February 2019

Techniques: Harmonic Minor Scale

The harmonic minor scale is a common element of Middle Eastern music, as well as Western pieces seeking an exotic flavor – such as Duke Ellington’s “Caravan.”

National Standards: 1-3, 5-7, 9, 11


Have the class read Techniques: Harmonic Minor Scale (page 24 of the student edition). The article breaks down applications of the harmonic minor scale in four parts.

Key points in the article:

    • Harmonic minor scales are common in Western music, but even more common in Middle Eastern music.
    • The scale is utilized frequently in jazz improvisation or as the basis for an entire piece like Duke Ellington’s “Caravan.”
    • The difference between natural minor and harmonic minor is the seventh step. In a harmonic minor scale the seventh degree is raised a half step above the natural minor seventh.
    • Playing i-iv-V chord progressions can help you hear the harmonies of the harmonic minor scale.


Example 1

After reading through example one as a class, ask students to close their eyes and listen carefully. Play these two scales in whichever order you choose. Then have students decide which scale was natural minor and which scale was harmonic minor.

  • Was this a simple task or more of a challenge?
  • If you have a piano available, play both sevenths one after the other to highlight the difference between both scales to train students’ ears

Example 2

If available, play the arpeggios in example 2 on a piano. Play the arpeggios on the second line (with seventh chords) slowly and multiple times through. 

  • Notice the change between these two lines and how adding a seventh to each chord creates a new color in the harmony

Example 3

  • Play Tom Waits’ “Jockey Full of Bourbon” 

  • If possible, play the chords along with the song on a piano during the guitar solo. Then play the melody provided in example three.
  • What “colors” do the sevenths add to the melody? Do you like them?

Example 4

Play “Los Bibilicos”

  • Have students follow along with the sheet music in Example 4 as you play the vocal track.
  • When does the key change?

Take Home

  • This video is very helpful (for guitar players in particular) in describing the relationship between a natural minor and harmonic minor scale when played over a chord progression.
  • The video focuses on improvisation techniques and how to know when to include natural and flat sevenths.
  • If you wish, play this video for the whole class to supplement their understanding of sevenths and how changing their degree changes the sound of the chord.
  • If not, share this link with the class so they can continue their learning when they are practicing at home.