[Smt-talk] Harmonic and Melodic Scales

Ninov, Dimitar N dn16 at txstate.edu
Sun Dec 1 09:57:13 PST 2013

Dear Nicholas and the list,

I think there is generally a huge discrepancy that needs to be addressed in a most decisive manner. It consists of the wrong assumption, widely accepted by what some refer to "our western culture" (if ancient Greece - the source of arts and sciences in our culture - has been a western country, I do not mind) - that scale degrees 6 and 7 in minor are mobile, but scale degrees 6 and 7 in major, are not. This wrong assumption leads to threads of other discrepancies and inconsistencies in western conventional music education, which I will refer to instantly.

Nicholas, you say: “The question, however, is whether he understood such shifts as resulting from scale shifts, say from 'natural' (or 'diatonic') major to 'harmonic' major, which would seem to me an unduly complex description, so much more complex than explaining that the subdominant can become minor as a result of the mobility of the 6th degree.”

Nicholas, you may use the same logic about harmonic minor: "unduly complex description, so much more complex than explaining that the minor dominant can become major as a result of the mobility of the 7th degree.” Right? Why do you call this scale “harmonic minor”, and not simply “minor raised seven” or "minor with a  mobile seventh degree"?

I am frequently astounded by such logic: many theorists seem to attribute the mobility of minor’s 6 and 7 scale degrees to some magical event that has nothing to do with modal mixture and, at the same time, they seem to be unaware of the fact that scale degrees 6 and 7 in major are also flexible.  The usual title in most textbooks : "The major scale and the three minor scales", already puts students on the wrong path, not to speak of the sentence, ” Because of the mobility of 6 and 7 degrees in minor, more chords are possible in minor than in major”. For me, this kind of approach reveals incompetence, for degrees 6 and 7 in major may be as flexible as they are in minor, and the quantity and quality of the triads and seventh chords obtained in major are exactly the same as those in minor!

I am also astounded to learn by Ildar that a colleague has been "fascinated" my harmonic major, as if this is a new discovery of the XX century! For God's sake, let us please play Ich grolle nicht, Op.48 by Schumann to sense the flavor of harmonic major in measures 3 and 4 and later in the recapitulation! This is neither an exotic event, nor a "bizarre Eastern innovation" - it is Schumann, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin - the period of common practice.

As for Rimsky-Korsakov, he uses the minor IV as soon as he explains the relationships among the main triads in major mode, before even introducing the auxiliary triads. On the other hand, our students have to wait for three semesters to use the minor IV in a major key, because this is explained to them as a big deal, called  "modal mixture", as if the use of harmonic and melodic minor is not modal mixture which students have been using since the very beginning of their musical education...

I am convinced that such discrepancies must be removed.  Students from specialized middle and high  schools of music across my native country know what the three basic versions of major and minor are, and as soon as they study harmony, they think of the use of minor IV, VII dim7 and II half-dim7 in major as something natural. They do not have to wait for years to learn that modal mixture is an essential part of the major minor system and it begins with harmonic and melodic minor on the first day they study scales.

As for melodic minor, I agree with Bruce in principle. The hybrid scale (ascending melodic and descending natural) called by some teachers "melodic minor" is used a lot in music but does not have to be called "melodic minor", for genuine melodic minor in unchanged ascending and descending form has been into existence for centuries. It is enough to open any minor piece by Bach to see its ample use. Immediate example: Fuge in C minor (I). The examples are so frequent, that nothing justifies the name of "melodic minor" as attached to a hybrid scale that consist of ascending melodic and descending natural. I called it a hybrid scale, and I use the term "genuine melodic minor" to clearly differentiate from the hybrid. Jazz people, wrongly assuming that they have first started to use genuine melodic minor,  call it "jazz melodic minor". Well, Baroque is quite remote historically from jazz, but it makes an ample use of genuine melodic minor.

Summary. Things are simpler that we all think they are. The study of scales must begin with the pure diatonic system in the form of natural major and natural minor, as part of the old mode system. Students must be told that the diatonic core of any key is reflected by its key signature, which reflects only the chords built on the natural major and natural minor scales. Along with this presentation, students shall be told that scale degrees 6 and 7 are flexible in both major and minor, and this flexibility is an essential part of the "western major-minor system" which is considered "an expanded diatonic system". 

Harmonic scales emerge mostly a result of seeking characteristic chords which perform a stronger function (major D in minor and minor S in major), while melodic scales emerge as lines which neutralize the augmented seconds in the melody, and they may or may not be sources of harmony (melodic minor yields  major IV and other chords, and Rimsky also uses those in his book, by the way, and melodic major uses bVII and Vm, but such use depends on style). After all these details, students shall be trained to recognize the sound of all three versions of major and minor, with some appropriate harmonies along the way. 

One thing is certain: students shall be made aware that the so-called common practice period begins a little before the Baroque era and still has not ended; in many a simple popular song (Let It Be, for example), film music, and some genre music related to dance, harmonic progressions are not different than those used in the XIX century. Not only this. Standard jazz tunes may be considered "an extended CPP" for they are built on the T-S-D-T model (I-VI-II-V-I). The differences lie in the consistent use of extended chords and substitutions, but nine chords are deliberately used by Chopin and other composers, and chord substitution can be tracked back to classical music with VII6/5 alt of V, for example (Ab7 resolving to G as substitute for D7).  

One cannot study modal mixture comprehensively if all they study is the Picardy third in minor and bVI and IVm in major.  This is ridiculous. Every - literally every chord may be borrowed from major to minor and vice versa. This may eventually change the style, of course. This is why modal mixture studies shall include excerpts from Prokofiev, Schostakovich, Bartok, Hindemith, Honegger, Orff, and many others. One thing that I find strange is the exclusion of the Neapolitan from the Chapter "Modal Mixture" and studying it separately. Modal mixture does not mean only chords borrowed from the opposite mode but also chords borrowed from old modes, where they exist potentially. The N is obtained under the influence of the Phrygian mode.

An immediate example of full melodic major scale is the famous slow theme in C major by Rachmaninoff: sol do--- sol si-bemol sol sol fa sol sol----; mi fa mi la-bemol sol fa mi sol fa mi re sol----etc.  The scale remains intact for some time, harmonized by a tonic orgelpunkt, and near the end the harmonic dominant comes in. What a nice melodic major in late romantic music! 

In conclusion, I have discovered that students learn the CPP if they do not think of it as a box with clearly set parameters. It is better to think of it as an oscillating system, which does not ask for permission to demonstrate original features and to tease the ever heavy, frowning, inflexible and wise "western culture" which only exists in the minds of art historians (ha-ha).

With best regards,


Dr. Dimitar Ninov, Lecturer
School of Music
Texas State University
601 University Drive
San Marcos, Texas 78666

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