What is the point of harmonic and melodic minor?

Chords, scales, harmony, melody, etc.
754 posts since 26 Oct, 2011

Post Tue Dec 03, 2019 8:24 pm

In standard educational material, you're first introduced to the major scale and then to the minor scale. Right after this, you are quickly taught about harmonic and melodic minor; one has a raised seventh and the other one has a raised sixth in addition to the raised seventh "when ascending", while being in natural minor when descending

And then, the material goes on to the next topic - usually presenting all the keys.

This seems to have lead to this idea that melodic minor and harmonic minor both exist as if they were independent scales not only from the natural minor but from each other. But is this really the case? To be particular; wouldn't a better explanation be simply that in case of harmonic minor, there is a borrowed tone (the seventh that gets raised by a half-step) to get the "proper" leading tone for that half-step upwards resolution to the tonic? And to get there, you had the problem of having a minor third interval between the sixth degree (third of the subdominant) and the borrowed #7 which is solved by raising the third of the subdominant thus creating a IV-V-i cadence?

Or is it really acceptable to consider them as independent scales of the aeolian? The non-symmetric nature of melodic minor in particular seems very confusing to understand without the context and the context itself implies that it's less of a scale as much as a problem solving practice. With harmonic minor, it is much easier to argue that the V-i cadence is very much an aesthetic choice (and thus, perhaps it could be considered as a somewhat independent scale from the natural minor). But even if so - there are many aesthetic choices regarding resolution such as the bII chord which do not get a scale for them?

I'd also appreciate if anyone could point me out some historical literature on the matter that shines light into what common period era composers actually thought about the matter. Did they think of them as independent scales?

971 posts since 1 Dec, 2004

Re: What is the point of harmonic and melodic minor?

Post Wed Dec 04, 2019 7:24 am

Yeah. Melodic minor and harmonic minor are mostly just fingering exercises, rather than their own tonalities.

They kinda represent different ways composers would navigate the #7 borrowed tone: Melodic minor kinda simulates cases in which composers borrow the whole 5-#6-#7-1 scale section, and Harmonic minor represents cases where composers just borrow the #7 and let the 6-#7 augmented second appear in their songs (which starts appearing in the Classical era afaik).

Jazz chord-scale theory uses the modes of the ascending melodic minor scale as a basis to explain which pitches to use over many highly altered chords (minmaj7, sus b9(13), maj7#5, 7#11, 7(b6), min9b5, 7#9#5), but it's kindof a totally different system. See here.

1925 posts since 20 Dec, 2002 from The Benighted States of Trumpistan

Re: What is the point of harmonic and melodic minor?

Post Wed Dec 04, 2019 10:59 am

Short answer: yes, yes they did think of them as different scales. Or not as scales, but tonalities.

The key to understanding this is that music has changed; Bach's ears are not ours. These days, we have equal temperament (twelve identical half-steps comprise an octave) and a simple (streamlined?) major/minor system; harmonic and melodic minor are now little more than ways to annoy theory students. It was different when they were invented. First off, church modes were still valid; changing a melody from Aeolian to Dorian was felt as a very different melody, a very different feel, a very different symbolism -- playing "Greensleeves" as written than in natural minor is a good way to getting a taste. Changing modes was a big thing back then. Another thing to consider is temperament; today, twelve equal half-steps comprise an octave. It was different back then: intervals had differing sizes. Bach wrote in well temperament, not equal (and certainly not in Pythagorean just intonation!), and that strongly affected how chords and melodies behaved and stimulated the listener. Grab a microtuning synth and a Bach chorale or fugue, and experiment with the differing tunings; I'll bet it won't take long before you get it. All in all, the differing minor scales/modes/moods/whatever made a big difference back then, but not so much now... these days, people tend to think of it as an altered minor scale rather than a thing in and of itself.
Joy and kindness are acts of resistance -- fight the power!

754 posts since 26 Oct, 2011

Re: What is the point of harmonic and melodic minor?

Post Wed Dec 04, 2019 12:24 pm

Jafo wrote:
Wed Dec 04, 2019 10:59 am
The key to understanding this is that music has changed; Bach's ears are not ours.
But isn't that exactly the problem? Unless there's literature that states directly how common practice period composers thought of the melodic minor, do we really know about that in particular? Because we do know that functional harmony has been developed as a framework to understand what they were doing, but they weren't exactly using this framework either as far as I know.

I've tried searching for the origins of the harmonic minor and I've only found ruminations about how the origins of this scale are not well documented (but it predates common practice era obviously - thus has not much relevance on how common practice period composers related it with their compositions and such literature). The melodic minor in particular is what made me very suspicious - the asymmetric nature of it is highly unusual and it seems very out-of-place in an era that revolved around a rather rigid conception of diatonic scales.

Also, I do understand the aspect of 12tet essentially blurring the real picture entirely. Which is why I'd prefer to read their thoughts on this matter as it would be highly illuminating. The point of non-12tet tuning system causing more characteristic (thus constituting the idea of having an entirely different scale) is a good one, but yet, borrowed tones were already widely used for various ends, with bII being the perfect example - no scales were built to incorporate them even when there was a standard way of using them.

As a sidenote, I took a particular liking myself to the harmonic minor as I like the V-i cadence in particular much, much more than the V-I cadence or v-i if we're talking about standard 4-chord pop progressions and/or vamps without secondary dominants. But whenever I use it, I don't really pay much attention to the seventh degree until the dominant chord comes in and it doesn't really feel like I'm doing much more than borrowing a tone to get the V-i cadence. Now obviously (just like you said), this is really no grounds to argue that this is how Bach would have thought of it. But this is what raised me this question.
MadBrain wrote:
Wed Dec 04, 2019 7:24 am
Yeah. Melodic minor and harmonic minor are mostly just fingering exercises, rather than their own tonalities. [...]
Yeah, I was having something like this in mind. Also, thanks for the link! I actually haven't considered melodic minor as a major with a minor third, so there's been a missed opportunity for me right there. I like I-i movement after i has been established as the tonic so I've used | V-Vaug | I | i | quite a bit and want to learn more alternatives to this. I'm probably still inclined to see the lowered third degree as a borrowed tone especially in this context, but I gotta play around with it

54 posts since 8 May, 2019

Re: What is the point of harmonic and melodic minor?

Post Thu Dec 05, 2019 5:06 am

just practice being as chromatic as possible.

971 posts since 1 Dec, 2004

Re: What is the point of harmonic and melodic minor?

Post Fri Dec 06, 2019 1:06 am

Afaik this evolved out of the so called Musica ficta in the Middle-Age and Renaissance, and it was explained using the Hexachord theory.

In Middle Age theory, the notes you'd have were C D E F G A, and Bb or B (you'd switch depending on the melody and so forth). The mode/scale would either start on D (dorian), E (phrygian), F (lydian) or G (mixolydian). You would build this scale by overlapping 3 hexachords: the base hexachord (C D E F G A), the soft hexachord (F G A Bb C D) and the hard hexachord (G A B C D E). The most important unique feature of each of the 3 hexachords is that they each had a single half-step in the middle (between E-F, or A-Bb, or B-C).

As music evolved (and transposed versions of the modes using F G A Bb C D Eb/E appeared), it started getting more and more harmonic, and having more and more cadences. Cadences sound better and more decisive if they have a voice moving in a half-step (such as having the melody go B -> C in C major over the G7 -> C chords), so in order to be able to resolve cadences on more different notes with this half-step motion, people started adding new temporary hexachords which would have the desired half-step. (they wouldn't write these "fake" hexachords down, so we often have to guess where they were!)

In the mode of D (Dorian), you could build a fake hexachord on A (A B C# D E F#), which would let you create a cadence with a very strong C#-D resolution. Likewise, in the mode of G (mixolydian), you could add a fake hexachord on D (D E F# G A B) to create the F#-G half-step used in cadences.

Eventually, they started doing this so much that the whole system morphed into the major/minor system over time: the F mode evolved into F major, the G mode had the F# from the fake hexachord so often that it evolved into G major, the D mode evolved into D minor, and the E mode seems to have evolved into a weird kind of A minor which started with an E chord and transposed back to E at the very end of the song. All the fake hexachords evolved into borrowed chords.

This is how you got the B C# optional notes in D minor: they were originally part of the fake hexachord on A (A B C# D E F#) to get your cadence towards the final chord on D, and that explains why you use them on the way up but not on the way down in the melodic minor scale.

By the time the harmonic minor scale appeared, the hexachord system was a distant memory, and while the C# was an important part of the harmony (it's in the A7 cadence chord), the B was no longer really necessary and the Bb-C# gap became musically acceptable.

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