Sunday, December 27, 2009

Practical Melodic Minor Harmony Part I: The Modes

    Although a number of my recent posts on this blog have stressed concepts related to "melodic thinking" rather than generic "scale-on-chord" thinking, I will risk sounding hypocritical by explaining the melodic minor scale by means of chord/scale theory.  As I said before, the scale on chord approach of the chord/scale theory is not at all invalid or undesired, but is yet another concept within the palette of improvisational tools.  Although I believe the guide-tone approach superior to the chord/scale approach, I find the latter to be much more useful for analysis than the former.

    Let's begin by comparing the melodic minor scale to the major scale.  Looking at them from a literal viewpoint, there is only one note that differs between the two scales: the 3rd.  The melodic minor scale is like the major scale except that the 3rd is flatted, however, the two scales have very different sounds.  The melodic minor scale sounds much darker and, depending on the usage, has sort of an eastern tinge to it.
    Take a look at the major scale compared to the melodic minor scale:

    The melodic minor scale is rather ambiguous in classical music theory therefore the names of it's modes are not standardized.  The names for the modes given below are simply the way I learned them, though there are various names for a number of them which are used by different people in different contexts.

  • Mode on the 1st degree:  Minor-major or Melodic Minor or Jazz Minor
  • Mode on the 2nd degree:  Phrygian #6
  • Mode on the 3rd degree:  Lydian Augmented
  • Mode on the 4th degree:  Lydian Dominant
  • Mode on the 5th degree:  Fifth Mode (I have never actually seen any name for this mode)
  • Mode on the 6th degree:  Half-diminished
  • Mode on the 7th degree:  Altered or Diminished Whole-tone or Super Locrian
    The various modes that are this scale are used in a number of situations, however I will describe the most common ones here.


    The first mode of melodic minor is usually used with a minor-major chord.  Minor-major chords have a minor 3rd and a major 7th, just like the minor-major scale.  They are often used as the tonic minor chord in a minor ii-V7-i (the i is the tonic minor).

    Minor-major chords are also sometimes used as a substitute for minor 7 chords, but only if it is not functioning as a ii chord in a ii-V7 progression.  In other words, the only time a minor-major chord can't be substituted for a minor 7 chord is when it is followed by a dominant 7th-type chord a fourth higher, as in the progression Dmin7 - G7 - CMaj, where Dmin7 is acting as the ii chord.  The exception to this, of course, is if the minor 7 of the chord is also the melody note.  The major 7 in the minor-major chord would clash with the sound of the minor 7 in the melody.


Fmin7 - Bb7 - EbMaj7#4

The Bb7b9 is a dominant 7th-type chord whose root lies a fourth higher than the root of the Fmin7, so we should not substitute an FminMaj chord for it.

Fmin7b5 - Bb7 - Ebmin7

Since Ebmin7 is functioning as the tonic minor chord and is not followed by a 7th chord up a fourth, we can substitute EbminMaj7 for it, as seen below.

Fmin7b5 - Bb7 - EbminMaj7

Phrygian #6

    If you haven't figured it out already, this mode is just like the phrygian mode of the major scale, except that it has a raised or natural 6th instead of a lowered 6th.  Spelled from C it would be C - Db - Eb - F - G - A - Bb - C.  The flat 9 makes this scale ideal for playing over susb9 chords.  Usually, this chord will be constructed with the root, b9, 4th, and 6th, as opposed to the 3rd and 7th that normally determine a chord's quality.

Lydian Augmented

    The third mode of melodic minor, as its name suggests, is similar to the lydian scale in that it has a raised fourth degree, however it also has a raised fifth degree which is what makes it augmented.  When spelled from C you get C - D - E - F# - G# - A - B - C.  The chord that dictates this scale is a lydian augmented chord, usually written as Maj#5.  Now, at first glance this chord symbol seems to include nothing to indicate a #4 which would make it a lydian chord.  This is because it doesn't, plain and simple.  In modern jazz nomenclature it is common to omit certain parts of a chord symbol, governed by common practice.  It is common to raise the 4th degree in the chord/scale for a major chord, therefore, the #4 is not usually included in the symbol.

Lydian Dominant

    The fourth mode of melodic minor is also one note off of the lydian scale.  In this scale it is the 7th, though.  If you lower the 7th degree of the lydian scale, you get lydian dominant.  Starting on C it is spelled C - D - E - F# - G - A - Bb - C.  This scale is to be used over a dominant chord since it has both a major 3rd and minor 7th.  The raised 4th tells us to add a #11 to the chord symbol so in the key of C the lydian dominant chord would read G7#11.  If you are having trouble with the terms #11 or #4, remember that 9 is the same as 2, 11 is 4, and 13 is 6.

The 5th Mode

    I have never really seen a name for this mode, but then again I've only heard it used once or twice.  This scale has a flat 6 and a flat 7.  Spelled from C it would be C - D - E - F - G - Ab - Bb - C.  It would suggest a dominant chord because of the major 3rd and minor 7th, and the flat 13th would make it a 7b13 chord, but the 4th and b13th will clash with the harmony of the chord.  For this reason, this scale is not really used in this manner.  Most people will use the altered scale on this chord, which is the 7th mode of melodic minor.  If a tune calls for this scale, it will probably be as a tonic minor chord that is written with the 5th in the bass.  This would be written as a slash chord, which in the key of C minor would be written CminMaj/G, where the fifth mode would be spelled G - A - B - C - D - Eb - F - G.

Locrian #2

    The sixth mode of melodic minor is called locrian #2 because it is like the locrian mode from major harmony, except that the second is raised.  From C it is spelled C - D- Eb - F - Gb - Ab - Bb - C.  Since it has a minor 3rd, minor 7th, and flat 5th degree, it is used for a minor 7 flat 5 chord (min7b5).  It also has a flat 13 which would make it min7b5b13, but for reasons discussed earlier it is usually just notated as min7b5.  Often times this chord quality is notated with just the symbol Ø.  This chord will function as a ii chord as in a minor ii-V7-i, for example GØ - C7 - FminMaj.  You could use G locrian #2 over the GØ in that progression.


    Altered is the name given to the seventh mode of melodic minor because it contains every possible alteration you could make a dominant chord.  Spelled from C you get C - Db - Eb - Fb - Gb - Ab - Bb - C.  At first glance it seems like this scale contains both a minor 3rd and a major 3rd, however the major 3rd is the true 3rd in this instance.  What appears to be a minor 3rd is actually a #9, so the scale has a b9, #9, #11th or b5th, #5th or b6th, and a b7th.  The major 3rd and minor 7th tell us that it will provide a dominant function.  The chord symbol would be 7b9#9#11b13, but it is usually abbreviated with the term "alt," which stands for altered.  It is called altered because it has been altered in every possible way while still retaining its dominant function.

[this series of articles was inspired by Mark Levine's Jazz Theory Book]

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