My last post on minor keys covered the three scales you need for most situations in rock, pop, and film scores: natural minor, harmonic minor, and Dorian mode. 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, and if you want to push your playing or writing in a more adventurous, exotic and challenging direction, it’s a good one to have in your musical toolbox.
Note that the scale is symmetrical along a line drawn through D-flat and G. The scale has the same symmetry if you write it on the circle of fifths too.
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 contains one tritone, between its fourth and seventh notes. Melodic minor has two tritones, between its fourth and seventh notes, and also between its third and sixth. In C melodic minor, the tritones are between F and B, and between E-flat and A.
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. On the bright side, 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 the melodic minor modes are worth the effort, because they produce amazing sounds that work great for jazz and other harmonically adventurous music.
F G A B C D Eb
This scale sounds awesome on dominant seventh 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 do too. Björk memorably uses it on her terrifying song “Pluto.”
The other crucial melodic minor mode is the seventh one, the altered scale. (You also sometimes see it 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 a half step below the root, and raise its 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 is:
B7(b5 #5 b9 #9)
That’s a godawful thing to encounter on a lead sheet. Because the chord is B7 with all the possible alterations to its fifth and ninth, it’s easier to just write:
B7 alt is good for making the key of E major or E minor sound way more hip. The conventional scale to play on a B7 chord in E major is B Mixolydian mode, the fifth mode of the E major scale:
B C# D# E F# G# A#
The conventional scale for B7 in E minor is the Phrygian dominant scale, the fifth mode of the E harmonic minor scale:
B C D# E F# G A
You can substitute B altered for either one, it’ll sound amazing:
B C D Eb F G A
Gil Evans makes heavy use of altered scale in the arrangement of Porgy And Bess he did with Miles Davis. Listen at 0:19.
The track “Gone” 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 D♭7. 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 D♭7 is the tritone between the third (F) and the seventh (B). Because they have their defining tritone in common, G7 and D♭7 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 A-flat melodic minor:
G Ab Bb B Db Eb F
For the tritone substitution, you want to use D♭7(♯11). The scale that fits this chord is D-flat Lydian dominant, the fourth mode of A-flat melodic minor:
Db Eb F G Ab Bb B
G altered and D-flat Lydian dominant are the same scale, just starting on different notes. The same A-flat melodic minor scale sounds equally awesome over each chord. Try it!