Chords Of The Harmonic Minor Scale

Inspired by my Chords of the Melodic Minor Scale article, I would like to present chords based on harmonizing other heptatonic scales.  In this article, we'll discuss the chords of the Harmonic Minor Scale!

More specifically, we'll look at the triads and seventh chords. We'll also look at a cool application of these chords and how they relate to the Harmonic Minor's modes.

So, without further ado, let's build the chords of the Harmonic Minor Scale!

What Is The Harmonic Minor Scale?

The Harmonic Minor Scale is defined by the following scale degrees:

1        2      ♭3         4         5     ♭6         7

Or, Alternatively by the following intervals:

*w = whole step // h = half step // wh = whole step+ half step*

The Harmonic Minor Scale differs from the Major Scale by its ♭3 and ♭6.

It differs from the Aeolian mode (6th mode of the Major Scale aka the Natural Minor) by one note: Aeolian has a♭7 (minor seventh) and the Harmonic Minor has a 7 (major seventh).

Before we get into chords, let's quickly go over the Harmonic Minor modes.

Each mode is built starting on a different scale degree of the Scale itself. So the first mode of the Harmonic Minor Scale is built on the first note (therefore it's the same), and the second mode of the scale is built on the second note, and so on so forth. A mode's scale degrees are in reference to its new starting point.

The Modes Of The Harmonic Minor Scale:

Chords of the Harmonic Minor Scale

Reordering the scale degrees of our parent Harmonic Minor Scale yields these modes. The modes are a very useful tool for building chords since each mode presents a scale degree as a “tonic,” making it easy to see the potential tertian and non-tertian chords.

Let's get into building chords with tertian harmony!

The Tertian Chords Of The Harmonic Minor Scale

Tertian chords are built by stacking thirds. These thirds can be either major (interval of 4 semitones) or minor (interval of 3 semitones). Let's see how many tertian chords are in the Harmonic Minor Scale, starting on each of its scale degrees. We will only cover triads and seventh chords here. Extensions can be added at your own will 🙂

To make things easy to conceptualize, we'll cover the chords of the specific C Harmonic Minor Scale. Made of the following notes:

C         D        E♭     F         G         A ♭    B

Here are the triads along with their modal scale degrees. Check back on the modes presented earlier for clarification:

Chords of the Harmonic Minor Scale

The Harmonic Minor Scale provides us with all four types of triad: diminished (dim), minor (min), major (maj), and augmented (aug).

It's interesting to note the enharmonic modal scale degrees that make up the triads. The 1 ♭3 ♯4 that makes the F diminished triad, or the 1 ♯2 ♯4 that make up the A♭ diminished triad.

We'll notice as well that there are 3 augmented chords (E♭,  G, and B) that all contain the same notes. That's a characteristic of the augmented triad. If you have one augmented triad, you automatically have two more since stacking three major third intervals brings us to an octave!

The whole-half step between the Harmonic Minor's 6th and 7th scale degrees (Aand B in the case of C Harmonic Minor) give us some interesting harmonic options!

The Harmonic Minor Scale has 3 more triads within it than the Melodic Minor and 5 more than the Major Scale.

Let's now look at the tertian seventh chords of the C Harmonic Minor Scale

Chords of the Harmonic Minor Scale

The Harmonic Minor Scale yields 12 tertian seventh chords. That's 5 more than both the Major and Melodic Minor.

By tertian, we mean they are chords built by stacking only minor and major thirds (more on tertian harmony here).

So for example, we have augmented seventh chords (1    3  ♯5 ♭7 or something enharmonic to that) based on our 5th and 7th degrees (A♭ and B in the case of C Harmonic Minor). But the interval between♯5 and♭7 is a major second (not a minor or major third) and therefore augmented seventh chords are not tertian. More on this later.

Another interesting chord I'd like to point out in the full diminished chord (dim7). Full diminished chords are build by stack only minor thirds. Notice how there are 4 of them in our list of seventh chords above, and that they all contain the same notes?

