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The Melodic Minor Scale

In the chapter on the harmonic minor scale we have discussed the importance of a leading tone for pulling back the harmony to the tonic. We had found that only two modes (Aeolian and Dorian) actually benefit from the conversion of the minor seventh interval to a major seventh interval (the leading tone). So far we have only discussed how to apply this principle to the Aeolian or natural minor scale which leads to a harmonic minor scale. We will however come back to the Dorian scale in a minute.

As we already mentioned, the disadvantage of the harmonic minor scale is that it contains this
huge interval between the sixth and seventh degree. While sounding interesting in a sense, other composers felt that this interval was too hard to handle, especially when writing tunes for vocalists.

So they came up with a quite obvious solution: let's raise the sixth degree too from an F to an F#!
This gives us a new scale which is called the melodic minor scale:
Natural Minor or Aeolian (diatonic scale) A B C D E F G A
Harmonic Minor A B C D E F G# A
Melodic MinorABCDEF#G#A

In a classical context - similarly to the harmonic minor scale - the melodic minor scale is mainly used with ascending melodies, while descending melodies use the natural minor scale.
However, in modern styles like Jazz the melodic minor scales is used in both directions.

The sound of the melodic minor scale is somewhat hard to describe: it has a certain melancholic and mysterious quality....check it out....

Here are the fretboard diagrams of natural, harmonic and melodic minor (in the key of A minor) to give you an idea of the changes to the scales on the guitar:

A natural minor or aeolian (diatonic scale):

A Harmonic minor:

A Melodic minor:

As you can see the changes are quite substantial since there is a two note alteration of the melodic minor scale when compared to the parental diatonic scale. If you want to use the melodic minor scale in a classical sense I would recommend to learn all three scales in direct context and to use transformed 6-note patterns.

If you are more into Jazz and Fusion there is also another derivative approach.
You can derive the melodic minor scale from the Ionian or Dorian mode, too.

Now, the above mentioned Dorian mode comes into play.
When we raise the minor seventh of the Dorian mode to a major seventh (leading tone) we get a melodic minor scale! Surprise, surprise!
D Dorian (Key of C major)DEFGABCD
D Dorian-derived Melodic MinorDEFGABC#D

But don't forget, that the notes are different from the melodic minor scale that we built from the Aeolian mode!

Here are the corresponding fretboard diagrams for the D Dorian derived melodic minor scale:

D Dorian (diatonic scale in the key of C major):

D Dorian-derived melodic minor scale

Just for completion, here is a third method for deriving a melodic minor scale from the diatonic scale: lowering the major third of the Ioanian scale to a minor third (from E to D#)!
C Major scale (Ionian)CDEFGABC
C major scale-derived melodic minor scaleCDD#FGABC

Using our fretboard diagrams the whole thing looks like this in the key of C major:

C major (Ionian) scale:

C major-derived melodic minor scale:

The  big advantage of using the Ionian or Dorian mode as starting point for conversion to the melodic minor scale is that you only have to alter one note as compared to natural minor. However, your choice depends soleley on the musical context. If you are more into classical music (including Heavy Metal guitarists!) and you use the harmonic and melodic minor scale very often in your playing, you are probably better of with the first approach. If you are more into Jazz or Fusion the other concepts might come more natural to you.
Personally, I really like the concept of deriving the melodic minor scale from the Dorian mode. But it is your choice - you decide based on personal preference!

So I don't list our usual 6-note patterns here, since I want to completely leave it up to you....

But you probably know by now, how our concept works....

And one final word: don't forget that the diatonic scale is still the most important one! Whenever you feel too confused about so many scales out there, just relax and go back to the diatonic scale....
Don't try to force things, see it more as an organic process of musical growth!

Listen to some of your favourite tunes, analyze the notes and decide what scales you like.

And don't forget: music is fun!