3 MINOR SCALES AND ALL THE MINOR MODES! HOW TO KNOW THE DIFFERENCE

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Are you ever confused about which minor scale you should use when improvising? If you are used to guessing and hoping what you play works (fingers crossed), then this article is for you.

When trying to decide which minor scale is right for the moment, you need to consider a few things, including:

  • What kind of minor chord are you playing over?
  • Where are you in the chord progression?
  • Is the chord progression diatonic or non-diatonic?

These questions help you determine which minor scale is best. This article will discuss many different types of minor scales and when to use them! It’s not as complicated as it might seem at first glance!

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Now, on to minor scales!

How Many Minor Scales Are There?

In music theory, there are three minor scales—

  • The natural minor scale
  • The melodic minor scale
  • The harmonic minor scale

However, upon closer inspection, we can build even more minor scales from these three parent scales.

How, you might ask? Well, each scale also has its own modes.

What Are Scale Modes?

A scale is a sequence of pitches that repeat. For example, here is an A natural minor scale spelled out across three octaves:

  • A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A

However, we don’t have to start on A. If we played the same sequence of notes but started on B, the scale’s character would change, even though the sequence would be the same.

  • A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A
  • B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B

This is the concept behind musical modes. Each parent scale contains six other scales derived from each note in the parent scale.

Three Minor Scales… And Their Modes

Even though there are three minor scales, each with its own modes, there are technically more than three minor scales. As an improviser, it’s your job to know which minor scale works well over any particular chord.

Some minor scales we’ll review have more than one use or function. However, each minor scale has at least one specific use that we will cover.

Let’s start with the natural minor scale and all the minor modes you can build from it.

1. The Natural Minor Scale (Aeolian Scale) and Relative Major and Minor Keys

The natural minor scale is the parent scale for diatonic minor keys.

It is also one of the seven modes of the major scale and is derived from the major scale’s sixth scale degree. Let’s briefly discuss the relationship between relative major and minor keys and the relationship between the major scale and the minor scale.

If you’ve heard of relative major and relative minor, you’ll know that diatonic major and minor key signatures are related. Here’s how:

We’ll use the relative major key of C and the relative minor key of A- to demonstrate.

  • C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C
  • A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A

C Major Scale and Chords

Here are the chords in the relative major key of C:

  • I. C
  • ii. D-
  • iii. E-
  • IV. F
  • V. G
  • vi. A-
  • vii°. Bdim
Chords in the key of C major notated on the staff in in tabulature

A Natural Minor Scale and Chords

Here are the chords in the Key of A minor:

  • i. A-
  • ii°. Bdim
  • III. C
  • iv. D-
  • v. E-
  • VI. F
  • VII. G
Minor Scales: A minor natural scale harmonized; minor key

Both A minor and C major are built from the same sequence of notes and share the same key signature.

The only difference is what you count as the root note.

In an A natural minor scale, we count “A” as the root note (and “C” as the third note). In C major, “C” is the root note (and “A” is the sixth note).

When we are in the key of A minor, the C major scale is its third mode. Vice versa, the A natural minor scale (Aeolian scale) is the sixth mode of C major.

Relative Keys vs. Parallel Keys

Because of this relationship, we say the C major and A minor are relative major and minor keys.

The relative major scale shares the same key signature (and the same notes) as the minor scale. This is different than parallel keys, which do not share the same key signature. Instead, parallel keys share the same root note, but the sequence and scale formulas are different.

  • C major’s parallel minor is C minor.
  • A minor’s parallel major is A major.

To learn more about relative minor keys (and parallel minor and parallel major keys) check out this article on parallel and relative minor.

The Aeolian Minor Scale

Now it’s time to provide some specifics about the Aeolian minor scale. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Scale formula (in half and whole steps): W-H-W-W-H-W-W
  • Scale Degrees: Rt., M2, m3, P4, P5, m6, m7
  • Spelled (in A-): A-B-C-D-E-F-G
Minor Scales: A natural minor scale on piano and guitar; minor key

As we discussed, the Aeolian scale is derived from the sixth degree in major keys. In minor keys, the Aeolian scale is the first scale degree.

Regarding improvisation, the Aeolian scale works well over minor chords that function as the vi chord (major keys) or the i chord (minor keys).