In the same way that if you have 1 augmented triad, you automatically have 3. If you have a full diminished seventh chord, you automatically have 4. These are called symmetrical chords and they're pretty cool!

Functional Harmony?

Although the Harmonic Minor scale doesn't quite fit the bill for our functional, diatonic harmony, it's still pretty functional in music.

It has a dominant seventh chord built on its 5th degree, giving us a classic V7-i perfect cadence.

The Harmonic Minor is sometimes taught as a single scale to play over a minor ii-V7-i in jazz. It works by playing Locrian ♮6 over the half-diminished ii chord; Phrygian Dominant over the dominant (but not altered) V7 chord; and Aeolian♮7 over the min-maj i chord. Because Phrygian Dominant doesn't fit all that nicely over an alt chord, I'd rather stick to variations of the Melodic Minor Scale over minor 2-5-1's. But the Harmonic Minor can certainly be shoehorned in as a “one-scale-fits-all” solution for the minor 2-5-1. My apologies for the Jazz rant.

Non-tertian Chords Of The Harmonic Minor Scale

As we calculated in the Chords of the Melodic Minor article, any heptatonic scale has 99 unique chords (not including different voicings of those chords):

35 three-note chords
+ 35 four-note chords
+ 21 five-note chords
+ 7 six-note chords
+ 1 seven-note chord
= 99 unique chords

Going through all these chords would be very tedious to write out and probably as tedious to read through. So instead of doing all that, I'll provide some common 3 and 4 note chords I like to use.

Here are some triads and pseudo-triads:

Chords of the Harmonic Minor Scale

With the true triads in bold.

I've colour matched chords that are the same but with a different voicing. For example, Csus2 contains the notes C D G and Gsus4 contains the notes G C D. They are indeed the same chord, only voiced differently.

The “modal” pseudo-triads are built as follows:

  • Phrygian “triad” =  1    ♭2        5
  • Lydian “triad”       =  1    ♯4        5
  • Locrian2 “triad”   =  1    ♭2    ♭5
  • Locrian4 “triad”   =  1        4    ♭5

And here are some seventh chords:

Chords of the Harmonic Minor Scale

With the tertian seventh chords in bold.

I've tried to simplify these chords as much as possible. Note that these are examples of “seventh chords” and do not cover most of the 4-note chords that are possible. They all fit with C Harmonic Minor harmony. As I mentioned earlier, the augmented seventh chords are included in the chart. Try harmonizing, arpeggiating, and composing with the chords above and experiment with building more of the 35 total 4-note chords 🙂

Chord-Scale Relationships

Chord-scale relationships are very interesting to study and compose with.

Here are the modes of the Harmonic Minor Scale once again:

Chords of the Harmonic Minor Scale

I have included the Roman numerals with each mode and have listed them in order. Try matching up the Roman numerals between modes and the chords listed above and dive into the chord-scale relationships in the Harmonic Minor scale.

An interesting exercise is to look at the series of chords based on a scale and how we can use them in compositions. For example, of the four main heptatonic scales I talk about (Major, Melodic Minor, Harmonic Minor, and Harmonic Major), the Harmonic Minor is the only one to have a dominant seventh chord on one degree and a major seventh chord on the degree a half step above (the 5th and 6th degrees).

Composing with these chord-scale relationships in mind, we could alternate between G dominant 7 // A♭ major 7 and build a melody out of the C Harmonic Minor Scale. It would work perfectly!

In Closing

As I stated before, there are far too many chords to list out, but the ones featured in this article are a good starting point for building the chords of the Harmonic Minor Scale. Try adding extensions to the seventh chords I've listed, try secundal or quartal harmony rather than tertian harmony. See what you come up with, there are definitely some awesome chords I have failed to mention.

It's not often that we build chord progressions out of the Harmonic Minor Scale, but learning its chords will prove to be invaluable in your study of theory, I promise you!

As always, thank you for reading and for your support.

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