How to Play a Melodic Minor Scale

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In music, there are a variety of different scales to contend with – today we’ll be taking a quick look at the melodic minor scale – how it’s formed and how to play it, as well as a bit of theory.

Without further ado, let’s get started!

Different types of scales

Scales contain a host of information about a song. For example, say a song was written in D minor. If you know a D minor scale, you’re going to have a basic understanding of the notes in this song (like how there’s a Bb).

But there are different flavors of minor scales – we have natural minors, harmonic minors, and melodic minors. A lot of minor key songs will weave through different types of minor scales – it might start natural, have a melodic minor section, and then finish like a harmonic minor scale. Because of that, it’s good to understand all three.

Melodic minors are the most complicated of the bunch, because they are different going up than they are going down. Yep, you read that right. What goes up must come down…differently.

Just a note that you’ll need to have a basic understanding of how to figure out natural minor scales for this video to make any sense. I did a video a while back called “Major and Minor Keys, how to tell them apart” which talks about that, so you can check that out if you’re confused.

Purpose of the melodic minor scale

I know that seems overly complicated, but the reason melodic minor scales exist in the first place is because of vocal music.

See, harmonic minor scales sound really neat, and they serve as the basis of many keyboard songs, but they include a really large gap between the 6th and 7th note – it’s actually wider than a whole tone. Because of this crazy gap, it can be really difficult to sing it smoothly.

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Enter the very singable melodic minor scale. Remember that the word “melody” means the main tune of the song, or often, the main part of a song you sing along to. So a “melodic” minor scale is called as such because it’s useful for melodies, or singing.

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A melodic minor

So let’s look at the ascending melodic minor scale first, using A minor as an example because it’s nice and simple. Here’s an A harmonic minor scale:

A B C D E F G# A

You can see the very wide gap between F and G#. In order to make it more singable, we raise up the 6th note to join the raised 7th note. So now our scale looks like this:

A B C D E F# G# A

There! No large gaps, and a much smoother singing experience.

Descending melodic minor scale

For a descending melodic minor scale, all we have to do is take away the raised 6th and 7th, and return them back to normal. In the A minor example, we basically delete the sharps:

(read going down) A G F E D C B A

So a full A melodic minor scale would look like this:

A B C D E F# G# A (down) G F E D C B A

D melodic minor scale

Let’s try it with another scale – how about D.

So an untouched D minor scale just has a Bb. I’ll write out the notes here.

D E F G A Bb C D

To make it harmonic, we raise the 7th:

D E F G A Bb C# D

But this is awkward to sing, so to make it melodic, we raise the 6th:

D E F G A B C# D

Yay! Success! Now to figure out how to play it descending, we just need to erase the changed we made, and return it back to its original D minor self.

D E F G A Bb C D

Here is the scale in full:

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Conclusion

So to recap: To make a melodic minor scale, you:

-Raise the 6th and 7th notes on the way up

-Return those notes back to normal on the way down

These scales start becoming a thing in Grade 2, and they’re kind of neat to learn. Composers don’t use them religiously – for example, unless you’re doing crazy grade 10 harmony studies, the “ascending” and “descending” aspects are basically meaningless. If a composer is using a melodic minor scale, she’s not going to use the “ascending” notes only when the melody is going up. She’ll make that choice based on the context of other chords.

Hope this helped, and have fun with scales!

xo,
Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.