Minor Scales: A Majorly Helpful Guide

Have some minor confusion? Look no further. This clear and comprehensive guide will leave you with a major understanding (of the minor scales).

It can take a while to understand music terminology. It doesn’t help that we use the same words in many different contexts. For example, chords, melodies, and scales can be major or minor. 

What makes something minor? 

If you forget how to number the notes of a major scale, we number them one to seven. 

When you make the third note of the scale flat (lower by a third), it becomes minor, so you need to label it b3. 

In this article, we break down different types of minor scales. Each is unique, but they all have something in common – a b3. 

Natural minor scales.

Natural minor is the minor sound you hear in most Western music. 

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Natural minor formula

To get some context, let’s check out a specific scale. For example, C natural minor.

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CDEbFGAbBb
C natural minor

Unlike the other minor scales, natural minor directly relates to the major scale–like cousins. So much so that every natural minor has a relative major. 

To figure out the relative major, play all the notes of your natural minor, starting on the third degree. For example, the third degree of C natural minor is Eb. 

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EbFGAbBbCD
C natural minor starting on Eb

If you look closely, notice that these are the notes of the Eb major scale. That makes Eb the relative major of C natural minor. If we treat Eb as our root note, the scale looks like this:

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EbFGAbBbCD
Eb major 

Have trouble grasping it? Maybe you need another example. Here is a table with the C major scale and its relative minor, A natural minor.

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C majorCDEFGAB
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A natural minorABCDEFG
C major and A natural minor

Harmonic minor scales.

The harmonic minor scale is famous for its defining role in Jewish and Eastern European music and some Middle Eastern music. Its sound is suspenseful and intriguing, evoking mystery and magic. 

Notice that only one note is different from the natural minor scale – the seven. Instead of being flat, it is natural. 

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Harmonic minor formula

This change is significant because it creates an additional minor third interval within the scale. Can you spot where? 

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Minor 3rdMinor 3rdMinor 3rd —– —–Minor 3rdMinor 3rd
Harmonic minor intervals

It’s between flat-six and seven. This interval is the heart of the minor sound. 

Let’s look at the same key as before–the C harmonic minor scale.

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CDEbFGAbB
C harmonic minor

Before you get too excited, relative majors don’t apply to the harmonic minor scale. There is still a lot to explore with this beautiful minor sound. It will awaken your senses and transport you to different times and places.

Melodic minor scales.

Melodic minor is only half a scale, meaning it is different when it’s ascending than when it’s descending. The descending pattern is one you already know and is identical to natural minor. The ascending pattern is a little different.

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Ascending melodic minor

As you can see, the only note that changes from its natural major state is the three, meaning that ascending melodic minor is just a major scale with a flat three. 

Now, let’s look at the whole melodic minor scale, ascending and descending.

Asc12b34567
Descb7b654b321
Melodic minor scale

When playing the scale on its own, it’s pretty straightforward, but when your jazz teacher asks you to improvise with a melodic minor scale, it gets tricky. Then you have to change the notes depending on whether they’re going higher or lower. What a headache!

So, what’s the C melodic minor look like?

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CDEbFGAB
Descb7b654b321
BbAbGFEbDC
C melodic minor

Advanced minor scales.

In music theory, there is a rabbit hole that we call modes. Modes are this crazy concept: if you play any major scale starting from a different root note, you get another type of scale. It’s a little confusing but stay with us.

Phrygian.

Phrygian is the third mode of the major scale. If you play the notes of a major scale starting from the third degree, it will sound Phrygian. 

For example, let’s write the notes of the C major scale starting with E.

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EFGABCD

If we make E the one, all of the intervallic relationships change, and have the following numeric formula:

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EFGABCD
This is an E Phrygian scale and the formula for the Phrygian mode. 

If you take any major scale and play it starting on the third degree, it contains this formula–and because it has a flat three, it’s a minor scale. 

For clarity and comparison, let’s look at C Phrygian, the third mode of Ab major.

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C PhrygianCDbEbFGAbBb
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Ab majorAbBbCDbEbFG
C Phrygian and Ab major

Aeolian.

The same concept applies to every degree of the major scale. One that may look familiar to you is the Aeolian mode, which starts on the sixth degree of the major scale. Let’s figure this out by looking at the C major scale with its sixth mode, A Aeolian.

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C majorCDEFGAB
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A AeolianABCDEFG
C major and A Aeolian

Recognize this table?

Yep, Aeolian is just another name for a natural minor scale. 

Locrian.

This is one of the crunchier modes, and it starts on the seventh degree of the major scale. Locrian’s numeric formula has almost everything flat. Because of its flat three, it is also a minor scale. 

Let’s take a look at the key of C major, with its seventh mode B Locrian. Let’s also compare it to the B major scale for a more detailed analysis.

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C majorCDEFGAB
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B LocrianBCDEFGA
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B majorBC#D#EF#G#A#
C major, B Locrian, and B major

Listen closely, learn slowly.

This article may look more like math than a music lesson. To play or hear scales and modes, you don’t have to know the numbers–but having this knowledge will make it easier for you to use and identify these sounds when you’re playing or writing music. Learn slowly, be patient, practice repetitions, and it will all sink in. Eventually.

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