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Modes Of The Harmonic Minor Scale And How To Use Them

In the first lesson I posted, I talked about the modes of the melodic minor scale. As I explained in the lesson, just as the major scale produces a set of modes known as the church modes, both the melodic minor scale and the harmonic minor scale also produce a series of modes of their own, which are named after the original church modes plus the alteration (for example, Dorian # 4).  

In classical music the harmonic minor scale is commonly mixed with chords from other minor scales; a chord progression based on chords derived only from the harmonic minor scale will sound too ambiguous (at least from a classical point of view). In jazz, the scale is employed on minor harmonies and minor ii-V-i's, but the melodic minor is usually preferred (no wonder it is also known as the 'jazz scale') The harmonic minor scale is quite popular in rock,metal, folk, latin, blues and eastern music as well- where more than a couple of this modes are frequently used.

Now, why are these useful? Just like with the church modes, each mode can be assigned to a type of chord, and it will add a unique, exotic sound to your solos and melodies. By combining church modes and harmonic minor modes, you can get some really awesome and mysterious sounds and really step up your lead guitar game. Most professional guitarists, both in rock, jazz, blues, flamenco and latin, often use this approach to spice up their melodies and chord progressions. Here is the list of the modes, their construction, and compatible chords (fingerings are all in C, audio is a degree for each mode).

1.-Harmonic Minor Scale

In order to construct a harmonic minor scale, you only need to raise the seventh degree by a semitone; if you were in C harmonic minor, you would have a B instead of a Bb of the natural minor scale. This scale it's most commonly used in minor harmony when the fifth degree is a major chord.For example, if you have a C minor ii-V-i you can play C harmonic minor over the whole progression and it will sound great. You can also use it to add an exotic flavor to a minor vamp. If you harmonize the whole scale by triads, you can make diatonic polychords which sound very modern and not quite like you're used to hearing this scale. Perfect for movie and experimental music.

 harmonic minor scale

Aeolian or Natural Minor Scale: 1-2-b3-4-5-b6-b7

Harmonic Minor: 1-2-b3-4-5-b6-7

 Chords: minor ii-V-i progression, mmaj7, im7

2.- Locrian 6

As the name of the scale suggests, the Locrian 6 is basically a Locrian mode with a major sixth. This scale is commonly used intercheangably with a regular Locrian mode when improvising over m7b5 chords.

locrian 6

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

Locrian 6: 1-b2-b3-4-b5-6-b7

Chords: m7b5

3.- Ionian # 5

You can use this mode to add interest when improvising over Maj7 chords and augmented chords.

ionian 5

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

Ionian # 5 : 1-2-3-4-# 5-6-7

Chords: maj7, maj7 # 5

4.-  Dorian # 4

I have to say, this is one if my favorite modes ever. The characteristic sound of the harmonic minor scale is less obvious in this mode than the others; it does sound like a dorian mode but with an eerie, haunting quality created by the # 4 interval. Listen to Erik Satie's 'Gnossiene No. 3' for an example of  the Dorian #4 at it's best. You can also play it over blues progressions and modal vamps.

.dorian 4

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

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

Chords: m7, m7b5

5.-  Mixolydian b9, b13

Also known as a Phrygian Dominant scale (which doesn't make too much sense to me, since having a minor mode with a major third it's kind of paradoxical - it's easier to think of it in terms of function; being a dominant chord the one this scale is played over, the mode should be called Mixolydian) this mode is perhaps the most used from all or them. It's commonly played over dominant chords. 

phrygian dominant

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

Mixolydian b6,b13: 1-b2-3-4-5-b6-b7

Chords: 7th, b9, b13 and any dominant chord.

6.- Lydian # 2

I personally find this mode the 'less functional' of all of the modes of the Harmonic Minor scale; the major seventh structure it's not compatible with dominant chords and the #2 is not very stable as to be used with a maj7 chord. Still, it can be added to a major 7th chord for a slight dissonant effect.

Lydian 2

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

Lydian # 2: 1- 2- b3- 4- b5- b6- b7

Chords:  maj7

7.- Superlocrian or Altered mode

Enharmonically identical to the altered scale, it is also known as Mixolydian # 1. Though harmonically speaking this may sound strange, it's easy to visualize this scale by raising the first degree and playing the rest of the scale as usual than flattening all of the notes. 

Superlocrian or Altered Mode

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

Superlocrian: 1-b2-b3-b4-b5-b6-b7

Chords: diminished chords

In order to learn this modes effectively, practice them like you would with your regular modes. Try to incorporate these sounds into your improvisations and combine the harmonic modes with the church modes- you'll see how your solos and melodies will sound way more interesting. Remember to play them in different fingerings and all over the 12 keys. I hope this lesson was useful, stay tuned for more lessons like this one! Comments and suggestions are always welcome!


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Savo Kostic
@savo-kostic   last year
Thank you, once again, Paul for all these audio examples, its very useful and completely fulfill your article. Its a great thing that some of these modes. you talking about here, are returning in new compositions today, especially in Disney songs (Tangled, Alladin...). :)
@pauljones   last year
Thanks! I'm glad you find these lessons useful :) Yes! A lot of Disney music is actually quite complex harmonically speaking; the composers use a lot of modes (especially Lydian based modes) and polychords in order to add tension and excitement to a scene.
@ddaneskovic   last year
Thanks @pauljones...very useful lesson again. Especially this scale diagrams that You made. It will help a lot in process of improvisation like left hand patterns that can be visualized now easily.
@pauljones   last year
You're welcome! I thought the diagrams would be useful- I'm glad they did. However, I noticed a mistake on one diagram: the major 2nd is missing on the second octave of the diagram of the Harmonic Minor Scale. Just keep that in mind when learning that particular fingering.