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The Harmonic Minor Scale

Whenever I think of the harmonic minor scale I can’t help but hear the opening phrases of Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. A staple in classical music and a fan favorite of the neoclassical shredders, it’s sinister sound catches the ear. While I’m not a neoclassical shredder, I do appreciate this scale as it’s one of the few scales that actually sounds good even when played straight up and down. Let’s dive in and see what makes up this scale.

Intervals of the Harmonic Minor Scale

The harmonic minor scale is made up of all the same intervals as the natural minor scale with the exception of the 7th.

Natural and Harmonic minor scale intervals

The natural minor scale contains a minor 7th interval, whereas the harmonic minor contains a major 7th interval. Raising the 7th degree of the natural minor creates a leading tone, a tone that’s 1/2 step below the tonic.

While there is only a 1/2 step difference between the 7th interval of both scales (minor 7 vs. major 7), the difference in sound is highly noticeable. The raised 7th of the harmonic minor is more dissonant and creates a stronger resolve to the tonic, D.

For comparison, let’s have a listen to the D natural minor scale and the D harmonic minor:

D Natural Minor Scale
D Harmonic Minor Scale

Mapping the Harmonic Minor to the Fretboard

Below are the 5 positions of the harmonic minor scale mapped to the guitar fretboard. When practicing the scale, start and end on the root note. This will help associate the scale patterns based on the position of the root notes.

Harmonic minor scale - 5 positions

The diagrams below show how each of the 5 positions are connected above/below:

Harmonic minor scale - 5 positions, connected

Harmonizing the Harmonic Minor Scale

When you harmonize a scale, you’re simply building the chords for each scale degree of the scale. This determines the chord quality for each chord in the scale.

Chords are built from stacked thirds, or triads, so we can harmonize the harmonic minor scale back stacking thirds on each degree of the scale. For our example, we’re going to use the D harmonic minor scale, which contains the following notes:

Scale Degree1234567
NoteDEFGAB♭C#

The diagram below notes interval qualities for the D harmonic minor scale.

D harmonic minor scale fretboard diagram

Building Chords of the Harmonic Minor

Let’s walk through each scale degree and build the chords for the harmonic minor scale.

1st Degree: D

The tonic chord is built from the 1st degree of the scale. Stacking thirds from the first degree, D, of the harmonic minor scale we get the following:

Harmonic minor triad 1st degree, D F A
Triad3rdsTriad QualityChord Formed
D – F – AFrom D to F is a minor 3rd (3 semitones)
From F to A is a major 3rd (4 semitones)
MinorDm

2nd Degree – E

Stacking thirds from the 2nd degree, E, we get the following:

Harmonic minor triad 2nd degree, E G B♭
Triad3rdsTriad QualityChord Formed
E – G – B♭From E to G is a minor 3rd (3 semitones)
From G to B♭ is a minor 3rd (3 semitones)
DiminishedEdim

3rd Degree – F

From the 3rd degree, F, we get:

Harmonic minor triad 3rd degree, F A C#
Triad3rdsTriad QualityChord Formed
F – A – C#From F to A is a major 3rd (4 semitones)
From A to C# is a major 3rd (4 semitones)
AugmentedFaug

4th Degree – G

Building the triad from the 4th degree, G, we get the following:

Harmonic minor triad 4th degree, G B♭ D
Triad3rdsTriad QualityChord Formed
G – B♭ – DFrom G to B♭ is a minor 3rd (3 semitones)
From B♭ to D is a major 3rd (4 semitones)
MinorGm

5th Degree – A

On the 5th degree we get the following triad:

Harmonic minor triad 5th degree,
Triad3rdsTriad QualityChord Formed
A – C# – EFrom A to C# is a major 3rd (4 semitones)
From C# to E is a minor 3rd (3 semitones)
MajorA

6th Degree – B♭

On the 6th degree, B♭ we get the following triad:

Harmonic minor triad 6th degree, B♭ D F
Triad3rdsTriad QualityChord Formed
B♭ – D – FFrom B♭ to D is a major 3rd (4 semitones)
From D to F is a minor 3rd (3 semitones)
MajorB♭

7th Degree – C#

Building the triad from C#, the 7th degree, we get:

Harmonic minor triad 7th degree, C# E G
Triad3rdsTriad QualityChord Formed
C# – E – GFrom C# to E is a minor 3rd (3 semitones)
From E to G is a minor 3rd (3 semitones)
DiminishedC#dim

Chord Qualities of the Harmonic Minor Scale

After harmonizing the harmonic minor, you can see we get the following chord qualities:

Scale Degree1234567
Chord QualityMinorDiminishedAugmentedMinorMajorMajorDiminished

If we compare this to the harmonized natural minor scale, we can see they are quite different:

ScaleChord Quality
Natural MinoriiidimIIIivvVIVII
Harmonic MinoriiidimIIIaugivVVIviidim

Wrap up

In this lesson we learned about the harmonic minor scale. Unlike the natural minor scale, it contains a major 7th interval, which gives the scale a leading tone to strengthen the resolve back to the tonic chord. As a result, we end up with different chord qualities than that of the natural minor, most notably the major V chord, which is often substituted in music with a minor key center.

Harmonic minor scale thumbnail

Cheat Sheet: Harmonic Minor Scale

Download the cheat sheet for this lesson: