When thinking diatonically in functional harmony, we harmonize and build chords based on the Diatonic Scale (Major Scale and its modes). This creates strong and common chord progressions. But what happens if we build chords based upon the Melodic Minor Scale?
Well, it wouldn't be considered “functional harmony,” but the chord progressions would certainly sound interesting. Learning the chords of the Melodic Minor will also aid tremendously in the practical application of the scale. And that practicality shows up in soloing, composition, and general thinking of chord-scale relationships.
This article will offer some important “triads” and seventh chords of the Melodic Minor Scale and how we build those chords!
First, Let's Define The Melodic Minor Scale
The Melodic 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*
The only difference between the Melodic Minor Scale and the Major Scale is the third scale degree. Major has a major third, while Melodic Minor has a minor third. This one-note difference may not seem like a big deal. But it changes the scale's harmony up quite a bit, resulting in different chords than the major scale.
I'll add here that we'll be discussing the Melodic Minor in the “Jazz” sense versus a “Classical” sense. This means that we're using it as a single scale. The “Classical” Melodic Minor is one scale ascending (the real Melodic Minor) and a different scale descending (the natural minor or 6th mode of the Major Scale).
To better build chords out of the Melodic Minor, I'll write its modes. I find it easier to build chords when looking at modes because the scale degrees are referenced to a new root. This makes it easy to identify the third, fifth, seventh, and extensions.
Each mode is built starting on a different scale degree of the Scale itself. So the first mode of the Melodic 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 Melodic Minor Scale are as follows:
The modes provide us with easy starting points/roots/1's that make it easy to build chords on each of the notes of the Melodic Minor Scale. So with this primer, let's get into the meat of this article!
Let's Start With The Tertian Chords
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 Melodic 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 Melodic 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:
As we can see above, there are some notes in the scale that yield multiple triads. It's very interesting to me that the 7th note, B, offers both the darkest (diminished) and brightest (augmented) triads!
As we noted before, there is only a one note difference between the Melodic Minor and the Major scale. This difference is big with regards to harmonization of the scales:
The Major Scale yields 3 major, 3 minor, and 1 diminished triad, and only 1 triad per note. The Melodic Minor, on the other hand, includes all 4 triads. It has 2 major, 2 minor, 2 diminished, and 3 augmented triads.
Notice the G augmented and B augmented. They are indeed triads of the C Melodic Minor Scale but don't have the “proper” third and fifth scale degrees according to their mode. Enharmonically, ♭4 is the same as 3, and ♭6 is the same as ♯5. Basically, this means that we have the same notes, but different letter names for those notes based on our reference scale.
Another interesting note about augmented triads is that if there is 1 augmented triad in a scale's harmonization, there are automatically 2 more! Stacking 2 major thirds creates the augmented triad, and if we stack another major third, we reach our octave. E♭, G, and B augmented triads all share the same exact 3 notes.
Let's look at the tertian seventh chords of the C Melodic Minor Scale:
Notice that we have fewer tertian seventh chords than we have triads. That's only because we're keeping tertian harmony in mind and only using minor and major third intervals to build our chords. The Melodic Minor Scale offers the harmonization of 5 of the possible 7 different tertian seventh chords (The Major Scale offers 4). There's a lot of harmonic variety in the Melodic Minor Scale!
As with most of our common heptatonic scales, the 5th degree of the Melodic Minor Scale offers a dominant seventh chord, making the perfect cadence of V7-i. In the case of C Melodic Minor, this cadence is made with G7-Cmin/maj7.
So these are the tertian chords harmonized from the Melodic Minor Scale.
But there are many other chords that can be made:
We have suspended chords, pseudo-triads, modal chords, quartal chords, secundal chords, non-tertian seventh chords (just to put some names to the possibilities). The bottom line is that any combination of 3 or more notes. This means that in any heptatonic scale (having 7 notes), we have 99 possible unique chords (not including all their different voicings).
35 three-note chords
+ 35 four-note chords
+ 21 five-note chords
+ 7 six-note chords
+ 1 seven-note chord
= 99 unique chords
So there are plenty of possibilities for chords in the Melodic Minor Scale. To write them all out would be tedious, and honestly, most of these rarely ever get used. But to help build harmonic and arpeggio ideas, I'll add some of the more common 3 and 4 note chords I like to use.
Here are some triads and pseudo-triads:
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
Some of these triads show up in my song “Sum Triads,” based on the triads of the C Melodic Minor Scale. I'll add that song here:
Check out the entire Fine Dining With An Octopus album here 😉
Here are some seventh chords:
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 Melodic Minor harmony. Try them out!
Another Way Of Looking At The Chords Of The Melodic Minor
In the chord tables above, I've added the degree numbers in Roman numerals. These numerals apply to the degree of the chord in the Melodic Minor Scale and also to the mode of the Melodic Minor Scale.
Here, the modes are written again with Roman numerals instead of numbers.
Comparing the tables, we get a good idea of some excellent chord scale relationships!
For example, the Altered Scale is a great fit for a melody line over a minor7♭5, dominant7♭5, or augmented7 chord.
Note as well, that there are no “avoid notes” in the Melodic Minor Scale. So say we have a B augmented7 chord, any mode of the C Melodic Minor Scale will work well with it.
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 Melodic 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 Melodic 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.