4 Ways to Use the Melodic Minor Scale

The melodic minor scale is a scale that every musician should be familiar with and eventually master. But what many players don’t realize is that this scale encompasses much more than 8 notes to drill in the practice room…

Aside from a minor scale variation to memorize, the melodic minor scale presents a number of unique melodic and harmonic possibilities for any player looking to expand their musical vocabulary beyond diatonic chord progressions.

And as we’ll show you below, this is a scale that you can utilize over major, minor and dominant chords equally well. 

Let’s get started…

What is the Melodic minor scale?

The melodic minor scale is simply a natural minor scale with a raised 6th and 7th scale degree…

Where does this scale come from?

The melodic minor scale is not a naturally occurring scale found in functional harmony, rather a natural minor scale that has been “altered” to tonicize the root.

C natural minor vs.  C melodic minor

Think of it as a melodic tool that can be used to augment your approach to minor harmony and a means of exploring sounds outside of traditional progressions.

Remember, it’s important to understand functional major & minor harmony as it’s used in the vast majority of jazz tunes before you rely on a single scale to improvise. The melodic minor scale is simply one tool to use as you improvise over chords and progressions.

In this lesson we’ll show you how modern jazz harmony and tunes often incorporate chords derived from the melodic minor scale and how you can apply the melodic minor scale to these sounds.

Jazz Theory Unlocked

Practicing the scale

The melodic minor scale contains intervallic content that is not found in traditional chords and modes, and ingraining this scale will add some new technique into your playing. Here are a few ideas for the practice room:

To start, learn the melodic minor scale in every key. *Aim for the raised 6th & 7th tones of each scale:

Play the same scale starting on different notes:

Play the scale in different intervals like 3rd, 4ths, or triads:

Arpeggiate the scale:

Along the way, you should also practice creating simple melodic ideas with the notes and structures within the melodic minor scale.

The facility ingrained in these exercises will become the technique that you draw from as you explore the chords found in melodic minor harmony and improvise using the melodic minor scale.

Harmonizing the melodic minor scale

Beyond learning the basic scale, the melodic minor scale can also be harmonized to create chords that go beyond the confines of traditional harmony…

What do you mean by “harmonizing” a scale?

Harmonizing a scale is simply stacking thirds on top of each scale tone to produce seventh chords:

Use the notes of the scale to build these ascending third structures or 7th chords. For example, harmonizing the first note of the scale, you end up with a C minor maj.7 chord…

This process will produce the various “modes” of the melodic minor scale, revealing some complex harmonies and chords that you don’t find in traditional major and minor harmony:

Below we’ll look at four distinctive chord sounds created from melodic minor harmony and how you can apply the melodic minor scale to each in your solos…

1. Minor Chords (Minor maj. 7)

The most obvious and common application of the melodic minor scale in harmonic progressions is on a minor chord…

By starting on the root of the chord and playing a melodic minor scale, the resulting sound is a minor chord with a natural 13th and a major 7th:

The distinctive part of this sound is the natural 13th (6th) and major 7 on top of a minor chord – these are two effective tools to add to your minor vocabulary as an improviser.

Remember, not all minor chords function in the same way, so be aware of the harmonic situation that you are playing in! The melodic minor scale (or natural 13th/Major 7th sound on minor) is generally applied to the tonic minor chord

Try utilizing melodic structures from the melodic minor scale the next time you play a minor blues or a tune in a minor key. Specifically, aim for the unique sound of the natural 13 and major 7 over the tonic minor chord.

2. Dominant Chords (V7#11)

The next common chord that arises from melodic minor harmony, and one that you can incorporate the melodic minor scale over, is the dominant #11 chord.

This sound comes from the fourth “mode” of a melodic minor scale and one that you often hear used by improvisers on dominant chords…

The implied sound here is a V7#11 chord or a lydian dominant sound:

Another way to think about this sound is that you are implying the related minor ii chord over a V7 chord.

For example, by applying a C melodic minor scale to an F7 chord you are using the minor ii chord over its related V7 – a common technique in jazz improvisation and central to the ii-V relationship…

You can apply this sound to any V7 chord you encounter by utilizing the related melodic minor scale, thinking of the appropriate ii chord, or highlighting the #11. A great place to try this is on a Blues or the bridge to Rhythm Changes.

3. Altered Dominants (V7 alt)

Dominant chords are a great place to create harmonic tension in a solo and using the melodic minor scale is an easy way to access the altered notes of any V7 chord.

Jazz musicians often use the altered scale over dominant chords, which is actually the same as the melodic minor scale, starting from the seventh note.

For instance, on a B7 chord you can use a C melodic minor scale – a melodic minor scale a half-step above the root of the chord:

The resulting sound is a V7 altered chord that includes the flat 9, #9 , #11 and flat 13, every altered chord tone:

This sound is also related to the tritone substitution. For example, by playing the C melodic minor scale or thinking C- over B7, you are accessing the tritone sub ii-V, (C- F7 over B7)…

These are multiple ways of thinking about or accessing the same exact sound: the melodic minor scale = the altered scale = the tritone substitution. All three come from the same harmonic place and provide different melodic approaches to the sound.

Try this sound out on the V7 chords in your solos. Play a melodic minor scale a half-step above the root.

Jazz Theory Unlocked

4. Major Chords (Maj. 7 #5)

Finally, the last chord we’ll look at created from melodic minor harmony is the Major 7#5 sound using the melodic minor scale. By approaching the scale from the third note, you can imply a #11 and #5 over major tonality.

The resulting sound here is a Major 7 chord with a #5 and #11:

Moving beyond the scale…

It’s important to remember that the melodic minor scale and its inherent chords should not exist in your playing only as a theory or scale exercise.

The true musical value comes in applying melody and language to this scale and its related harmonic situations.

After you’ve practiced the basic scale and studied its harmonic applications, it’s time to start focus on approaching them in a musical way.

A good first step is to transcribe melodies and solos over these minor sounds or even the chords derived from melodic minor harmony. The goal is to approach this scale and its inherent chords with musical language.

For instance, you might transcribe a piece of minor language or a melodic phrase like the one from the Clifford Brown tune Daahoud:

The original line implies an Eb- major 7 sound, ending on the 9th of the chord.

The next step is to apply this line to the different harmonic situations we outlined above. Try applying this same line to a V7 chord a fourth above the original chord (Ab7) to get a V7#11 sound or imply a related ii-V:

Remember, you can play the line note for note, or you can isolate a shape or interval and explore your own musical possibilities.

Next, apply the line to a dominant chord to achieve an altered sound, using the melodic minor a half-step above the root of the chord (Eb- over D7):

Finally, take the same line and apply it to a Major 7 chord to achieve a Major 7 #5 sound:

In each case the same exact line is applied to a different chord to get a different harmonic result. Keep in mind that each resulting chord is a “mode” of the melodic minor scale.

Experiment with your own variations and apply different pieces of language to get a different melodic line!

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