Do you find it hard to get your head around the four basic scales? The Major scale is easy but what’s all that with the Natural, Harmonic, and Melodic Minor scales? Well, if you start from the right place it is easy to understand them and have a good grounding for when your studies take you forward to other scalar concepts such as modes.
Usually C Major is the starting point for looking at scales because it just uses the white keys and therefore has no nasty key signatures to confuse the rookie but I find this subject is a lot easier to understand when you start with its relative Natural Minor scale. That scale is the foundation of the keyboard and note naming – A B C D E F G A.
First, let’s divide the scale into two halves: the first four notes and the second set of four. The proper jargon for each set of four is “tetrachord”. That’s not just a boring bit of theory or a buzzword for you to throw around, the lower and upper tetrachords are important building blocks of these scales and will help you get the picture of how they are constructed and how they relate to each other.
Here is the scale of A Natural Minor: A B C D E F G A…
To keep things simple in the diagrams I’m showing the treble clef alongside the tab for the 4-string bass guitar. I think you can handle that even though the notation is pitched higher than the tab. There’s good reason why I’ve included tab – studying this with the guitar gets away from the distraction of all those black and white keys and enables you to focus on the intervals. The finger patterns are the same wherever you start off so if you know the scales of A, you know all of them including the ones with nasty key signatures.
The lower tetrachord is A B C D and I shall refer to this as the lower minor tetrachord. The upper tetrachord is E F G A and I shall refer to this as the upper natural minor tetrachord. Notice that rather than picking the easiest way to play each scale on the guitar I have split the tetrachords onto adjacent strings so that you can easily identify them as you play. I want you to take note of two things: the intervals and the sound of each tetrachord. The Natural Minor has a bluesy feel thanks to the minor 7th.
Next up is A Harmonic Minor: A B C D E F G# A…
The Harmonic Minor starts with the lower minor tetrachord A B C D but the upper tetrachord has the 7th raised by a semitone E F G# A – the upper harmonic minor tetrachord. This gives the harmonic minor scale a classical feel compared to the bluesy feel of the natural minor scale.
Now we take a break from the minors and take a look at A Major: A B C# D E F# G# A…
Compared to the Natural Minor scale, the lower tetrachord has the 3rd raised by a semitone A B C# D – the lower major tetrachord. The upper tetrachord has the 6th and 7th each raised by a semitone E F# G# A – the upper major tetrachord. Notice that the interval pattern and therefore the finger pattern on the guitar is the same for the lower major tetrachord as for the upper major tetrachord. That is handy to know when you get into the Circle of Fifths.
Now for the big challenge… the Melodic Minor scale. This one is tricky because it’s different on the way up than on the way down: A B C D E F# G# A then A G F E D C B A…
Have you spotted it yet? Did you recognize the tetrachords? I hope so, because the mystery of the Melodic Minor is revealed. On the way up it is the lower minor tetrachord A B C D followed by the upper major tetrachord E F# G# A and on the way down it is the upper natural minor tetrachord A G F E followed by the lower minor tetrachord D C B A. Seems pretty straightforward now doesn’t it?
So, play around with these. If you’re using a guitar as I have suggested, change your start position to play in different keys. The fingering stays the same. When you’re comfortable that you know what the scales sound like and you understand the intervals, you can take it to the keyboard.
© Mike Ellison.