• Why The Ascending Form Of The Melodic Minor Scale Differs From Its Descending Form

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    If you want to know why the ascending form of the melodic minor scale differs from its descending form, then this lesson is for you!.

    Most scales on the piano have an ascending form that is related to the descending form. The only difference between both may just be the order of the notes. For example, the C major scale:

    …ascends from C:

    …to C:

    …and descends from C:

    …to C:

    I’ll be explaining why the ascending form of the melodic minor scale differs from its descending form, but before we do that, let’s do a review on the melodic minor scale.

    A Note On The Melodic Minor Scale

    Every key (whether major or minor) has its traditional scale. The traditional scale of a key gives you an outline of the notes in that key. The traditional scale of the major key is the natural major scale, while that of the minor key is the natural minor scale.

    The natural minor scale has two chromatic variants – the harmonic minor and the melodic minor scales. Simply put, the melodic minor scale is a chromatic variant of the natural minor scale.

    The term chromatic is used to describe an idea (be it a note, scale, interval, chord, or chord progression) that is foreign to a given key.

    The A natural minor scale:

    …is the traditional scale of the key of A minor, hence, it outlines all the notes in the key of A minor.

    The A melodic minor scale:

    …contains a modification of the sixth and seventh tones from F and G:

    …to F# and G#):

    …which are foreign to the key of A minor.

    In a nutshell, the melodic minor scale is a natural minor scale modified with chromatic or foreign notes.

    “Before We Proceed, Why Is It Called The Melodic Minor Scale?”

    The melodic minor scale was derived from the harmonic minor scale (another chromatic variant of the natural minor scale) which is formed by raising the seventh degree of the natural minor scale by a half step

    Raising the seventh tone of the A natural minor scale:

    …which is G:

    …by a half step (to G#):

    …produces the A harmonic minor scale:

    The A harmonic minor scale:

    …is a gapped scale that has a dissonant melodic interval between its sixth and seventh tones (F and G#):

    The interval from the sixth degree of the A harmonic minor scale (which is F):

    …to its seventh degree (which is G#):

    …is an augmented second interval.

    The augmented second interval between the sixth and seventh tones of the harmonic minor scale sounded harsh, and constituted a melodic problem. (If you are from a classical background, you’ll probably remember that all augmented and diminished intervals are dissonant.)

    In a bid to solve the melodic problem of the harmonic minor scale, the sixth degree of the harmonic minor scale (which is F):

    …was raised by a half step (to F#):

    …to form another chromatic variant (of the natural minor scale):

    …named after the melodic problem it solved, hence, the name melodic minor scale.

    “In A Nutshell…”

    The melodic minor scale can be considered as a natural minor scale with its sixth and seventh degrees raised by a half step. The A melodic minor scale:

    …is a natural minor scale:
    that its sixth and seventh degrees (F and G):

    …are raised by a half step (to F# and G#):

    “For Your Reference, Here’s The Melodic Minor Scale In All Twelve Keys…”
    C melodic minor scale:

    C# melodic minor scale:

    D melodic minor scale:

    Eb melodic minor scale:

    E melodic minor scale:

    F melodic minor scale:

    F# melodic minor scale:

    G melodic minor scale:

    Ab melodic minor scale:

    A melodic minor scale:

    Bb melodic minor scale:

    B melodic minor scale:

    To take you to the next level in this lesson, let’s divide the melodic minor scale into two equal parts (aka – “tetrachord”.)

    The Upper And Lower Tetrachords Of The Melodic Minor Scale

    Tetrachord comes from two Greek words – tetra and chord. Tetra means four while chord means notes. Violin players are familiar with the tetrachord because they play all the notes of the major scale using only two strings – four notes per string.

    Every traditional scale can be broken down into two tetrachords (four notes per string), the lower and upper tetrachords. On the piano, the first four notes of a scale is the lower tetrachord while the last four notes belong to the upper tetrachord.

