Harmonic Minor Modes

By David Wallimann Published on Nov 4th, 2010
Google+
Introduction

If you’ve been playing modal for a while, you probably have heard about the harmonic minor modes. You might be confused about their use and about their names. The problem lies in the fact that those modes can have more than one name. This article will help you understand the logic behind their names and give you an insight on how to use these exotic scales in your music.

Harmonic Minor Scale

Before talking about all the modes that are part of the harmonic minor scale, let’s discuss and define the scale from which all these modes are extracted. As you would have guessed, the harmonic minor mode is a minor scale: it has a minor third.

Let’s take a look at the formula of the harmonic minor scale:

Root - Major 2nd - min 3rd - 4th - 5th - min 6th - Major 7th

Here is how that scale can be played in its first position starting from an A note:

Harmonic Minor modes

Notice how that scale is very similar to the natural minor scale (Aeolian):

Minor Harmonic Mode
Root - Major 2nd - min 3rd - 4th - 5th - min 6th - Major 7th

Aeolian Mode
Root - Major 2nd - min 3rd - 4th - 5th - min 6th - minor 7th

Only the 7th changes between both scales. The 7th is Major in the harmonic minor scale. It is minor in the natural minor scale (Aeolian). It is important to realize that only one note differs from both scales. This will explain the similarities you will find in the names of the harmonic minor modes and the church modes. This also explains why it is often possible to borrow a mode from the harmonic minor family to phrase over a chord progression that would normally call for a church mode.

About Modes and Systems

Before moving forward, it’s important to understand how modes fit in a system (church modes, harmonic minor modes, melodic minor modes, etc.)

Let’s consider an A harmonic minor mode:
A - B - C - D - E - F - G#

Let’s now play the same exact notes starting from the B note:
B - C - D - E - F - G# - A

The previous scale is the second mode found in the harmonic mode system. If we follow the same logic we get seven modes each starting with one of the seven notes of the original harmonic minor scale:

A - B - C - D - E - F - G#
B - C - D - E - F - G# - A
C - D - E - F - G# - A - B
D - E - F - G# - A - B - C
E - F - G# - A - B - C - D
F - G# - A - B - C - D - E
G# - A - B - C - D - E - F

If you are new to modes, you might be wondering why bother with the previous demonstration as all the scales written use the same notes. You are right, to really differentiate these scales from one another we need to consider their formula as follow:

Root - Maj 2nd - min 3rd - 4th - 5th - min 6th - Maj 7th
Root - min 2nd - min 3rd - 4th - dim 5th - Maj 6th - min 7th
Root - Maj 2nd - Maj 3rd - 4th - aug 5th - Maj 6th - Maj 7th
Root - Maj 2nd - min 3rd - aug 4th - 5th - Maj 6th - min 7th
Root - min 2nd - Maj 3rd - 4th - 5th - min 6th - min 7th
Root - aug 2nd - Maj 3rd - aug 4th - 5th - Maj 6th - Maj 7th
Root - min 2nd - min 3rd - dim 4th - dim 5th - min 6th - dim 7th

The previous formulas will help us match the modes with their corresponding chords. For example, a chord made of a Root, minor 3rd, 5th and minor 7th will fit the fourth mode. Before going further, we’ll name the seven modes of the harmonic minor system.

Harmonic Minor Modes

The seven modes of the harmonic minor scale are very close to the church modes (only one note changes between the harmonic minor and Aeolian modes). Let’s name them in a way that they relate to those church modes. We’ll accomplish this by finding which church mode is the closest to the harmonic minor mode and alter it. We’ll do this whenever possible for each of the seven scales extracted from the harmonic minor mode system.

Mode 1

Root - Maj 2nd - min 3rd - 4th - 5th - min 6th - Maj 7th. This scale is very close to the natural minor scale (Aeolian mode). We could call it Aeolian Maj7 if we followed the previously described logic, but we’ll call it the harmonic minor mode.

Mode 2

Root - min 2nd - min 3rd - 4th - dim 5th - Maj 6th - min 7th. The second mode of the harmonic minor system is very close to the Locrian scale. The only difference is in its 6th which becomes Major in this particular scale. We’ll call this scale the Locrian #6 mode.

Mode 3

Root - Maj 2nd - Maj 3rd - 4th - aug 5th - Maj 6th - Maj 7th. The third mode is very similar to the Major scale (Ionian mode). The only note that differentiates the Ionian mode from the third mode of the harmonic minor system is the augmented 5th. We’ll cal the scale the Ionian #5 mode.

Mode 4

Root - Maj 2nd - min 3rd - aug 4th - 5th - Maj 6th - min 7th. The fourth mode part of the harmonic minor system is similar to the Dorian mode. The only difference between these scales is the fourth which is augmented in this mode. We’ll call this scale the Dorian #4 mode.

Mode 5

Root - min 2nd - Maj 3rd - 4th - 5th - min 6th - min 7th. The fifth mode of the harmonic minor system is similar to Phrygian mode. The only difference between the Phrygian mode and this mode is the third which is Major here. We could call this scale the Phrygian Major mode. Another name for this mode would be to use the following useful adjective: dominant. The word “dominant” can be used anytime we are dealing with both a Major third and a minor seventh. Therefore we can call this mode the Phrygian Dominant mode.

Mode 6

Root - aug 2nd - Maj 3rd - aug 4th - 5th - Maj 6th - Maj 7th. The sixth mode found in the harmonic minor system is very close to Lydian mode. The only note that differs is the second which is augmented here. We’ll name this scale the Lydian #2 mode.

Mode 7

Root - min 2nd - min 3rd - dim 4th - dim 5th - min 6th - dim 7th. Finally, the seventh mode found in the harmonic minor system is a bit unique as it doesn’t look much like anything found in the church modes. We’ll call this scale the Altered mode or the Superlocrian mode.

Positions

Now that we know how the seven modes of the harmonic minor mode system are called and how they are built, let’s take a look at their positions on the instrument. As you play through them, make sure you are aware of their formula and their sound. We’ll start the following modes from the same root: A. Starting the modes from the same root will help you recognize their sound and intervalic structure.

1. Harmonic Minor
Harmonic Minor modes

2. Locrian #6
Harmonic Minor modes

3. Ionian #5
Harmonic Minor modes

4. Dorian #4
Harmonic Minor modes

5. Phrygian Dominant
Harmonic Minor modes

6. Lydian #2
Harmonic Minor modes

7. Superlocrian
Harmonic Minor modes

Using the Modes

Let’s take a closer look to the previous seven modes and determine which chords they can be played over. We’ll build four notes chords from each of the previously discussed modes. This will be done by taking the root, third, 5th and seventh for each scales.

Harmonic minor: min Maj7th Chord
Root - Maj 2nd - min 3rd - 4th - 5th - min 6th - Maj 7th

Locrian #6: min7th b5 Chord
Root - min 2nd - min 3rd - 4th - dim 5th - Maj 6th - min 7th

Ionian #5: Maj7th #5 Chord
Root - Maj 2nd - Maj 3rd - 4th - aug 5th - Maj 6th - Maj 7th

Dorian #4: min7th Chord
Root - Maj 2nd - min 3rd - aug 4th - 5th - Maj 6th - min 7th

Phrygian Dominant: 7th Chord
Root - min 2nd - Maj 3rd - 4th - 5th - min 6th - min 7th

Lydian #2: Maj7th Chord
Root - aug 2nd - Maj 3rd - aug 4th - 5th - Maj 6th - Maj 7th

Superlocrian: Diminished Chord
Root - min 2nd - min 3rd - dim 4th - dim 5th - min 6th - dim 7th

Some of the chords found might be new to your musical vocabulary. They can help you in your compositions and increase your options when writing a piece of music.

For the chords that are familiar to you such as the minor 7th, Major 7th or 7th chord you may find new phrasing options by using the corresponding harmonic minor modes. Imagine for example playing over a G7 chord vamp over which most players would use a G Mixolydian mode. Why not borrow the Phrygian Dominant mode to make your phrasing sound a bit different? This can be done because the Phrygian Dominant mode works over a 7th chord. Mixing church modes with harmonic minor modes can be a great way to develop new improvisational ideas and add interest to you leads.

Modal Substitutions

Anytime you learn a new scale, it is important to know which chord it can be played with. If you are already familiar with the seven church modes, you should know what to play over the Maj7th, min7th, 7th and min7th b5 chords. We just saw that new modes can be added to those chords. Following are all the modes from the church modes and harmonic minor modes system organized by chord type.

Maj 7th
- Ionian
- Lydian
- Lydian b6
- Lydian #2

Maj 7th #5
- Ionian #5

7th
- Mixolydian
- Phrygian Dominant

min 7th
- Dorian
- Phrygian
- Aeolian
- Dorian #4

min 7th b5
- Locrian
- Locrian #6

min Maj 7th
- Harmonic minor

diminished
- Superlocrian

Tying it all Together

Now that you are familiar with all the modes of the harmonic minor scale, let’s study a few examples. The following ideas are meant to inspire you. Spend time developing an ear for the scales used. You should be able to anticipate the sound of every notes you play. Remember to experiment over backing tracks.

A7
Harmonic Minor modes

Am7
Harmonic Minor modes

A Maj7
Harmonic Minor modes

The possibilities are endless as long as you respect the chords each mode is built on. Practice slowly and start developing your own ideas. Start with short simple ideas. Always be aware of which chord you are playing over. Once you are able to hear the sound of the modes before playing them, you will naturally start using them in your improvisations.

Final Thoughts

You should now have a better understanding of how the harmonic minor modes work and how they can add character to your playing. Remember that mastering a scale means that you can hear it. Be patient and always apply what you learn. Don’t get overwhelmed with theory. Gradually incorporate new musical ideas in your playing and build from what you already master. Practice well!