Modes of the Harmonic Minor Scale

The harmonic minor scale is considered by some to be the homely sister of the elegant and useful melodic minor. Yes, it's kind of clunky. Yes, it makes you want to the do the snake charmer dance. Just like the melodic minor the harmonic minor scale generates some modes that are very useful for improvisation. Here they are:

  • On a C- maj7 you would play a harmonic minor from the root
  • Over a minor ii/V you would play harmonic minor from the I:
D-7b5 * C harm - starting on D (down a whole step)D.Eb.F.G.Ab.B.C(root, b9, b3,11 b5, 13, b7)
A more modern sound would be to play a melodic minor from the b3rd

G7b9 *C harm- starting on G (up a fourth) G.Ab.B.C.D.Eb.F (root, b9 ,3 ,11 ,5 ,b13 ,b7)
This is a classic Bebop approach to V7b9 chords (some call this scale an Augmented-Phrygian). Bird used this scale on minor tunes all the time and it is distinctly pre-Trane bop. The altered dominant (whole-half) scale
for the most part supplanted this sound in post-bop .

  • Over a Maj 7th chord you can play a harmonic minor scale from the third (Yes, the third)
Gmaj7 *B harm- starting on G: G.Bb.B.C#.D.E.F# (root, #9, 3, #11, 5, 13, 7)
This is called a Split Third Major Scale. Of course You wouldn't want to hang out on the #9.
This scale is very close to the Symetrical Major Scale, which is made up of three major triads a major third apart (C, Eb, E, G, Ab, B) or C triad+E triad+Ab triad.

  • Over minor 9(b5) you can play a harmonic minor starting on the fifth.
D-9(b5) *A harmonic minor from D:D.E.F.G#.A.B.C (root, 9, b3, #11, 5, 13,b7)
You could call this a Minor Lydian/Mixolydian scale.

  • Over a Maj 9 (#5) chord you would play harmonic minor down a minor third.
Dmaj7(#5) *B harmonic minor starting on D:D.E.F#.G.A#.B.C# (root. 9, 3, 11, #5, 7)
This is called a Major Augmented Scale. Notice the clunky natural 11, a melodic minor scale from the same root would give you a #11 instead.

  • Over a diminished 7 (b9) chord you would play a harmonic minor scale up a half step.
Adim7 (b9) *Bb harmonic from A: A.Bb.C.Db.Eb.F.Gb (root, b9, #9, 3,#11, b13, 13)
OK, this is really pushing it but you could think of this scale as an alternative to the Altered Dominant scale.

Obviously some of these scales are more useful than others, and most are not quite as hip as their melodic minor counterparts. These scales do offer some different flavors to add to your harmonic pantry.


WB said...

I've got a whole theory on melodic minor, harmonic minor, and harmonic major. Well, it’s not mine…but I adapted it and ran with it. It definitely comes from more of a theory and composition approach, but it might be interesting and hopefully applicable to someone. Basically, each one of those scales really relates to one of the minor modes, not an actual scale in and of itself. In the case of the harmonic minor, I tend to think of it as the sixth mode (Aeolian) based off of the tonic scale. If you look at the alterations of the scale construct based on Ionian, it makes sense.

Ionian #5
Dorian +4
Phrygian +3 (or Phrygian Dominant)
Lydian +2
Altered Diminished (fits in as Mixolydian)
Aeolian +7 (Harmonic Minor)
Locrian nat.6*

*You can’t really rely on a “natural symbol” on the web, so I just used “nat.”

Most of these modes work great over their Major (Ionian) mode counterparts and other close substitutions. The augmented 2nd adds a lot of intervallic interest as long as it isn’t overused. There are certainly applications for the modes in straight-ahead playing, but there is also a good deal of music written with these tonalities in mind, really getting into the identity of each mode. For jazz applications, check out music by Herbie Hancock, Kenny Wheeler, Keith Jarrett, Richie Beirach, Dave Holland, Maria Schneider, Dave Liebman…the list goes on and on. A safe bet if you’re interested would be looking into music put out on the ECM label. Outside of jazz, there’s A LOT of Eastern European and Middle Eastern music that rely entirely on these modes.

