Using the Melodic Minor Scale

How do you use this scale? Why should you use it? How do you learn it?

These days the modes of the melodic minor are used a lot over dominant chords. For example if you play the 5th mode of the melodic minor (place the 5th note of the scale on the root of the chord) you’ll get a scale with a b7 and a b6. This is a great sound over a dominant chord. You get a nice eastern flavour without going too far in that direction (as you would with harmonic minor). Or if you play the 4th mode of the melodic minor you get a b7 and #4. This gives you that nice Lydian sound over dominant chords. Both these scales work over sus chords too.

There are of course 7 modes of the melodic minor and many of these give you useful sets of intervals for various chords and situations.

Yes you can use the melodic minor over minor chords, but its not that often done these days. What you do hear people doing and what I often do, is to play normal minor scales (Dorian or Aeolian) over a minor chord and occasionally play the major 7 to give it that dark twist. If you do this, you are at that moment in time, technically playing the melodic minor (if you add a major 7 to Dorian) or harmonic minor (if you add it to Aeolean), but you’re not playing the whole thing up and down as a scale.

When it comes to playing over minor chords, I think it might be more useful to think of adding flavour to a normal minor scale (Dorian or Aeolian) with the Major 7 interval, rather than thinking about using the whole scale as such.

Oh and by the way, almost no one plays the melodic minor ascending one way and descending the other anymore. Almost everyone plays it the same in both directions. There are reasons for this.

The main thing with any scale is to think about the intervals it has in it. Think of them as a pallet of colours. If you don’t know what colours you have in your pallet, how can you paint with it? The first thing to do is train your ear and learn the sounds of all the intervals. When you’ve done that, all this stuff makes a whole lot more sense. Otherwise its like we’re having a discussion about colors and but you don’t know what red or green look like yet, Its not that hard to learn the interval sounds, you just have to stick with it.

Once you know your interval sounds really well you may find the chart below useful. As with all scales, even if you know the shapes, you’re unlikely to be able to use them effectively until you know the sound of all the intervals. There is a sure fire test to see if you actually know the sound of a given interval. Play the chord you want to hear the interval over and then while the chord is ringing, sing the interval. Don’t play it first, just sing it. If you can sing it, first time without any messing about, and without recourse to playing the note on the guitar, then you know it. If you can’t sing it, or if you need to find the note on the guitar to remind yourself how to sing it – then you don’t know it yet. Don’t fool yourself by saying things like “I can’t sing”. You don’t need to have a good voice. If you can hum twinkle twinkle little star your voice is good enough!

There are various ways of naming the modes of the melodic minor. I’ve chosen to name them by how they relate to the normal modes of the major scale because I find this an easy way to learn and remember them.

Name Interval content Example chords it can be played over
I min/M7 (Ionian b3) R, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, M7 minor, 5 chord
II dorian b2 R, b2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7 dom, sus7, 5 chord
III lydian #5 R, 2, M3, #4, #5, 6, M7 major 7(#5), 5 chord
IV lydian dominant R, 2, M3, #4, 5, 6, b7 dominant, sus7, 7(b5), 5 chord
V mixolydian b6 R, 2, M3, 4, 5, b6, b7 dominant, sus7, 7(#5), 5 chord
VI Aeolian b5 R, 2, b3, 4, b5, b6, b7 dom, sus, diminished, 5 chord
VII locrian b4 R, b2, b3, b4(M3), b5, b6, b7 dom, sus, 5 chord


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All content © copyright 2011 Mark Wingfield, Dark Energy Music Publishing