    In the A melodic minor scale:

    …the lower tetrachord consists of A, B, C, and D:

    …a set of four notes, while the upper tetrachord consists of E, F#, G#, and A:

    So, the A melodic minor scale:

    …can be broken down into its lower tetrachord:

    …and upper tetrachord:

    …respectively.

    “A Contrast Between The Upper Tetrachords Of The Natural Major And Melodic Minor Scales…”

    Let’s take a look at the lower and upper tetrachords of the A natural major scale:

    The lower tetrachord consists of A, B, C#, and D:

    ..while the upper tetrachord consists of E, F#, G# and A:

    Due to the fact that the upper tetrachord of the A natural major scale:

    …and the upper tetrachord of the A melodic minor scale:

    …are identical, playing the first four notes (tetrachord) in the descending form of the A melodic minor scale which are A:

    …G#:

    …F#:

    …and E:

    …sounds like we are playing the descending form of the A natural major scale.

    Due to the identical upper tetrachord that melodic minor and natural major scales have, the upper tetrachord of the natural minor scale is used to substitute the upper tetrachord of the melodic minor scale.

    So, while playing the A melodic minor scale in descending form, the upper tetrachord of the A natural minor scale:

    …is played instead of the upper tetrachord of the A melodic minor scale:

    …and this produces the descending form of the A melodic minor scale…

    A:

    G:

    F:

    E:

    D:

    C:

    B:

    A:

    …that is identical with the descending form of the A natural minor scale.

    “In A Nutshell…”

    The A melodic minor scale has a regular ascending form:

    …that differs from its descending form (the A natural minor scale):

    Final Thoughts

    The reason why the ascending form of the melodic minor scale differs from its descending form is because the natural major and melodic minor scales are identical in their upper tetrachords.

    The relationship between both scales makes it possible for the melodic minor scale to be derived from the major scale.

    “Check It Out…”

    Lowering the third tone of any given major scale by a half step produces the melodic minor scale. For example, the C major scale:

    …can be used to form the C melodic minor scale by lowering the its third tone (which is E):

    …by a half step (to Eb):

    …to derive the C melodic minor scale:

    …which has the same upper tetrachord:

    …with the C major scale.

    Thank you for your time and see you in another lesson.

    All the best!

    The following two tabs change content below.
    Onyemachi "Onye" Chuku (aka - "Dr. Pokey") 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.

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.




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    { 6 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 David Thompson

    As with every attempt at explaining this, the eventual conclusion is that, “they differ simply because they do”. Best just to accept it and don’t be distracted by trying to understand it. A scale is a scale, the melodic minor is actually two scales, and one or other should be given a different name.

    Reply

    2 yaak

    Thanks that was helpful. had to read through a tonne of basic music theory to get to the answer but the answer was interesting

    Reply

    3 Nirrol

    Yup, several pages of theory that explain absolutely nothing about the question being asked. The truth is that the scale is not different when descending, it is a different scale. Originally it was simply an exercise for students to learn both variants of the minor scale at the same time.
    It is the exact opposite of modal theory where someone says “Play D Dorian here, then play G Mixolydian there, …, maybe a bit of A Aeolian” when what they actually mean is “Play C Major over the entire thing”

    Reply

    4 Chuku Onyemachi

    The melodic minor scale was never designed as an exercise.

    It is a traditional scale and NEVER an etude. If you are saying it’s an exercise or etude, who designed it and who wrote it. From a historiographical point of view, your stance is flawed.

    If you play the first four notes (tetrachord) of the C melodic minor scale in descending order, you’ll have “C-B-A-G” which are NOT different from the notes of the major scale in descending order.

    The use of a different descending scale (reverting to the natural minor scale) is for disambiguation.

    Reply

    5 Rajeev

    what is minor scale called where 3rd and 7th are minor but 6th is major ie only 6th is raised

    Reply

    6 aron

    pretty sure that’s just the dorian mode

    Reply

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