Learn all about minor scales on piano, including how minor scales are made, the three types, and how to play them.
What are the minor scales on the piano? What’s the difference between major and minor scales? Why are there different types of minor scales, and how do you play them?
Minor scales are a vital part of piano technique, along with major scales, arpeggios, and chords. Most music is written either in a major or minor key, so knowing the scales is crucial!
If you just need a quick guide or refresher to playing minor scales on piano, watch the video below where Mr. Hoffman demonstrates each 2-octave minor scale. Then, download the free Minor Scale Fingering Guides for each type of minor scale to use as a reference. If you want to dive deeper and learn more about the theory behind minor scales, keep reading!
Major vs. Minor: What’s the difference?
The most obvious difference between major and minor scales is how they sound. Most people find that major scales have a happy, uplifting feeling, whereas minor scales often seem sad, spooky, or stormy.
Whole Step/Half Step Pattern
Major and minor scales also follow different patterns of half steps and whole steps. Here’s the pattern for every major scale:
Here’s what a minor scale looks like in solfege:
Minor Scale Solfege: Transforming a Major Scale into a Minor Scale
You might notice that not only is the half/whole step pattern different, minor scales also have their own solfege! This is the other trick to minor scales: You can change any major scale into a minor scale by changing notes 3, 6, and 7 – MI, LA, and TI. Simply lower each of these notes by a half step, and voila, you have a minor scale!
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Relative Major and Minor
Like major scales, every minor scale has a unique key signature – a set of sharps or flats that belong only to that minor scale. However, every key signature actually goes with one major and one minor scale. When a major and minor scale share a key signature, they’re called relatives.
The funny thing is, relative major and minor scales never start on the same note! C major, for example, actually isn’t related to C minor. They’re parallel to each other, but they aren’t relatives because they each have a different key signature.
So what minor key is related to C major? Drumroll please…A minor! When you start on A and follow the whole/half step pattern for a minor scale, you wind up with no sharps or flats – just like C major! There’s an easy trick to finding any major key’s relative minor: the relative minor always starts on LA, or note number 6, of the major scale. Alternatively, start on DO and go down a 3rd in the major scale – you’ll end up in the same place.
The Three Types of Minor Scales
There’s only one type of major scale, but there are actually three kinds of minor scales. Well, sort of. It’s more like one basic minor scale with two variations. Here’s a quick breakdown of the different types of minor scales piano players can explore:
Natural minor is the scale we learned about above. Think of it as the “default” minor scale: It’s the scale you get by following a minor key’s key signature. For example: The key signature for C minor is three flats. Those three flats are B-flat, E-flat, and A-flat. If you make a scale out of that key signature, you get what we call “C natural minor:”
Generally speaking, when someone talks about minor keys or minor scales on piano, they mean the natural minor. The other two types are really just variations on natural minor.
To make a harmonic minor scale, simply raise the 7th note a half step. Try it – the harmonic minor has a wonderfully creepy sound to it!
Why would we want to change that one note? Aside from sounding cool, that raised 7th does serve a purpose. By moving the 7th note so it’s just a half-step below “DO,” we create the leading tone: a note that really wants to go back to “DO.” Composers most often use the leading tone in minor keys to create an authentic cadence, making the V chord a major triad and giving it the tension it needs to resolve to the i chord.
Major scales automatically have a leading tone, and so they already give rise to an authentic cadence. However, natural minor scales don’t: their 7th note is a whole step from “DO.” We’ll talk more about the chords you can build with minor scales in another post.
IMPORTANT: Changing the 7th note of the scale does not change the key signature! Rather, any time a composer wants to use the raised 7th, they have to use an accidental (a sharp, flat, or natural sign that isn’t part of the key signature).
Melodic minor scales are funny. In classical tradition, the notes actually change whether you’re going up or down. However, in jazz tradition, the melodic minor scale is the same going up and down.
In both versions, on the way up, you raise notes 6 and 7 by a half step. So, “LE” and “TE” become “LA” and “TI.”
In jazz music, you’d keep these notes the same on your way down. But in classical, you’d actually lower these notes when descending, so the scale goes back to natural minor. In most cases, the only thing about the scale that changes is the notes; you can use the same fingering going up and down. However, there are a few melodic minor scales where you need to change your fingering in order to get back down: F# melodic minor (right hand), C# melodic minor (right hand), and G#/Ab melodic minor (left hand). For these three, switch back to natural minor fingering on your way down. Don’t worry, our Fingering Guide download will remind you of this!
So which melodic minor scale should you use, classical or jazz?
Most piano students learn the classical version. Assessment programs like the ABRSM, as well as most music colleges, require students to master the classical version. If you don’t plan to do such assessments or go to college for music, you can stick with the jazz version.
Video: Mr. Hoffman plays all minor scales on the piano
In this video, Mr. