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Thread: Application of the modes in melodic/harmonic minor harmony

  1. #1
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    Question Application of the modes in melodic/harmonic minor harmony

    Hey all. I did a search but couldn't find the answer I'm looking for. This is my first post. I'm an intermediate guitarist of 12 years. Mostly self taught, picking up a lot more theory recently. Hopefully this is in the right section of the forum.

    This IS a modes question, but it's a bit different:

    I know my modes shapes (well) and to a decent extent how to apply them fairly well when used in basic major/minor harmony.

    I learnt basic harmony, and how if you play the notes of a C major scale over D minor (and target the D), then it sounds Dorian. With E > Phrygian, etc.

    Then after reading Chris Juergensen's article about rediscovering/superimposing the pentatonics, I realised a similar approach could be taken with the diatonic chords, superimposing them over other chords of the scale:

    That is: In basic harmony, over the I, IV and V chords, you can play either ionian, lydian or mixolydian starting from the root note of those chords and it will sound good. Likewise, over the ii, iii and vi chords you can play either the aeolian, dorian or phrygian modes. I guess this is just 'pitch axis'.

    So now the question is: I'm trying to apply this same logic to the melodic minor and harmonic minor parent scales, but it's not looking as simple. BTW apologies in advance if the way I notate chords etc is a bit off):

    The melMin chords are:
    i minMaj7
    ii min7
    III maj7#5
    IV 7
    V 7
    vi min7b5
    vii min7b5

    Using the same logic which works for the simple major parent scale: If we take the first mode, and try playing it over the the second chord (as they are both have a minor third), you get two notes in the scale which are different from the scale harmony.. the scale will have a #2 and a #7 compared to the chord tones (because of the Maj7 from the i chord). Does this really mean that you can ONLY play the first mode over the first chord of the melodic minor? I haven't read anything anywhere to indicate otherwise... but I find it hard to believe, when the modes of the major parent scale can be swapped around without much thought.

    Similar things happen if you try swapping the 3rd, 4th or 5th mode shape over the IIIaug, IV and V chords. You always get 2 or more notes going against the harmony of the chord.

    Trying to 'swap' the 6th and 7th modes over the vi and vii chords also give 2 "different" notes from the chord.

    And I won't even go into harmonic minor yet, as it seems to have even more variety in it's harmonized chords.....

    Are those modes REALLY 'locked' to their chords... which is the impression I'm getting no matter what modes I 'plug in' over what chords.

    I know that in 'normal' harmony you can mess with the 2nd, 4th, 6th and to some degree the 7th tones over a chord and you just end up with lydian/mixo or whatever sound... but in these scales where the 5th's are often flatted or raised, it messes up my 'plan'

    I'm not really looking for a 'these are the scales that will work, go play them answer' so much as a 'this is how you can figure it out for yourself' (that way I can figure out the harmonic minor part myself.

    The reason I want to figure it out on paper first, is because when I knew jack about the basic modes, I needed to see it on paper and go 'OH!' before I knew it worked on the guitar and played it that way. Kind of a seld enforced "Read the FKN manual". This is even more true with melodic and harmonic minor, as while I have a decent ear, it's not so advanced that I can automatically tell if I'm on the right track if I was to just try different modes of these scales (although I'll be trying it tonight anyway cos I'm out of ideas).

    Thanks for ANY help in advance and sorry for my babbling. I wanted to make sure I explained my exact query properly.
    Last edited by sl33py; 12-16-2010 at 02:42 AM.

  2. #2
    Registered User Malcolm's Avatar
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    Good ole Google came up with this. Might get you going.
    http://www.jazztheorylessons.com/200...c-minor-scale/

    Scroll down until you get to:
    Harmonic minor modes
    There are seven modes of the harmonic minor scale but only two of them are regularly used. I would suggest learning mode one (the harmonic minor) and mode five (the phrygian dominant scale) really well but I wouldn’t worry too much about the other modes. Some of the harmonic minor modes can be useful to get ideas and new sounds but you will find very little use for them in day to day playing. Here is a list of all seven modes of the harmonic minor. Some of these scales may have multiple names but I have chosen the ones I think are most descriptive.
    Then take it from there. Modes make since, to me, if I pay attention to their interval sequence, i.e. 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, 7. Why the 7 and not the b7 - that kind of thing. The interval sequence makes it a lot easier to use in a song situation - want one of the modes - use pitch axis - stay in key and use the characteristic interval sequence. Now that I can use - and understand. In Relative modes I turn to Jell-O if I start trying to figure out what is what.

    Gotta throw this in. With out the characteristic note droning in the modal vamp good luck sustaining the modal mood. Just "doing the mode" is only half the story.

    Good luck.
    Last edited by Malcolm; 12-16-2010 at 11:45 PM.

  3. #3
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by sl33py View Post
    Hey all. I did a search but couldn't find the answer I'm looking for. This is my first post. I'm an intermediate guitarist of 12 years. Mostly self taught, picking up a lot more theory recently. Hopefully this is in the right section of the forum.

    This IS a modes question, but it's a bit different:

    I know my modes shapes (well) and to a decent extent how to apply them fairly well when used in basic major/minor harmony.

    I learnt basic harmony, and how if you play the notes of a C major scale over D minor (and target the D), then it sounds Dorian. With E > Phrygian, etc.
    Right.
    Quote Originally Posted by sl33py View Post
    Then after reading Chris Juergensen's article about rediscovering/superimposing the pentatonics, I realised a similar approach could be taken with the diatonic chords, superimposing them over other chords of the scale:

    That is: In basic harmony, over the I, IV and V chords, you can play either ionian, lydian or mixolydian starting from the root note of those chords and it will sound good. Likewise, over the ii, iii and vi chords you can play either the aeolian, dorian or phrygian modes. I guess this is just 'pitch axis'.
    Yes - but pitch axis is not always a good principle to apply in any conventional major or minor key song. In a progression in a key, each chord has a function, which will be disrupted if you play a non-diatonic mode (you will be introducing 1 or 2 "wrong notes", for no good reason).
    This can sometimes be done on the tonic, but it will usually sound wrong if applied to any other chord in the key.
    Keep pitch axis for any non-diatonic sequence, where a long time is spent on one chord, and/or where the chords don't share a key scale. (And even there, take note of any melody present, which will suggest an appropriate scale.)
    Quote Originally Posted by sl33py View Post
    So now the question is: I'm trying to apply this same logic to the melodic minor and harmonic minor parent scales, but it's not looking as simple. BTW apologies in advance if the way I notate chords etc is a bit off):

    The melMin chords are:
    i minMaj7
    ii min7
    III maj7#5
    IV 7
    V 7
    vi min7b5
    vii min7b5
    Your chord names are fine.
    Quote Originally Posted by sl33py View Post
    Using the same logic which works for the simple major parent scale
    up to a point....
    Quote Originally Posted by sl33py View Post
    : If we take the first mode, and try playing it over the the second chord (as they are both have a minor third), you get two notes in the scale which are different from the scale harmony.. the scale will have a #2 and a #7 compared to the chord tones (because of the Maj7 from the i chord). Does this really mean that you can ONLY play the first mode over the first chord of the melodic minor?
    Yes. If it's a m(maj7) chord, the only scales that will fit are melodic minor or harmonic minor. In jazz at least, melodic minor is preferred, unless the player is after a "Spanish" effect.
    Quote Originally Posted by sl33py View Post
    I haven't read anything anywhere to indicate otherwise... but I find it hard to believe, when the modes of the major parent scale can be swapped around without much thought.
    Well - they "can" . But "without much thought" is the clue. With a little more thought (or maybe more experimentation with real music) you may realise it can't be done as freely as that in every situation.
    Quote Originally Posted by sl33py View Post
    Are those modes REALLY 'locked' to their chords... which is the impression I'm getting no matter what modes I 'plug in' over what chords.
    Yes!

    Bear in mind I'm speaking about jazz convention here - accepted common practice in that genre, rather than laws you must follow whatever you do - but in jazz melodic minor is used in very specific ways.

    1. Only the tonic mode is used over its own chord (see below about chord III). IOW, for the tonic chord in a minor key, the most likely choice is melodic minor (whatever other scales may be used elsewhere in the tune). The reason for this is that every note of the scale sounds good against the chord. You can add 6th, maj7 and 9th extensions, and all are cool. (Dorian is likewise cool, is another common choice.)

    2. Some of the other modes are used over different chords, and for similar reasons to the above - because they provide a useful set of notes, with no clashes against chord tones (as the usual diatonic scales do).

