My last post on minor keys covered the three scales you need for most situations in rock, pop and so on: natural minor, harmonic minor and Dorian. There’s also the blues scale, which sounds good in any key, major or minor. For musical Jedi masters, there’s one more valuable minor scale. It’s called the melodic minor scale, also known as the jazz scale. If you want to push your playing or writing in a more adventurous, exotic and challenging direction, melodic minor is a good tool to have in your musical toolbox.
It’s interesting to me that the scale is symmetrical along the G/C# tritone, both in chromatic and circle of fifths representations.
Melodic minor looks innocent enough on paper. It’s just the major scale with a flat third. However, the chords and scales you get from it are exceptionally dark and peculiar. The tonic chord in C is Cm(maj7), sometimes called the major-minor chord:
C Eb G B
You can hear this chord in the first four bars 0f “Chelsea Bridge” by Billy Strayhorn:
The weirdness of melodic minor comes from the way it lives simultaneously in the minor and major key worlds. There’s a constant conflict between the bottom half of the scale and the top.
C D Eb F G -- sounds minor
G A B C -- sounds major
Melodic minor also has more internal dissonance than the major scale and its modes. Major scale has a tritone between its fourth and seventh notes. Melodic minor has two tritones, between the third and sixth, and between the fourth and seventh. In A melodic minor, the tritones are between C and F#, and between D and G#.
Playing melodic minor on guitar
Unfortunately, melodic minor is extremely annoying to play on guitar. All of the fingerings require pinkie stretches and/or position shifts. The only way to make it easier is to not use all six strings. A quick Google search will reveal many fingerings. All of them are hard. But hey, grappling with them will really help you learn the fretboard.
Melodic minor modes
Just like the major scale, melodic minor has modes, new scales you get by starting and ending on notes other than the root. All of these scales are just as weird as their parent, with daunting technical names to match. Two of these scales in particular are invaluable for jazz and other harmonically adventurous music.
F G A B C D Eb
This scale sounds awesome on dominant 7th chords. It also has a special relationship to fundamental physics. Lydian dominant is sometimes called the acoustic scale because its constituent pitches are close to the ones arising from the natural overtone series.
Eastern European folk music uses a lot of lydian dominant. Modern jazz and the artsier forms of rock and metal are fond of it too. Björk uses it on her terrifying song “Pluto.”
The other crucial melodic minor mode is the seventh one. I learned it as the altered scale, and I’ve also seen it less helpfully called the super locrian or diminished whole-tone scale. Altered scale is a crucial part of the vocabulary of jazz from the fifties onwards, especially for the more intellectual players like John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock. Here’s the B altered scale, the seventh mode of C melodic minor:
B C D Eb F G A
Altered scale is a tough one to remember. A good mnemonic is to take the major scale and raise the root a half step. To get B altered, just take the B flat major scale and raise the root to B natural.
The chord that you get from the B altered scale is B7 with a flat fifth (F), sharp fifth (G), flat ninth (C) and sharp ninth (D.) The full chord symbol would be:
B7(b5 #5 b9 #9)
That’s a godawful thing to see on a score. Because the chord is B7 with all the possible alterations to its fifth and ninth, it’s easier to just write:
So say you’re in E or E minor and you hit the V chord, B7. The conventional scale to play would be B mixolydian for a major feel, and E harmonic minor for a minor feel. Coltrane might use one of those, but he’d be just as likely to play B altered, for either major or minor.
Gil Evans makes heavy use of altered scale in the arrangement of Porgy And Bess he did with Miles Davis. Listen at 0:19.
It’s not on YouTube, but be sure to also check out the track “Gone,” which is based around this same altered scale lick, but with an uptempo feel and awesome drumming by Philly Joe Jones. The lick also appears in “There’s A Boat That’s Leaving Soon For New York.” Really the whole Porgy and Bess album is worth a spin.
Tritone substitution and melodic minor modes
In jazz you frequently encounter the ii-V-I chord progression. Here it is in the key of C:
Dm7 G7 Cmaj7
This is a nice sound, but it’s bland. Starting in the bebop era, jazz musicians adopted the practice of replacing V chords with the dominant chord whose root is a tritone away. So in the progression above, you’d replace G7 with Db7. This makes the bassline satisfyingly chromatic:
Dm7 Db7 Cmaj7
The tritone substitution isn’t as music-theoretically crazy as it sounds. The active ingredient in G7 is the tritone between the third B and the seventh F. The active ingredient in Db7 is the tritone between the third F and the seventh B. Because they have their defining tritone in common, G7 and Db7 are functionally the “same” chord.
Here’s where the real fun begins. The maximally hip voicing of G7 in this context is G7alt. The scale that goes with G7alt is the G altered scale, the seventh mode of Ab melodic minor:
G Ab Bb B Db Eb F
For the tritone sub, you want to use Db7(#11). The scale that fits this chord is Db lydian dominant, the fourth mode of Ab melodic minor:
Db Eb F G Ab Bb B
G altered and Db lydian dominant are the same scale, just starting on different notes. The same Ab melodic minor scale sounds equally awesome over each chord. Try it!