As if pianos didn’t have enough melody of their own, pianists are also
recommended to learn the melodic minor scales on piano in addition to the 15 major and 15 relative natural minor scales they’ve already studied.
Learning scales is not too different from learning math; just like it is difficult to fully understand
multiplication without knowing addition, it is difficult to fully wrap your mind around melodic minors without
first knowing the principle scales.
If you haven’t yet studied and mastered those 30 major and minor scales, take time to learn them first before
progressing to melodic minors.
Melodic minor scales are a variation on harmonic minor scales on piano. Only
minor scales are melodic, and there is no such thing as a “melodic major” scale. In fact, it is highly likely that
many songs include passages and chords that relate to the melodic minor more than they will to the natural minor,
and with good reason.
The difference between a melodic and natural minor is only the difference of two notes. Those notes are the
sixth and seventh notes on the scale. All of the rest of the notes are exactly the same, but that sixth and seventh
note augment one half step and makes an enormous difference in the way the end of the scale sounds.
The reasoning behind the melodic scale is simple: first, the natural minor scale sounds weak in these last three
notes because the seventh note is an entire whole step away from the root note. This doesn’t sound quite right. The
harmonic scale adjusts for this difference by augmenting just the seventh note, so that only a half step sits
between the seventh and root notes.
However, this creates another small problem, making the distance between the sixth
and seventh note – a distance of a step and half – sound not quite right either. The melodic scale accounts
for this disparity and reconciles it by augmenting both the sixth and seventh tones.
The sequence of steps in a natural minor scale is whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole. This contrasts
the step sequence of a melodic minor by those two sly differences: whole, half, whole, whole, whole, whole,
The last step, raised by one half step, makes the distance between the seventh note and root only a half step.
So if you play the natural minor scale of A, you will end by playing F, G and then A. However, if you play the
melodic minor scale of A, then you will end by playing F#, G# and then A.
This difference is significant because the last three notes of this minor scale suddenly sound like the last
three notes of a major scale. A much more appealing sound to the ear in that the half step exists between the final
two notes, and there are whole tones leading up to this.
What’s particularly unique to the melodic minor scale is that the raised sixth and seventh notes are only needed
when leading towards the end of the scale, back to the root, and this only occurs when the scale is ascending. When
the scale is descending, the ear does not need to hear these augmentations.
Therefore, the highest three notes of A melodic minor when ascending are F#, G#, A, but when descending would
simply return to the natural minor: A, G, F, and so on. Melodic minor scales on piano are unique, and serve their
own unique purpose in music.
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