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Introduction to the Modes of the Melodic Minor Scale

Most guitarists spend a considerable amount of time studying, playing and experimenting with modes. As you probably know, modes are derived from scales; if you play the notes of a C major scale (all the white notes on a piano) starting from a D, you'd be playing a Dorian mode, or if you play the scale starting from an F note, you would get a Lydian mode. All notes of the major scale produce a mode, even the major scale itself (which is known as the Ionian mode)- and each mode posesses a different color. I will assume that you, as a guitar player, are well aware how modes are constructed and how they are played on the guitar. If not, you should probaby check them out (there are plenty of great lessons on modes here on Myguitarworkshop) and return to this lesson later.

Now, the modes mentioned before all belong to the major scale, but what about other scales? If you think about it, any scale is susceptible to produce a series of modes (one for each note of the scale). In jazz and film music, the modes of the harmonic and melodic scales are widely used. In this lesson, we will focus on the modes of the melodic minor scale, which are commonly used in jazz imporivations and film scoring, since they posess different (and more complex) qualities than the regular modes.

Learning these modes can seem like a lot of work, but if you are already familiar with the modes of the major scale you should not worry; you just have to simply change a note from the modes of the major scale in order to learn the seven modes of the harmonic minor. I will also provide some chords compatible to each mode 

Let's start with the first mode: the Melodic Minor scale itself.

 1.-Melodic Minor Scale or Jazz Minor Scale

To play a melodic minor scale, you only need to alter the third degree of the scale a semitone down (if you are in C, that would mean lowering the E to an Eb. Here is the interval comparison between the two scales (altered note in bold):

Ionian: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7

Melodic Minor: 1-2-b3-4-5-6-7

Easy, right? You have to keep in mind that if you harmonize the entire scale in thirds, your first chord would be a minor chord with a major seventh, written as a imaj7. 

Chords: m6, m7, mmaj7

2.- Dorian b2 or Phrygian # 6

As you probably guessed , to play the second mode of the melodic scale, play a dorian mode but with a flattened second. You can also think of it as a Phrygian ( because of the flattened second) with a natural sixth.

Dorian: 1-2-b3-4-5-6-b7

Dorian b2: 1-b2-3-4-5-6-b7

Chords: 7th, 13susb9, 7b9, 13

3.- Phrygian b1, or Lydian augmented 

This scale is commonly known as the Lydian augmented scale, but in order to facilitate fingering on the guitar, you could also look at it as a Phrygian b1 (lowering the root may seem counterintuitive, but believe me, its easier to learn it this way)

Phrygian: 1-b2-b3-4-5-b6-b7

Phrigyan b1: b1-b2-b3-4-5-b6-b7

Chords: maj7, maj7 # 5

4.-  Lydian Dominant or Overtone scale

To play this scale, you only need to flatten the seventh of a Lydian Mode.

Lydian: 1- 2- 3- # 4- 5- 6- 7

Lydian Dominant: 1- 2- 3- # 4- 5- 6- b7

Chords: 7th, 7 (# 11)

5.-  Mixolydian b6

The fifth mode the melodic minor scale is the result of flattening the sixth of a Mixolydian mode. It brings a colorful b13 sound to any dominant chord.

Mixolydian: 1-2-3-4-5-b6-7

Mixolydian b6: 1-2-3-4-5-b6-b7

Chords: 7th, 9, 13th

6.- Locrian 2

You can get this mode by both flattening the fifth of an Aeolian mode, or raising the second of a Locrian mode.

Aeolian: 1 -2- b3- 4- 5- b6- b7

Locrian 2: 1- 2- b3- 4- b5- b6- b7

Chords: m7b5

7.- Altered scale

The seventh mode of the melodic minor scale is known as the altered scale, and it is probably the most extensively used scale to play over dominant chords in jazz. 

Locrian: 1- b2- b3- 4 -b5- b6- b7

Locrian b4: 1- b2- b3- b4- b5- b5- b7

Chords: 7, 7b9, 7b9,b13, 7b13, 7(# 11) and on any dominant chord.

