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victoria Williams Music Theory

Victoria Williams

LmusTCL BA Mus (Hons) MISM

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Next UK ABRSM Paper-based Theory Exams Grades 6-8:
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Grade Two Music Theory Lesson 4: Minor Scales

Suitable for:  ABRSM Grade 2   Trinity Grade 2   GCSE   AP Music Theory Beginners 


Minor scales sound different to major scales because they are built on a different pattern of tones (whole steps) and semitones (half steps).

Many people think that minor scales sound sad, compared to major scales which sound happy. 


Types of Minor Scales

Although there is only one kind of major scale, there are three kinds of minor scale - "harmonic", "melodic" and "natural".

  • For the ABRSM Grade Two Online Music Theory exam (from July 2020), you will only be asked about harmonic minor. You will not be asked about the natural or melodic minor scale. If you are sitting the paper-based exam, you will be asked to choose between harmonic and melodic minor scales.
  • For the Trinity Grade Two Music Theory exam, you need to know the harmonic and natural minor scales.

We think it's a good idea to learn about all three kinds while you're studying, so let's find out what the difference is!

Natural Minor Scales - A, E and D.

Natural minor scales are built on this pattern:

T - S - T - T - S - T - T

T=Tone (or "whole step")

S=Semitone (or "half step")

If you play a one octave scale on the piano, starting on A and using only the white notes, this is the "natural A minor scale". 

a natural minor ascending 


The descending scales uses the same notes, but in reverse order:

a natural minor descending 


Using the same pattern of notes, we can make the natural minor scales in E and D:

d e natural minor 


This pattern of tones/semitones has another name - it is the Aeolian mode scale.  


Harmonic Minor Scales - A, E and D.

Harmonic minor scales are built on this pattern:

T - S - T - T - S - 3S - S

"3S" = three semitones


Let's start by building a scale of A minor harmonic ascending (going up):



And now let's look at A minor harmonic descending (going down):


As you can see, it's exactly the same notes, but in reverse order.

The harmonic minor scale is like the natural minor scale, but with one important difference - the 7th degree of the scale is one semitone higher in the harmonic minor.


Let's look at the two other minor scales you need to know for Grade Two Music Theory, E minor and D minor.



Play them slowly on a piano, if you have one, and look carefully at how many semitones there are between each note.


Minor Melodic Scales

Melodic minor scales are a bit more complicated, because they have one pattern on the way up, but another on the way down.

On the way up (ascending), the pattern is:

T - S - T - T- T - T - S 

but on the way down the pattern is:

T - T - S - T - T - S - T 

As you can see, the descending scale is not just a back-to-front ascending scale, (as it was in the harmonic scale).

The top end of the melodic scale uses a completely different pattern. The very top note will always be the tonic (keynote) of the scale, but the two notes just below it are the ones which change, depending on which direction you're going in. 

Here's A minor melodic, ascending and descending. Click the play button and concentrate on the notes in red- they're the ones which change on the way down.



Let's see how E minor melodic and D minor melodic look:

E Minor Melodic:

E minor melodic - grade two music theory


D Minor Melodic:
D minor melodic - grade two music theory


Scales and Key Signatures

We'll learn about the key signatures for these scales in Lesson 7 - Key Signatures, and Lesson 8 - Writing Scales.


Extra Info

Just in case you were wondering, in music theory the words "harmonic" and "melodic" can be used to describe intervals as well as scales- but when we use them to talk about intervals they have a different meaning. You'll learn about harmonic and melodic intervals in Lesson 14 - Intervals.

It's correct to say "melodic minor scale" and "minor melodic scale". It doesn't matter which way round! The same goes for harmonic scales.



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