However, if you tried to play an Aeolian scale over the ii chord in a diatonic ii-V-I progression, something wouldn’t sound right because you’d be playing outside the minor key signature. This is because the Aeolian minor scale is built from the sixth scale degree, not the second scale degree.

To accurately depict the harmony of a ii chord, you’ll need to use a mode of the natural minor scale.

Specifically, you need to use the Dorian minor scale.

Dorian Mode (Dorian Minor Scale)

The Dorian minor scale is very similar to the natural minor scale. In major keys, Dorian is built from the second scale degree. In minor key signatures, it is the fourth scale degree.

Compared to the natural minor scale, all scale degrees are the same except for the sixth scale degree.

Let’s stick with A minor for the comparison.

The A natural minor scale intervals are:

  • Rt: A
  • M2: B
  • m3: C
  • P4: D
  • P5: E
  • m6: F
  • m7: G

The A Dorian minor scale intervals are:

  • Rt: A
  • M2: B
  • m3: C
  • P4: D
  • P5: E
  • M6: F#
  • m7: G

Here’s the scale breakdown:

  • Scale formula (in whole and half steps): W-H-W-W-W-H-W
  • Scale Degrees: Rt., M2, m3, P4, P5, M6, m7
  • Spelled from A (Key of G major or E minor): A-B-C-D-E-F#-G
Minor Scales: A Dorian Minor Scale on Guitar and Piano

When should you use the Dorian mode in improvisation? If you improvise on a jazz tune in the key of G or E- and you encounter an A- chord, you’d want to choose the Dorian mode over the natural minor scale because it has an F#, just like the key signatures.

Check out our article on the Dorian scale for more information.

Phrygian Mode (Phrygian Minor Scale)

The Phrygian minor scale is another major scale mode. It is derived from the third scale degree of major keys and the fifth scale degree of relative minor keys. Phrygian scales have one key difference compared to natural minor scales—a flat second scale degree.

Here are the scale degrees for an A Phrygian scale (the difference is in bold):

  • Rt. A
  • m2: Bb
  • m3: C
  • P4: D
  • P5: E
  • m6: F
  • m7: G

Here’s the scale breakdown:

  • Scale formula: H-W-W-W-H-W-W
  • Scale Degrees: Rt., m2, m3, P4, P5, m6, m7
  • Spelled from A (Key of F major or D minor): A-Bb-C-D-E-F-G
Minor Scales A Phrygian scale on Piano and guitar

When improvising over diatonic chord progressions, the Phrygian scale is intended for iii chords (major keys) or v chords (minor keys). However, the v chord in minor keys is often changed to a V7 chord in many chord progressions to create a greater pull to the tonic note.

In cases like this, Phrygian minor will still work over an altered V7 chord (b9 and #9), but you’ll also have other improvisational options.

Locrian Mode (Locrian Minor Scale)

Another diatonic minor mode we need to talk about is the Locrian minor scale. In major keys, it is derived from the 7th scale degree. In minor keys, it is built from the second scale degree.

When you compare Locrian to natural minor scales, you’ll notice two differences—a flat second and fifth scale degree!

Here are the scale degrees for A Locrian:

  • Rt: A
  • m2: Bb
  • m3: C
  • P4: D
  • TT(b5): Eb
  • m6: F
  • m7: G

Here’s the scale breakdown:

  • Scale formula: H-W-W-H-W-W-W
  • Scale Degrees: Rt., m2, m3, P4, TT (b5), m6, m7
  • Spelled from A (Key of Bb major or G minor): A-Bb-C-D-Eb-F-G
Minor Scales: A Phrygian scale on Piano and guitar

So, where should you use the Locrian minor scale? The minor iiø-V-i progression is extremely common in jazz music, and jazz musicians often play Locrian minor over the iiø chord.

Minor Pentatonic Scale

I want to include the minor pentatonic scale in our list of minor scales because pentatonic scales have wider applications due to their greater ambiguity. Pentatonic scales have less information than the standard seven-note scales.

Because there is less information, these minor scales can be used in more places improvisationally.

Think about it—in the scales we’ve discussed so far, the 2nd and 6th scale degrees were the notes most likely to change between different minor scales. Minor pentatonic scales cut out the 2nd and 6th scale degrees.

That means minor pentatonic scales work over diatonic ii chords, iii chords, and vi chords in major keys and diatonic vi chords, v chords, and i chords in minor keys. The only diatonic chords they don’t work over are those with a b5—the viiø chord (major keys) and iiø chord (minor keys).

