This week I wrote a little set of exercises for my students that explore the different types of minor scales. The exercises are in the form of five four-bar tunes, that I’ve transposed into all the keys for easy practising.
What’s the point of the exercises?
These tunes are ideal if you’d like to get more familiar with playing in minor keys but want an alternative or supplement to just playing through your regular scales. I’ve taken the main characteristics of the different types of minor scales but put them in a melodic context, so you get the enjoyment of playing an actual tune as well as the benefit of scale practice. Different rhythms and articulations are used to add to the technical challenge, and also to make the studies sound more musical and interesting.
What are the different types of minor scales used?
Natural minor: this type of minor scale is the easiest as it simply follows the key signature. Exercise 3 is based on this scale
Harmonic Minor: this type of scale also follows the key signature, but has one important alteration – the 7th degree of the scale (i.e. the 7th note in the scale as you ascend) is raised by a semitone. This widens the interval (the distance) between the 6th and 7th notes, which gives a very distinctive sound that reminds a lot of my students of music from other parts of the world such as the Middle East. In A minor, the 7th note of the scale is G (A B C D E F G), so G is raised to G#. Exercise 2 is based on this scale.
Melodic minor: this is the most complex type of minor scale as there are a slightly different set of notes on the way up compared to the way down. Ascending, you follow the key signature as normal but also raise the 6th and 7th notes by a semitone. Descending, you simply follow the key signature, so the 6th and 7th notes are no longer raised. In A minor, the 6th and 7th notes are F and G, so their sharp versions are used when the melody is rising, but they become natural again when the melody descends down the scale. (You may notice that the descending melodic minor is the same as the natural minor.) Exercise 1 is based on this scale.
Arpeggios: minor scales have corresponding arpeggios just like major scales. An arpeggio uses the root (1st), 3rd and 5th notes of the scale, so the A minor arpeggio is made up of the notes A, C and E. Exercise 4 is based on this. I’ve included the arpeggios for the dominant (5th) scale degree and the subdominant (4th), as it’s common to see these primary triads (three-note chords, or arpeggios) together. In the case of A minor, the dominant is E major (E, G# and B), and the subdominant is D minor (D, F and A).
Minor pentatonic scale: pentatonic scales, as the name suggests, have five notes. The minor pentatonic features the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 7th notes of the natural minor scale. The resulting sound is familiar, folky and bluesy (the blues scale is based on the minor pentatonic, with one additional note). Exercise 5 is based on this scale.
A note on names…
The harmonic minor is so called because it’s the scale that was traditionally used to build the harmony (chords) for minor key pieces in western European classical music of the 18th and 19th centuries.
The melodic minor was used for melodies in that same tradition, because raising the 6th and 7th notes in ascending figures (and reverting to their defaults on the way down) avoids that widened interval that the harmonic minor has, which sounded stylistically jarring to listeners of that type of music at the time.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that these are rules that should be followed universally (unless you specifically want to mimic that particular style). Music from other parts of the world, other time periods and other social contexts use scales in all sorts of different ways, giving a huge variety of distinct sounds. Don’t feel like you have to follow ‘rules’ intended for making western European concert music from the late 1700s if you want to make jazz, folk music, pop, or any other style.
Using the exercises
I’ve made two versions of the document that you can download below – one version is in a suitable range for the clarinet, and the other is slightly altered to suit instruments that don’t play below a written middle C or Bb, such as flutes and saxophones. Pianists can choose either.
If you’re confident with all your minor scales (or at least all your major scales), then you could pick an exercise and practise it in each key as written. You’ll be more confident in some keys than others, so work on the keys that you find trickiest.
If you’ve only learned some of your scales, you could try playing all the exercises in the keys you know so far (e.g. if you’ve learned A minor and E minor, play through each exercise in just those two keys, i.e. just the top two lines of each page).
You can also pair them with other pieces you’re playing – for example, if you’re learning a piece with a key signature of two sharps (D major or B minor), you could warm up by playing through one of the exercises with that key signature.