Melodic Minor Harmony

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Let’s take a look at how we can use the Melodic Minor Scale. This scale has some benefits and detriments over the Major scale. One benefit is that there are really no avoid notes in the scale. However a detriment is that we can not use only one melodic minor scale while improvising. We need to shift between different melodic minor scales.

ii-V-I in Major

Take a look at the example below. This is a ii-V-I progression in the key of C. You’ll see from this example that we can use the C Major scale over the entire progression. This makes it easier when improvising. We can simply think “O.K. I have a ii-V-I in the key of C so I can use my C Major scale to improvise.”

ii-V-I in minor

Now, take a look at the example below. This is a ii-V-i in minor. You’ll notice that the chords are changed to reflect the minor tonality. The G7alt has a flatted 9th and would normally have a flat 13 as well, but I am simplifying the voicings here. However, pay close attention to the scale…C melodic minor. The scale just downright does not work over the D-7b5 chord. It is not bad, but certainly not great over the G7alt chord. It would work wonderfully over the C-Major7 chord though.

What scale should I use over a minor ii-V?

You will want to use (3) different scales over a minor ii-V. Let’s take a look at the ii-7b5 chord. You’ll see from the example below that it is derived from the melodic minor scale. It is the 6th mode of the melodic minor scale.

If we play the C melodic minor scale from A to A, we get this:

You might hear musicians or theorists refer to the 6th mode of the melodic minor scale as being the “2 chord” within the key. This can be confusing, but now you should see that 6th mode of the melodic minor scale is the only mode of the scale that gives you a ii-7 sound. In this case, it is a ii-7 with a flatted fifth.

Here’s a trick. When playing a minor 7 flat 5 chord, think about the melodic minor scale built on the minor 3rd. This is the scale that you want to use for improvisation. So….

  • A-7b5 = C melodic minor
  • D-7b5 = F melodic minor
  • F-7b5 = Ab melodic minor
  • Bb-7b5 = Db melodic minor
  • …and so on

V7 Altered

We will cover this in more detail in our upcoming Melodic Minor Harmony lesson (available to members later this week and on DVD next month), but for now let’s just talk about the “tricks” that you can use on the V7alt chord.

When you see a V7 chord with or without tension alterations. So, with the fancy flatted 9ths and 13ths or without, you can often use the altered scale. The altered scale is derived from the melodic minor scale.

The 7th mode of the melodic minor scale gives us an altered sound. Take a look at the Ab melodic minor scale below. You’ll see that on the 7th note (G), if we use notes from that scale to create a chord on that note G, we get a very cool sound. You’ll also notice that it creates a lot of tension on this note.

Here is another way to look at it. If we break this chord into 2 hands, we can play a R7 in the left hand and super-impose an Ab-Maj7 chord on top of the G7 chord shell.

Now, let’s reduce that G7 chord into a left-hand voicing. You’ll see here that the voicing has the 3rd and 7th of the chord, but also the b9 and b13 (#5). If we play the Ab melodic minor scale in the right hand, we get the G altered scale.

Where do we go from here

Later this week, a Melodic Minor Harmony lesson will be released which will go into much more detail about melodic minor. If you are a member, login to see that lesson.

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Paul Buono has returned to the JazzEdge family as an instructor.  His professional piano/keyboard experience includes national and international touring, university professor, musical director, pit

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  1. I thought that I would be getting the DVD of the Hanon lessons that Willie was demonstrating on youtube. How do I get that program?

  2. My ignorant improvising has theoretical bases! This discovery is inspiring. I cannot understand all the details yet–but I can see that my thinking pays off. E.G.,
    “Playing in A, if I start on D in the right hand, and the F in circle of fourths, and progress one interval in each hand, I can end on F# in both hands. And this progression is a bridge from the key of A to the key of F# . The song is in A, the chorus is in F#.I think F# is the relative minor, and so a good choice for the chorus.

  3. My head is exploding. But I guess if I stay with this long enough, some of it will gel. (smile).

    Great education!

  4. sorry willie but i don’t know roman numerals so, i did’nt really get into this, john

    1. Willie, allow me to respond to this for you. John, if you’re ignoring the Roman numeral method of chord progressions, you’re missing a powerful tool to transpose progressions across different keys.

  5. I think I’ll do an article on the Roman numeral analysis and why it is great for transposition and progression memorization!

  6. Thx Willie i have been learning piano theory for 5 years now and i,m getting quite comfortable now with your teaching that i find is mostly often more suited to advanced learners.Having learnt all my scales i tend not to bother practicing the melodic minor scale which is just the same scale starting as a major scale but with the 3rd flatted but i guess it would be beneficial to get this scale and its individual chords and their relation to other scales put into my daily practise as i really could not give you the name of each individual chord of the melodic minor scale off the top of my head the way i could with other major and minor scales.So its getting a priority now thx

  7. I do not see the flatted ninth on your G7 alt in your example of 2-5-1 in minor. Or were you leaving out the flatted ninth like you left out the flatted 13th?

    1. Hey Parker,

      It gets confusing, but just because it is an altered chord or a flatted 9th chord, you do not always need that note in the chord. This allows greater flexibility to use shells or alternate voicings. We still label the chord a b9 so that when soloing we know what the harmony is.

  8. Thanks Willie for the tips. To summarise when improvising over a II V I minor chord progression, is this correct :
    First chord II (Half diminished=Minor 7th flat 5) – Scale used to improvise melodic minor based on minor 3rd e.g.Amin7th flat5 gives C melodic minor because C is the minor 3rd. In other words, just take the second note in the half diminished chord, as the root of the melodic minor.
    Second chord V (Dominant from root (i.e. I) with flattened 9th (and or flattened 13th=sharp 5) – For example, scale used to improvise over the dominant V is the melodic minor scale based on a semitone above. E.g. G7alt=A flat melodic minor starting on G. Another example would be to use C sharp melodic minor over C7th flat 9/flat 13=sharp5.
    Third chord : I Minor major 7th based starting on root (i.e. minor triad with major 7th on top) – Scale used to improvise over the I min Maj 7th such as C min Maj 7th would be C melodic minor. Similarly if it was A min Maj 7th, the scale would be A melodic minor.
    Could you also use the harmonic minor scale a tone below the I over the complete II V I minor changes, diminished scales/ Locrian sharp 2/ Locrian over the II in the minor II V I chord progressions? A list of all the scales that one would use over each chord in the II V I minor chord progression would be really helpful. Thanks Willie for your help.