Here are the scale degrees for the A minor pentatonic scale:

  • Rt: A
  • m3: C
  • P4: D
  • P5: E
  • m7: G
A minor pentatonic scale on piano and guitar

Recall the relationship between relative minor and major key signatures. This applies to minor and major scales and, by extension, the minor and major pentatonic scales.

A Minor Pentatonic Scale:

  • A-C-D-E-G-A

C Major Pentatonic Scale:

  • C-D-E-G-A-C

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2. Melodic Minor Scale

The next minor scale we need to discuss is the melodic minor scale.

In classical music, melodic minor scales have two forms: an ascending and a descending form. We’ll explain both forms, but for improvisational purposes, jazz musicians only use the ascending melodic minor scale form (for reasons you’ll soon see).

Ascending and Descending Melodic Minor Scale

The ascending melodic minor scale starts out like a regular Aeolian minor scale. However, the sixth and seventh notes are raised one half step. Instead of a minor sixth and minor seventh interval, you have a major sixth note and a major seventh note.

The last half looks a lot like the major scale.

The descending melodic minor scale has all the same notes as the descending natural minor scale—minor sixth and minor seventh intervals. This is why we don’t really “use it.” We’d opt to play a natural minor scale if the harmony required it.

Ascending and Desceding Melodic Minor Forms

Taken together, the ascending and descending forms brighten melodies on the way up and darken them on the way down. But, with jazz improvisation, it’s easier to think of them as two separate scales. From now on, when we refer to melodic minor, we’ll refer to the ascending form.

Here are the scale degrees:

  • Rt.
  • M2
  • m3
  • P4
  • P5
  • M6
  • M7

Here’s the scale breakdown:

  • Scale formula: W-H-W-W-W-W-H
  • Scale Degrees: Rt., M2, m3, P4, P5, M6, M7
  • Spelled from A: A-B-C-D-E-F#G#
Melodic minor scale on piano and guitar

When we harmonize the melodic minor scale in thirds, we get a harmonic minor chord scale, which has some beautiful non-diatonic (not found in the major scale) chords:

  • A-(maj7)
  • Cmaj7#5
A melodic minor harmonized in thirds on the staff and on gutiar

In jazz improvisation, the melodic minor scale has useful modes for various altered chords. However, some are more useful than others. The most useful are bolded below!

  • 1. Melodic Minor Scale: Works over Minor(maj7) chords
  • 2. Dorian Flat 2: can work over the iii chord if resolving to a II chord.
  • 3. Lydian Augmented: works well over maj7#5 chords
  • 4. Lydian Dominant: works well over dominant #11 (b5) chords
  • 5. Mixolydian Flat 6: works well over dominant b13 chords
  • 6. Locrian Natural 2: works over iiø chords in a minor iiø-V-i
  • 7. Super Locrian or Altered Scale: really useful over alt7 chords!

Want to learn the melodic minor scale modes and use them to improve your jazz solos?

Check out our article on the melodic minor scale for more information.

3. Harmonic Minor Scale

The harmonic minor scale is the last entry in our list of minor scales. This is another unique minor scale with its own modes and chords. Its unique characteristic is the minor third interval between its sixth and seventh scale degrees.

The harmonic minor scale has a minor sixth and a major seventh. In other words, the harmonic minor scale raises the 7th scale degree while keeping a minor sixth. This puts a minor third interval in its scale step formula:

  • W-H-W-W-H-m3-H

Its scale degrees are:

  • Rt.
  • M2
  • m3
  • P4
  • P5
  • m6
  • M7

Spelled from A, the harmonic minor scale would be:

  • A-B-C-D-E-FG#-A
A Harmonic Minor scale on guitar and piano

When compared to melodic minor scales, harmonic minor scales have one additional non-diatonic chord:

  • A-(maj7)
  • Cmaj7#5
  • G#dim7
A Harmonic minor chord scale harmonized and shown on the staff and guitar.

Here are the modes of the harmonic minor scale:

  • 1. Aeolian Natural 7: works over minor(maj7) chords.
  • 2. Locrian ♮6: can work over the iiø chord in a minor iiø-V-I
  • 3. Ionian #5: works well over maj7#5 chords
  • 4. Altered Dorian: this scale works over the iv chord in harmonic chord progressions.
  • 5. Phrygian Dominant: works well over dominant b9 chords
  • 6. Lydian #2: this scale works over the VI chord in harmonic minor chord progressions
  • 7. Super-Locrian bb7: works well over dim7 chords.