Brian Berge said...

David: Thanks for this post. I was JUST studying these modes & trying to find names for them.

wb: I think that's an interesting approach. I looked at the modes of the Melodic Minor Scale similarly (until different names sunk in that seemed easier to remember):

Ionian b3
Dorian b2
Phrygian "b1" (Lydian #5)
Lydian b7
Mixolydian b6
Aeolian b5
Locrian b4

I think it's notable that the Harmonic Minor makes sense to analyze as a modified relative minor of a Major Scale (i.e. modified Aeolian), while the Melodic Minor makes sense to analyze as a modifed Major Scale (i.e. modified Ionian). Even though the Harm. Min. & the Mel. Min. are only 1-modification removed from each other, they're respectively 2 notes & 1 note removed from the Major Scale.

I think this suggests a different basis of comparison (than Ionian or Aeolian): The Harm. & Mel. Minors are each only 1 note removed from Dorian, which is the most "moderate" mode; in other words, listing them in order from "flattest" to "sharpest", Dorian is smack in the middle.

This reminds me of 2 things:

1. Pat Martino thinks of everything as being based in Dorian. If it's not really Dorian, he's just seeing it as a mode of some key of Dorian (which he thinks of first, apparently).

2. Making up 25% of the chords used in jazz compositions, are Minor 7ths are the most common chords in jazz. If I recall correctly (from my own research) all other types are less than half as frequent. If Dorian is used for much of these, it may very well be the most-used mode.

MonksDream said...

Yeah. These are fruitful approaches. There are some other ways to approach harmony from the perspective of different scales. I studied with a guy named Hafez who liked to try and "cover" everything with a half/whole step diminished scale. Take a c-dim. scale. It contains c-c#-d#-e-f#-g-a-a#-c. If you overlay it on a cmaj. scale, you get a c maj triad, an eb triad (excuse the enharmonic spellings ye music nazis) an f# and an a. In a certain sense, you can think of it as a group of triads that head from extremely inside (the c as the I) to close to inside, (the VI a triad) to bluesier and a little outside (the bIII) to a tritone, which I personally think sounds either really outside or almost monkishly inside. If you then group the other tones in the scales adjacent to each triad, you have a series of upper and lower neighbor tones. Pretty goddamned cool!

Using the same scale over the G7, you might find yourself thinking about the #11, b13, maj. 7 and bIII. Again, the presence of a group of major triads gives you an interesting melodic approach to these outside tones and the natural 13 gives you a way to deal with what Miles once called the most difficult of tones, the b13.

You could start with a straight up dorian (and its pentatonic relatives) to really lock this approach in.

cheers, Bill

David Valdez said...

Hafez Modir the tenor player?

dan said...

Well, Brian, it doesn't matter if you think of it as Dorian or Locrian or whichever mode it is, if you're thinking of it as just an opportunity to place one of those 7 notes over another chord. The real interesting things come when you're thinking in terms of chord tones/non-chord tones, and that's when playing a mode of a harmonic minor scale makes sense. If it's really more informative to make up 7 names for each scale, go ahead.

I was talking with Phil Goldberg on Monday about chord/scale theories. He was trying to make a case that bebop could all be played with Major/Harmonic Minor/Melodic Minor scales and always got hung up on a iim7(b5) chord, because it didn't fit into just one of those exactly. He ended up thinking that it was a V7(b9)/ii, just to make his theory fit. He knows how to play over all of it, of course, he's just getting hung up on how to name it all, how to make a "unified field theory" for jazz improv.

wb said...

I agree with Dan that names are irrelevant when dealing with substitutions, and the chord-tone relationship is what matters. However, it’s important to note that these modes have applications beyond just substitutions.

If you see Dm7, the sky’s the limit. You can interpret that a lot of different ways. When you start getting into nomenclature such as D13[sus4,-9], the composer is looking for a specific tonality, in this case D Phyrgian nat.6 (same as C melodic minor). When dealing with chromatic modal music, it often follows that the more specific the chord information is, the more careful you have to be with substitutions.

MonksDream said...

To respond to David's earlier comment--probably. Hafez Modirzadeh. That,of course is one of his many approaches to the music, including some very amazing quarter tone persian blue notes and some geometric stuff that I've taken even further that I could probably draw up in Illustrator and try and post as a pdf file??

cheers, Bill

David Valdez said...

I would LOVE to see that stuff!
Hafez is an amazingly advanced musical thinker. I've always wanted to study with that guy. If you could put that material into a JPEG I'll post it.

robert said...

I’m having a problem being able to justify a few of your concepts, in particular, to the concept of your use of melodic minor scales here (I know this article is about harm. minor, but you do talk about mel. minor here too). First of note, is your comment about the second mode of harmonic minor. Yes, harmonic minor can be used over D-7b5. It works out fine for all the chords of the entire minor ii/V/i_progression (less the nasty red note, the natural 11, on the V7 chord). But then you say, “A more modern sound would be to play a melodic minor from the b3rd” (from here out “MM” for melodic minor ). I can’t seem to wrap my brain around that no matter how I consider it. If one uses a MM, from the b3rd degree over a D-7b5 chord it just does not work. Maybe you meant using a MM scale from the 6th degree instead. MM from the b3rd yields a Lydian #5 sound (Root, Maj. 9, Maj. 3rd, #11, #5, Maj. 13, b7), and in no way could accommodate a minor7b5 chord-there’s no minor third! It seems like the only MM scale that would work would be from the 6th degree (Root, Maj. 2/9, Min. 3, P4/11, b5, b13, b7). This is very close to the Lochrian mode (all the same notes except for the 2nd degree of the scale). This has the outlined chord tones R, b3, b5, b7, and the major 9th. The b13 could be considered a potential red note. But nothing other than that seems to work. All other modes of MM yield Major thirds *(except MM from the root, or course). So, I don’t hear this working no matter how I slice it. Also, later you talk about the “altered dominant (whole-half) scale” supplanting the augmented –phrygian sound (or commonly know as the Spanish Phrygian scale). I think maybe you might have meant “half-whole” scale. That would make more sense, especially to a learning beginner (actually, I’d probably just say, “altered dominant” to avoid any confusion). The first half of the alt. dominant scale is half, whole, half, whole. The second half being whole steps of course. The only reason why I’m saying anything is to hopefully make these concepts clear to the beginner student. I know MonksDream talked about harmonic spellings and “ye music nazis,” but if things aren’t made clear then a newcomer is really going to be confused. So, clarity of explanation and proper enharmonic spellings are not being a nazi, it’s just good integral teaching to those trying to learn these difficult concepts. I’m sure the gentlemen you’ve studied with would agree and I say this with all due respect.

robert said...

My mistake with regard to the MM scale from the 3rd degree. I said, "MM from the b3rd yields a Lydian #5 sound (Root, Maj. 9, Maj. 3rd, #11, #5, Maj. 13, b7)," and it should have read (Root, Maj. 9, Maj. 3rd, #11, #5, Maj. 13 and MAJOR 7), NOT b7. It is a Lydian #5 sound though.


David Carlos Valdez said...

Over a D-7b5 you would play a MM from the b3 of the D-, which is F melodic.
This fits perfectly giving you:

root, natural 9 (which here is called a #2), b3, 11, b5, b6, b7

This scale is just one note different than a straight Locrian, it has a natural 9 instead of a flat 9. This is a very nice sound. The Bb is not an 'avoid' note at all.

Please clarify the second half of your question for me. I'm not exactly sure what you are asking.