Anyone who has played a musical scale knows they are not really musical. But, scales have a purpose, so, if you are just starting to look into theory as a way of improving your musicianship, then the Beginning Jazz Theory series is a great place to start, where we discover the why and how of scales.

We noted in the previous article that the major scale is a good starting point for understanding other musical concepts and scales.

So, in this article we look at the construction of the melodic minor scale.

Why Learn about Scales?

Musical scales unto themselves are not really musical.

But, what they will do for us is important.

  • You will fundamentally know your instrument better
  • It will improve your ability to solo
  • They are an important tool when composing and harmonizing

The Melodic Minor Scale

The melodic minor scale is a common scale you will come across in jazz and other genres.

If you have reviewed the first article of this series and are familiar with the major scale, then the melodic minor scale will be very easy to understand as there is only a one-note difference between the two scales.

The melodic minor scale has a flattened third as indicated in the diagram below.  Part III of the Beginning Jazz Theory talks about intervals and scale degrees such as the flattened third).

The Melodic Minor Scale in C

The Melodic Minor Scale in C

W = whole step, h = half step

In the major scale, the E is not flattened.

You may have noticed that the formula of whole and half steps is different than the major scale

The formula for the melodic minor scale is: W-h-W-W-W-W-h

Here is this scale displayed on one string of the guitar fretboard.

The Melodic Minor Scale displayed on one string of the guitar fretboard

Notice the same spacing between the notes for this scale on both the piano and guitar.

In your mind, apply the whole and half step formula between each of the notes on this fretboard.

Why is the Minor Formula Different than the Major Scale?

The major and minor scales sound different than each other, as do major and minor chords whereby each chord consists fundamentally of notes from a specific scale.

Musical compositions in a minor scale are somewhat more melancholy in feel than their major counterpart, which are considered more uplifting.

As a result, the accompanying scales must be different to achieve this and in this case, one note can make a big difference.

Here are some sound clips demonstrating the difference between the major and melodic minor scales.

The Major Scale

The Melodic Minor Scale

C Melodic Minor Scale

It is important to note that in classical music, musicians will alter the melodic minor scale while descending.  They will play the flattened three when ascending the scale but will flatten the 6 and 7th when descending.

For jazz players, the scale is the same both ways (just the flattened 3rd), so you don’t have to worry about any changes while descending this scale.  Yes!

More good news is that the melodic minor scale formula will never change within a jazz context no matter what key you play it in.

Here is the D melodic minor scale (demonstrating use of the formula).

Notice the formula of W-h-W-W-W-W-h still applies to this D Minor scale by sharpening the C which alters the spacing to conform to the formula.

This maintains the last Whole step after the B and also provides the last half step between the C# and the D.

Try it on your instrument and note the application of the formula.  An easy method is to count D as one, D# as two, and E as three.  Visualize this on the fretboard above by counting each fret.

This three-count represents a Whole step.

A two-count is a half step, such as between the E and F above.

Here it is in notation.  Notice it is difficult to visualize the whole and half steps in notation but is more intuitive on your instrument.

In the D major scale the F would be sharp as well but true to the melodic minor scale pattern, the third note is flattened from F# to F.


We have looked at the construction of the melodic minor scale and compared the fundamental differences between the major scale and the melodic minor scale to help us learn.

We have also learned that there are basic formulas applicable to each scale.

If you’re tired of scales by now, don’t fret because in the next article of this series, we are going to look at harmonizing (with chords) these scales and discuss a common chord progression used in jazz.

We will also look at how and why these chords work together.

About the author: Robert Weeks is a jazz music enthusiast and guitar player from British Columbia, Canada.

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