The Harmonic Minor Scale - Part 1
This month let’s take a look at the Harmonic Minor scale. Remember that when you see a key signature, you could be in a minor rather than a major key. For those of you new to this concept, what we are referring to is the major relative minor concept. For every major key, there is a minor key that shares the same key signature, hence the name relative minor. To determine any major key’s relative minor key, you simply go to the sixth note of the Major scale. For instance, to get the relative minor of G, go to the sixth note of the G scale, which is E. Em is the relative minor to G Major, sharing the one sharp key signature.
Now, let’s take that concept a step further, to show you how you can use scales you already know to learn new ones. In most theory books and classes, you will first be taught the natural minor scale. The approach is to start on the sixth note of the Major scale, to get the relative natural minor scale. So taking the key of G as an example again, you start on E and play up an octave, giving you E, F#, G, A, B, C, D, and E, the E Natural Minor scale. The process then, is to take this scale, and to sharp the seventh note. This gives you E, F#, G, A, B, C, D#, and E, the E Harmonic Minor scale.
While this works, why not find an easier way to do this, using something you have already learned. The rule to remember is this, take the Major scale that the Harmonic Minor you want play is relative to, and sharp the fifth note. For E Harmonic Minor then, take a G Major scale and sharp the D or fifth note. This then, gives you, G, A, B, C, D#, E ,F#, and G, which is the same sequence of notes, just starting on a different note. You don't always have to play root to root, and in fact, it is better to practice from the lowest to highest note that you can on your instrument. How you approach that kind of practice will of course, depend on your instrument, but you get the idea.
The point of this is to show how you can take a scale you already know, and by altering one note, get a whole new scale. Rather than approaching the Harmonic Minor scale as a completely new scale, you are merely altering a familiar pattern, thus shortening the learning curve to add the scale to your musical vocabulary. Whenever you are learning anything new like this, always look to see if there is something you already know contained in the new material, thus making it quicker and easier to learn.
As with all of your scales, you want to practice these in all twelve keys over the full range of your instrument. Refer back to past installments of this column, in order to get other patterns and variations to use to practice these. Use as many variations as you can to practice these, not only to get fluid with them, but to break out of any overly scalar patterns you may find yourself falling into. Remember that all of the things you are learning here are just additional "paints in your paintbox", allowing you to be better able to play what you hear.