s a great tune. I haven’t played that one in a long time. Okay, so I’m gonna go ahead and play the scale over the top of this chord.
All right. That’s all of them. That’s all the modes of the melodic minor and the different chords you can play over them. Really quickly, just to recap. Okay? Over the parent scale, the root scale, there’s the regular C melodic minor. You can play the C melodic minor over a C minor major 7. And then, over the second mode of the melodic minor, you can play a D7 flat 9, [inaudible 00:22:16] actually. A D7 flat 9. And then, over the third, you can play an E flat major 7 sharp 11. And then, over the fourth, you can play an F7 sharp 11. And then, over the fifth, you can play a G7 flat 13. Over the sixth mode, you can play an, A half diminished 7 and over the seventh mode, you can play a B7 altered chord. Okay? Again, this is all related to the key of Concert C, C melodic minor, parent scale here.

Again, if the modes are just completely throwing you off, again, you can just play a C melodic minor scale. You don’t have to start on each note. It doesn’t really matter right? These are just the general sounds. I think it’s pretty interesting though, that through these modes, you can draw out all these different chords that you can fit the scale over top of. Like I mentioned before, this is all very, not so musical right? I just played through these scales, over top of these chords. You can hear the sounds coming out, but there’s no music happening yet. Right? There’s absolutely no music happening.
The idea is that you start conceptualizing this stuff, start to get it into your playing. For example, here’s a great example. Here’s how I would call you to move forward with this, if you wanna get something out this lesson today. Pick one of these and work on it this week. For example, I think a great one to do is, over half diminished chord. Over a, A half diminished chord, you can play the C melodic minor. Let’s just say you wanna actually start on C for the melodic minor, and you’re playing a half diminished chord, you can literally just think, okay, C melodic minor, or no, sorry, think half diminished …
What’s the half diminished chord? It’s A half diminished. Let’s say in this case, it’s A half diminished. You can think, if I play a melodic minor scale, a minor third up, then that’s how you’re gonna get that sound out. That’s one way to think about that. Okay, I have an A minor 7 flat 5. Okay. If I wanna start on the root of the melodic minor scale, I move up a minor third, right? You can think of it that way. Or again, you can do like we just did, where you just played the mode of the melodic minor scale. Whatever helps you.

Just take one of these and work on it. You know, slowly move through them, if it helps you or not. Not all of these will help you. Some of them will be like, “I don’t really see how that helps me. I’d rather think about it another way,” or, “I’d rather think about chord tones.” All that stuff is really good. Again, all this stuff is just to help you get these sounds in your ears, and tools that you can possibly use to work on this stuff. All right? Does that make sense? Now, if any of this stuff blew over your head, you wanna get more of a visual look on it, remember go on the show notes. Learnjazzstandards.com/episode86. You can get a little more resources out over there.

All right. That’s all for today’s show. I wanna thank you so much for listening. Thanks for tuning in. I really appreciate you being here. Hope you learned a lot today. This was a little bit more of a meaty episode. If you’re kind of just like, “Hey Brent. That was great, but that was a little bit advanced for me. Maybe I need to take a few steps back. Maybe I need to learn some more basic chord scale theory, before I move onto some of this melodic minor stuff.” That is totally cool actually. I go over a lot more of the basic chord scale theory stuff, as far what kind of stuff can you play over a dominant 7th chord, and more of a basic approach to chord scale theory. In our eBook, Zero to Improv, which you can find at zerotoimprov.com. If you’re interested in kind of, that stuff, that’s a great eBook for you, Zerotoimprov.com.

Now, as I always ask at the end of every single show, if you got value out of this episode, you just wanna give back. It’s really simple and free to do that. You just go to iTunes, or your favorite podcast listening service, and leave a rating and a review that helps other people find the show, and just supports the production of this podcast. Okay.

Now, next week, I’m really excited. We have a very special guest on the show. It’s trumpeter Chris Davis from Chicago. And man, he has really unloading a lot of value for you guys next week. I had a really great conversation with him. He talks about his story, and his journey to becoming a professional jazz musician, and just an awesome musician in general. Really great guy. Please tune in next week, for episode 87. I look forward to seeing you back then.

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Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for learnjazzstandards.com which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publications “500 Jazz Licks” and “Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar.” To learn more, visit www.brentvaartstra.com.

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