Making Melodic Minor More... well, Melodic

Most of us are at least somewhat familiar with the melodic minor scale. We've probably heard that one of the most useful applications for this scale is over altered dominant chords. The seventh mode of the melodic minor scale works very well on altered dominants; it has several names, such as "the altered dominant scale" or "superlocrian mode" or "the diminished/whole tone scale".

Whoopee. If you've read much of the stuff on my web site, you already know how impressed I am with such things. (Not very much.) The shorthand method I encourage my students to use is to just think of the melodic minor scale a half-step up from the root of the dominant chord they'd like to play on. In other words, if you'd like to play on a D altered dominant chord, use notes from the Eb melodic minor scale. That would give you Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, C and D. Respectively, those notes are the b9, #9, 3, b5, #5, 7 and root of a D7 altered dominant chord. It's obvious why this scale works well in this situation - it has all the alterations plus the root and the guide tones of the D7alt chord.

If you haven't used this scale much before. your first tendency will probably be to run up and down the scale a lot. You may also find that you tend to start on the root of the scale a lot. That's not such a crime while you're getting used to the sound of the scale, but it's a prescription for predictable improvised lines. The first suggestion I would make is that you learn to harmonize the melodic minor scale. Know which triads and seventh chords are contained within the scale.

The Eb melodic minor scale contains:
TRIADS: Ebm, Fm, Gb+, Ab, Bb, Cº, Dº
SEVENTH CHORDS: Ebm(maj7), Fm7, Gbmaj7+, Ab7, Bb7, Cø, Dø

Once you understand the harmony contained within the scale, you can begin to make up lines using chords from the scale; this will give your lines more interesting interval shapes. I've prepared four examples for you, all played over the progression Am7 / / / | D7alt / / / | Gmaj7 / / / |. This is a basic ii - V7 - I progression found in many songs; for example, it begins the bridge of All the Things You Are. In each example, I've used triads and/or seventh chords from the Eb melodic minor scale for playing over the D7alt chord in the progression. Let's look at the examples, and I'll explain what I did. (There is audio for each example - click the notation to hear the audio.)

notation, example 1
[click the notation to hear an mp3 of the music]

In example 1, I took triads from the Eb melodic minor scale and played them in three-note rhythmic groups, beginning with the note C on beat 4 of bar 1.
The triads are Cº, Dº and Ebm.

notation for example 2
[click the notation to hear an mp3 of the music]

For example 2, I took advantage of the two parallel dominant 7th chords in the melodic minor scale, playing Bb7 and Ab7 arpeggios over the D7alt chord.

notation for example 3
[click the notation to hear an mp3 of the music]

In example 3, I began the second bar with a pair of fourths from the Eb melodic minor scale, then finished the measure with an Ab arpeggio from the scale.

notation for example 4
[click the notation to hear an mp3 of the music]

Example 4 begins simply enough, with triads from A minor.
In the second measure, we begin with an Fm triad, then use a Gb+ triad in the second half of the bar.

(I spelled Gb as a F# since F# is the third of a D7 chord.) We continue that pattern with an Em triad beginning measure 3.

Okay, that's it for now. I hope that these examples will give you some ideas about ways to "break up" the melodic minor scale for your own use. Enjoy!

©2009, Bob Russell.