    Exhibit A is the 7th mode: 1 b2 b3 b4 b5 b6 b7. This is used on altered dom7 chords, and known as the altered scale. The "b4" becomes a major 3rd, so the scale provides the 3 essential chord tones (root 3rd 7th), plus b9 and #9 and b5 and #5.
    Eg, an "E7alt" chord will use F melodic minor, which provides root-3-7 (E-G#-D), plus F (b9), G (#9), Bb (b5), C (#5). (Enharmonic spellings don't matter too much here.)
    Typically E7alt resolves to Am, but can also go to A major.
    The idea behind it is not just a lot of nice crunchy alterations on the chord (although you certainly get those) but a whole slew of half-step resolutions on to chord tones or extensions on the following chord.

    Exhibit B is the 4th mode 1 2 3 #4 5 6 b7. This is known as lydian dominant, and is used on 7#11 chords (and 9#11 and 13#11). Think of it as "mixolydian #4" if you like.
    Lydian dominant chords occur most often as bII chords in minor keys, and sometimes as bVII or IV chords in major keys.
    Eg "Bb7#11" will take the F melodic minor scale, and will resolve either to Am or to C. (And you might sometimes see it as IV in F major, or resolving to A major. You might even see it used as V in Eb major, although this is surprisingly rare.)

    Notice that F melodic minor resolves to an A minor tonality - in the guise of either an altered E7 chord, or a Bb7 chord (Bb7 is tritone sub of E7, of course).

    The other modes are much rarer.

    Exhibit C would be mode VI, aka locrian natural 2: 1 2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7. As you might guess, this could be used on m7b5 chords, if a major 9th is desired. Many jazz chord players like the sound of a 9th extension on a half-dim, which would be the reason for using this scale. (Obviously if the m7b5 chord is a vi chord in a minor key, it's ideal. But I don't think I've ever seen a half-dim vi chord...)

    Exhibit D: mode II, or phrygian natural 6. Suitable in a phrygian modal tune, as an alternative to normal phrygian. (Only in phrygian mode, note: not on a iii chord in a major key, where it may sound odd, as the different note is the raised tonic.)

    The remaining two modes are V (mixolydian b6) and III (lydian augmented). The latter might well be used on its own chord - if you ever see a maj7#5, which is quite rare.
    The former has too many "avoid notes" for jazz tastes (P4, b6). However, it kind of makes sense as a scale on a minor key V chord - seems an obvious choice anyhow, and definitely worth a try.


    As I say, I'm just talking about normal jazz usage as described in theory books - nothing to stop you doing very different things if you like the sounds.
    Last edited by JonR; 12-17-2010 at 12:38 AM.

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    Thanks for that JonR Very useful information. Gives me more ideas to try!

    I guess it does make sense that there are less scales available over those chords, as they have more alterations than the chords in basic maj/min harmony.

  5. #5
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    The other thing worth pointing out about harmonic and melodic minor is they are "synthetic" scales - invented by European musicians as alterations of Aeolian mode, designed to make it fit the then fashionable concept of the "minor key" (because they felt Aeolian mode, or natural minor, didn't quite work well enough).

    The modes of the major scale have a history of centuries - even millenia - of widespread use in all kinds music. They aren't exactly "natural" either - they've evolved from ancient inventions - but at least their versatility has been proved over time.

    So you can't expect that harmonic and melodic minor are going to be as adaptable in the same way. They can certainly be used in ways not envisaged by their inventors (as jazz musicians do), but don't expect major scale-style versatility or interchangeability.

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    Something else to consider is that the 7 chord of the melodic minor scale is often seen as a dominant altered chord rather than a min7b5. You get the min7b5 from taking every other note in the mode....

    for instance the 7th mode build on E looks like this....

    E F G Ab Bb C D E

    If you take every other note, you get the Em7b5

    E = root
    G = 3rd
    Bb = b5th
    D = 7th

    But if consider every note in the mode, you get a wonderful E7alt. arpeggio...

    E = root
    F = b9th
    G = #9th
    Ab = 3rd
    Bb = b5th or #11th
    C = #5th or b13th
    D = 7th

    A lot of jazz players use the 7th mode to play over altered dominant chords rather than min7b5 dhords. When both the b3rd and 3rd are in a scale, its not uncommon to treat the b3rd as a #9.

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