Want to learn the modes of harmonic minor?

Check out our article on the Harmonic Minor Scale for more!

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Text the keyword STOP, STOPALL, END, CANCEL, UNSUBSCRIBE or QUIT to the telephone number, long code, or short code that sends you our initial confirmation message to cancel. After texting STOP, STOPALL, END, CANCEL, UNSUBSCRIBE or QUIT to the telephone number, long code, or short code that sends you our initial confirmation message you will receive one additional message confirming that your request has been processed. If you change your preferences, it may take up to 48 hours for it to take effect. You acknowledge that our text message platform may not recognize and respond to unsubscribe requests that do not include the STOP, STOPALL, END, CANCEL, UNSUBSCRIBE or QUIT keyword commands and agree that Learn Jazz Standards and its service providers will have no liability for failing to honor such requests. If you unsubscribe from one of our text message programs, you may continue to receive text messages from Learn Jazz Standards through any other programs you have joined until you separately unsubscribe from those programs.

Help or Support

Text the keyword HELP to the telephone number, long code, or short code that sends you our initial confirmation message to receive a text with information on how to unsubscribe.

No Warranty

TO THE MAXIMUM EXTENT ALLOWED BY APPLICABLE LAW, YOU ACKNOWLEDGE AND AGREE THAT THE MESSAGING PROGRAM IS PROVIDED ON AN “AS IS” AND “AS AVAILABLE” BASIS WITHOUT WARRANTIES OF ANY KIND, WHETHER EXPRESS OR IMPLIED.

Limitation of Liability

TO THE MAXIMUM EXTENT ALLOWED BY APPLICABLE LAW, YOU AGREE THAT IN NO EVENT SHALL EITHER OF Learn Jazz Standards OR ANY PARTY ACTING ON BEHALF OF Learn Jazz Standards BE LIABLE FOR: (A) ANY CLAIMS, PROCEEDINGS, LIABILITIES, OBLIGATIONS, DAMAGES, LOSSES OR COSTS IN AN AGGREGATE AMOUNT EXCEEDING THE GREATER OF THE AMOUNT YOU PAID TO Learn Jazz Standards HEREUNDER OR $100.00; OR (B) ANY DIRECT, INDIRECT, CONSEQUENTIAL, SPECIAL, INCIDENTAL, PUNITIVE OR ANY OTHER DAMAGES. YOU AGREE EVEN IF Learn Jazz Standards HAS BEEN TOLD OF POSSIBLE DAMAGE OR LOSS ARISING OR RESULTING FROM OR IN ANY WAY RELATING TO YOUR USE OF THE Learn Jazz Standards MESSAGING PROGRAM. Learn Jazz Standards AND ITS REPRESENTATIVES ARE NOT LIABLE FOR THE ACTS OR OMISSIONS OF THIRD PARTIES, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO DELAYS OR NON-DELIVERY IN THE TRANSMISSION OF MESSAGES.

Indemnity

To the maximum extent allowed by applicable law, you agree to indemnify, defend and hold harmless Learn Jazz Standards, its directors, officers, employees, servants, agents, representatives, independent contractors and affiliates from and against any and all claims, damages, liabilities, actions, causes of action, costs, expenses, including reasonable attorneys’ fees, judgments or penalties of any kind or nature arising from or in relation to the these Messaging Terms or your receipt of text messages from Learn Jazz Standards or its service providers.

Dispute Resolution

  1. General. Any dispute or claim arising out of or in any way related to these Messaging Terms or your receipt of text messages from Learn Jazz Standards or its service providers whether based in contract, tort, statute, fraud, misrepresentation, or any other legal theory, and regardless of when a dispute or claim arises will be resolved by binding arbitration. YOU UNDERSTAND AND AGREE THAT, BY AGREEING TO THESE MESSAGING TERMS, YOU AND Learn Jazz Standards ARE EACH WAIVING THE RIGHT TO A TRIAL BY JURY OR TO PARTICIPATE IN A CLASS ACTION AND THAT THESE MESSAGING TERMS SHALL BE SUBJECT TO AND GOVERNED BY ARBITRATION.
  2. Exceptions. Notwithstanding subsection (a) above, nothing in these Messaging Terms will be deemed to waive, preclude, or otherwise limit the right of you or Learn Jazz Standards to: (i) bring an individual action in small claims court; (ii) pursue an enforcement action through the applicable federal, state, or local agency if that action is available; (iii) seek injunctive relief in aid of arbitration from a court of competent jurisdiction; or (iv) file suit in a court of law to address an intellectual property infringement claim.
  3. Arbitrator. Any arbitration between you and Learn Jazz Standards will be governed by the JAMS, under the Optional Expedited Arbitration Procedures then in effect for JAMS, except as provided herein. JAMS may be contacted at www.jamsadr.com. The arbitrator has exclusive authority to resolve any dispute relating to the interpretation, applicability, or enforceability of this binding arbitration agreement.
  4. No Class Actions. YOU AND Learn Jazz Standards AGREE THAT EACH MAY BRING CLAIMS AGAINST THE OTHER ONLY IN AN INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY AND NOT AS A PLAINTIFF OR CLASS MEMBER IN ANY PURPORTED CLASS OR REPRESENTATIVE PROCEEDING. Further, unless both you and Learn Jazz Standards agree otherwise in a signed writing, the arbitrator may not consolidate more than one person’s claims, and may not otherwise preside over any form of a representative or class proceeding. You agree that, by agreeing to these Messaging Terms, you and Learn Jazz Standards are each waiving the right to a trial by jury or to participate in a class action, collective action, private attorney general action, or other representative proceeding of any kind.
  5. No Class Actions. YOU AND Learn Jazz Standards AGREE THAT EACH MAY BRING CLAIMS AGAINST THE OTHER ONLY IN AN INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY AND NOT AS A PLAINTIFF OR CLASS MEMBER IN ANY PURPORTED CLASS OR REPRESENTATIVE PROCEEDING. Further, unless both you and Learn Jazz Standards agree otherwise in a signed writing, the arbitrator may not consolidate more than one person’s claims, and may not otherwise preside over any form of a representative or class proceeding.
  6. Modifications to this Arbitration Provision. Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in these Messaging Terms, if Learn Jazz Standards makes any future change to this arbitration provision, you may reject the change by sending us written notice within 30 days of the change to Learn Jazz Standards’s contact information provided in the “Contact Us” section below, in which case this arbitration provision, as in effect immediately prior to the changes you rejected, will continue to govern any disputes between you and Learn Jazz Standards.
  7. Enforceability. If any provision of these Messaging Terms is found to be unenforceable, the applicable provision shall be deemed stricken and the remainder of these Messaging Terms shall remain in full force and effect.

Changes to the Messaging Terms

We reserve the right to change these Messaging Terms or cancel the messaging program at any time. By using and accepting messages from Learn Jazz Standards after we make changes to the Messaging Terms, you are accepting the Messaging Terms with those changes. Please check these Messaging Terms regularly.

Entire Agreement/Severability

These Messaging Terms, together with any amendments and any additional agreements you may enter into with us in connection herewith, will constitute the entire agreement between you and Learn Jazz Standards concerning the Messaging Program.

Contact

Please contact us with any inquiries or concerns at [email protected]

OUR PROVEN PROCESS FOR LEARNING JAZZ STANDARDS LIKE A PRO

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OUR PROVEN PROCESS FOR IMPROVISING JAZZ SOLOS LIKE A PRO

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OUR PROVEN PROCESS FOR LEARNING JAZZ THEORY LIKE A PRO

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DOWNLOAD THIS CHORD CHART

Get our FREE "3 MINOR SCALES AND ALL THE MINOR MODES! HOW TO KNOW THE DIFFERENCE" chord chart and our entire library of 200+ jazz standards!

Chord Chart

DOWNLOAD THIS CHORD CHART

Get our FREE "3 MINOR SCALES AND ALL THE MINOR MODES! HOW TO KNOW THE DIFFERENCE" chord chart and our entire library of 200+ jazz standards!

Chord Chart

DOWNLOAD THIS CHORD CHART

Get our FREE "3 MINOR SCALES AND ALL THE MINOR MODES! HOW TO KNOW THE DIFFERENCE" chord chart and our entire library of 200+ jazz standards!

Chord Chart