Harmonic Minor

Improvising over songs that have a lot of chord progressions in minor is always so much fun. The thing I like most about playing tunes with a lot of progressions in minor is that you get to play harmonic and melodic minor scales. Both scales are very colourful. Minor is never dark. Minor is full of the some of the most beautiful musical possibilities available.

In this post, I’d like to look at the “Harmonic Minor” scale. There are a couple of ways one might visualize this scale.

  1. We can visualize the scale as being a natural minor scale with a raised 7th degree.
  2. Another way to visualize harmonic minor is to compare it to the major scale. I like to compare every scale and mode to the major scale. We all know the major scale well so comparing the notes of any mode or scale to the major scale will usually give us a pretty good idea what’s going on. The harmonic minor scale is then a major scale with a flatted 3rd and 6th.

A great standard with lots of minor progressions is “Alone Together.” In this post, I have included a solo over the chord changes to Alone Together and so to make our examples relevant, we will look at harmonic minor scales in D as the song is in D minor.

D Harmonic Minor Scale

Obviously it is possible to play the D harmonic minor scale over a Dm chord but that is not the most interesting and colourful way to use the scale. D harmonic minor is most often played over the IIm7(b5) – V7(b9) chords or the “minor two-five.”

Let’s look at D harmonic minor from E to E. If we look at the R, 3rd, 5th and 7th of the scale, and compare these notes to the chord tones of the IIm7(b5) chord, we see we have all the notes we need.

Now let’s spell our D harmonic minor scale from A to A for the V7 chord. I’ve used “alt” for a very specific reason. We’ll see why in a minute. First, look at the R, 3rd, 5th and 7th of the scale to make sure we have all the notes we need to spell our A7 chord. We have A, C# E and G notes so we are good.

At the beginning of the post I mentioned that harmonic minor was a colourful scale. If we look at the passing tones between our chord tones we see some very interesting notes. We have a b9, sus4 and a b13. The reason one would notate a 7th chord with the “alt” extension is to give the player the flexibility to chose the extensions she or he wants to play in their chord voicings. You can play a simple A7(b9) or an A7(b13) or some combination of b9 and sus4 or any other combination of the 3 possible extensions.

In terms of soloing, harmonic minor is going to allow you to play all of those beautiful passing tones over the dominant chords.

As always, (and this is quickly becoming my way of demonstrating the sound of whatever is being discussed) I’ve included a written solo over the chords to “Alone Together.” I’ve used harmonic minor as often as possible over IIm7(b5) and V7.

Listen to the recording, check out the lines I’ve played and feel free to use as much of it as you like in your own solos.

Author: Michael Berard

Michael Berard was a part-time music professor for over 25 years at Concordia University in Montreal Canada. There he taught jazz guitar, jazz arranging, jazz composition as well as other jazz related courses. He has worked over the years as a jazz musician playing jazz clubs, concerts and studio sessions. Michael has played on numerous recordings including 3 of his own: "It's Autumn," "Little Voices" and "Good News." Michael is also the author of "Jazz Guitar Elements," a comprehensive jazz guitar method and "Jazz Reading Elements," a new jazz sight reading book geared towards jazz guitarists.