In order to learn the modes of the melodic minor effectively, you have to practice them on different fingerings all over the fretboard, to play them over different chords and experiment with their sounds, and finally and perhaps most importantly: to actively listen to jazz classics, in order to understand how the greatest players employed them (Coltrane, Parker, Davies, Monk, Mingus, etc.). You can get a lot of melodic ideas and licks out of their solos; in fact, you can find a lot of the transcriptions online or in books like the Miles Davies or Charlie Parker Omnibooks.

I hope you found this lesson useful! Please rate and comment :)

I will be uploading more lessons on jazz guitar for guitarists who are not that familiar with the language (like all of us at some point :p), covering topics like scales, licks, chords, technique, improvisation  and more. 

Paolo C.

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Joseph Lopez
@josephlopez   last year
Nice lesson!
@ddaneskovic   last year
Hi Pauljones, very good lesson. I never knew that minor melodic scale has its modes. If I have time I will write down in regular note system this notes with pencil. I think that regular note system (with tab fingerings below if it is possible) is the best visual way to learn any theory which will be used in practice. Also it will be good for learner (as I am in this case) to transpose it in another key from basic (but without any software like Sibelius, Guitar pro or Finale) with tab fingering before I play it. Another question: Does harmonic minor have its modes?
@pauljones   last year
Thank you ddaneskovic! You're right, it is easier to understand the construction of the scale using the regular notation system. For my next lesson I will include examples in that format and tab fingerings. And yes, the harmonic minor scale also produces a set of modes- I will make a lesson about this, stay tuned!
@ddaneskovic   last year
Thanks Pauljones...I will definitely stay tuned. My goal is to learn something about improvisations in jazz music and, correct me if I am wrong, knowledge of different modes and transposing them which are basics of knowledge in jazz. I admire to good jazz musicians and their practical knowledge about transposition of modes. That is one issue that classical musicians lost long time ago after baroque period when great musicians like J. S. Bach worked. His main musical power was improvisation and practical knowledge about transpositions of scales. Actually he was founder of basics of major-minor scale system that we use in western music until now. But after his work classical musicians started to be little lazy (with all due respect of great individuals) on this issue and more straight in their professionalism especially in this modern times which lead them to downturn in practical point of music.
@pauljones   last year
Interesting point, I guess the use of modal scales and improvisation has not been given so much importance in classical music (although there are some exceptions) because of stylistic reasons- let's not forget most composers of the baroque, romantic and classical period dealt with dissonance in a very different way jazz does(in jazz you don't necessarily need to resolve every dissonance).Even a blues progression goes against most of the compositional 'rules' of classical music. But I agree, Bach often 'broke' most of these rules and did employ a lot of modes and improvisation in his music- in fact, he even improvised a three voice fugue in fron of the king Frederick II once. I don't know why so many classical composers abandoned that path afterwards... Anyway, I just uploaded a new lesson on how to play pentatonic scales of the melodic scale-great tool for jazz improvisation :)
@ddaneskovic   last year
Hi Pauljones...I finally find some time to reply. It took me more then one hour to understand everything that You mention in this lesson (maybe I am not in good form about music theory). There is few things that I did not understand:
1) About chords of root in melodic minor scale: Why did You put m7 (minor seventh) in front of mmaj7 (minor major seventh)? Did You maybe thought of m7 as chord of second step in minor melodic scale?
2) About chords in Altered scale: Why did You put dominant chord with sharped 11 - 7(#11)? If I understood Locrian b4 do not contains any sharped tones. Maybe You thought on enharmonic meaning of b12 tone (in first octave it is b5)
I also sow one minor slip that You made in Locrian b4: 1- b3- b3- b4- b5- b5- b7.
Of course it should be Locrian b4: 1- b2- b3- b4- b5- b6- b7.
Phrigyan b1: (b1-b2-b3-4-5-b6-b7) is really hard for understanding but You are definitely right about lowering the root)
@pauljones   last year
Hi ddaneskovic! Thanks for your comments, and I'm glad to answer your questions:
1) My bad, it was meant to be a minor chord with a major seventh, the first degree of the scale. It should have been written imaj7 or Im Maj7 I think.
