• Shortcomings of the Natural Minor Scale and the Origin of the Harmonic Minor Scale

    in Piano,Scales,Theory

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    If you’ve heard of the natural minor scale variation called the harmonic minor scale and always wondered how this variation came about, then this post is a must for you.

    We’ll be discussing the shortcomings of the natural minor scale and how it created the need for a suitable variation.

    But first, let me take you back a little.

    Even though the use of modes was revived in the 20th century by jazz musicians like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, etc, they are an obsolete melodic system.

    After several centuries, tonality was introduced. In tonality, a note is represented as the key center or key and is associated with the term major or minor. This largely depends on the characteristic emotion the scale evokes.

    The terms major and minor are used to describe key centers (tonalities) and that’s why there’s a major key and a minor key. Even though tonal music replaced modal music, the present day major and minor scales are similar to two modes – Ionian and Aeolian.

    Ionian mode and the major scale are identical:
    origin of the harmonic minor scale

    Aeolian mode and the minor scale are identical:

    In this article, we’ll use C major to represent major scales and A minor to represent minor scales.

    The Leading Note Property

    Major and minor scales have seven degrees. The major scale of C has seven tones:

    The minor scale of A has seven tones:

    Each tone is seen as a degree of the scale. Every degree of the scale has its technical name and this largely depends on its tonal position and/or function.

    1st Degree = Tonic

    2nd Degree = Supertonic

    3rd Degree = Mediant

    4th Degree = Subdominant

    5th Degree = Dominant

    6th Degree = Submediant

    7th Degree = Subtonic or Leading tone (see below)

    A scale is said to have the leading note property if the distance between the subtonic (seventh) and the tonic (first) is a semitone or half step. The subtonic can be called a leading note or leading tone if a scale possesses such a property.

    Between the subtonic and tonic of the major scale (B-C) is a semitone or half step.

    Between the subtonic and tonic of the minor scale (G-A) is a wholetone or whole step.

    From the illustration above, the major scale has the leading note property while the minor scale doesn’t. This is the shortcoming of the pure natural minor scale – it does not have the leading note property.

    The Harmonic Problem

    Let’s look at the strongest progression in tonal music: the 5-1 progression.

    Earlier in this lesson, we associated the fifth degree of the scale with the technical name – dominant.

    In the major key, from chord 5 to chord 1 will imply a movement from G major (the dominant) to C major (the tonic).

    The chord progression from the dominant (chord 5) to the tonic (chord 1) will have a stronger pull because of the presence of the leading note (B). Therefore, the leading note is the essential harmonic attribute of dominant chords (in tonality) that determines the strength or pull of the dominant to the tonic.

    In the minor key,  a chord movement from chord 5 to chord 1 (the harmonic destination) is given as E minor (the dominant) to A minor (the tonic).

    The chord progression from the dominant (chord 5) to the tonic (chord 1) is weak because the leading note (G) is not a chord tone of E minor. Therefore, the absence of the leading note in chord 5 creates a weaker progressions in the minor key.

    The Harmonic Solution – Origin of the Harmonic Minor Scale

    Being faced with the harmonic problem of the natural minor scale – that is, the absence of the leading note in its dominant chord, there was need to add the leading note to the minor scale. The leading note is a semitone lower (and sometimes higher) than a given note. In the case of the key of A minor, its leading note is G.

    In traditional practice, duplication of notes that belong to the same alphabet is forbidden because it yields a false relationship called musica ficta. Therefore, G is substituted with G to yield a new scale:

    Owing to the harmonic solution this scale provides, it’s universally known as the harmonic minor scale. In this new scale, the quality of the dominant changes from minor to major because of the G now present. Therefore, a 5-1 progression in the minor key now uses E major – A major:

    The presence of the leading note (G) in the dominant chord creates a stronger pull to the tonic.


    Final Words

    The implication of the leading note property in the minor scale is that it gives us a new scale that has the harmonic ability that the natural minor scale does not have.

    Secondly, it builds the bridge that connects keys (parallel relationship between keys). For instance, A major and A minor will have the same dominant. Likewise, D major and D minor will have the same kind of dominant chord on their 5th degree.

    The natural minor scale still has its place in tonal music. However, when it comes to harmony, it is substituted with the harmonic minor scale because of its shortcoming.

    Until next time.

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    Onyemachi "Onye" Chuku is a Nigerian musicologist, pianist, and author. Inspired by his role model (Jermaine Griggs) who has become his mentor, what he started off as teaching musicians in his Aba-Nigeria neighborhood in April 2005 eventually morphed into an international career that has helped hundreds of thousands of musicians all around the world. Onye lives in Dubai and is currently the Head of Education at HearandPlay Music Group and the music consultant of the Gospel Music Training Center, all in California, USA.

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