2) Thanks for the tip, I corrected the b2 instead of the b3 on the Locrian b4. In the chords of the altered scale, basically the # 11 is the enharmonic of the b5. You can think the b4 as the major third of the chord.
@ddaneskovic   last year
Thanks for these answers, now it is more clear. There are lots of information about constructions of modes of melodic and harmonic minor scale on Internet but there is little about chords that can be use for accompaniment with improvisation on particular scale.
@pauljones   last year
You can always harmonize the scale and the modes by thirds and you'll get the chords you'll need. Most times you'll use the harmonic minor scale when you are in a minor harmony and you need to resolve to the first degree of the scale.For example, in a C minor ii-V-i, you can play the C harmonic minor scale over the whole progression (Dm7b5 G7b9-Cm7) instead of playing the mode for each chord (the sound it's pretty much the same, but it's easier to think about it this way) and it will sound good. This scale is particuarly good when resolving in minor harmony because of the interval between the b6 and the major 7th of the chord. In C minor, you can view the major 7th (B) as the major 3rd of the V chord (G), and the minor 6th (Ab) as the b9 of the V chord , and b5 of the half-diminished 2nd degree. The b9 resolves downwards and the major 3rd upwards to the C, and you get a perfect resolution. You can also experiment and play it over any minor chord progression or over a minor vamp.
@ddaneskovic   last year
Hi...It took me sometime to made this. I made backing track on chords that You mention in previous comment: Dm7(b5)-G7b9-Cm7. I just uploaded this backing track on site like audio file. I hope that it will be useful not only for me. Also I made one improvisation on this backing track in C-minor. I observed a little this chords progression and I tried with improvisation of melody in melodic minor but it definitely not working. Only harmonic and natural minor melody can go above this backing track. But this melody is too classic and ambient. I guess that melodic minor melody will sound more in jazz stile. But I do not know what chord progression will fit best to melodic minor melody. I will make backing track for that (minor melodic) chord progression also. I think it will help someone like me who wants to learn improvisation in jazz. Thanks Pauljones for previous comment. I hope You will like this backing track...
@pauljones   last year
@ddaneskovic Sorry for the late reply. Great, thanks for the backing track! Of course it will be useful. The reason the melodic minor scale is not working in your backing track is because the chord should be a minor chord with a major seventh. On the minor ii-V-i, only the minor and harmonic minor scales will work over the whole progression. You can also play the altered scale (remember that it is the seventh mode of the melodic minor scale) but only over the dominant chord (G7b9).and then resolving to the i chord, which uses the C minor scale again.
@ddaneskovic   last year
Hi @pauljones...Thanks for every like and new comments. If I understood correctly progression of Dm7-G9-Cm(maj7) will work with melodic minor melody in improvisation. I did small observation and it is quite better now with melodic minor scale in melody. It is probably because there are tones: natural "a" and "b" in second tetrachord which modify melodic minor scale. I will make this progression in new backing track for practicing purpose again if this progression (Dm7-G9-Cm(maj7))is correct for melodic minor improvisation.
@pauljones   last year
You're welcome! It's nice to prove these lessons useful with feedback from other guitarists. You could use the melodic minor over the minor ii-V.i but only if the G7 chord had a natural ninth. That being said, usually you'll find a flattened 9th on a dominant chord resolving to a minor chord. As I explained in one of my coments above, the interval between the b9 and major seventh makes the harmonic minor scale sound better over this type of ii-V-i. You can still play the G altered scale over the G7b9 chord too (this mode being derived from Ab melodic minor),and it will resolve perfectly (it has the flat 9th, sharp 9th,#11 and b13) of the G7. I'm interested in listening to your improvisation though, maybe the melodic minor does indeed work over the whole progression alright.
@ddaneskovic   last year
Hi everyone...I just uploaded backing track of for improvisation in C melodic minor. Main chord progression is Dm7-G9-Cm(maj7). Interesting thing is that all sounds are virtual and exported from notation edited in Sibelius. Genre of rhythm is jazz swing and that is most important thing that this backing track will probably work with melodic minor melody in improvisation. I will try to make one improvisation on this backing track for few days, and we will see...
@pauljones   last year
I already gave it a listen, good job! :)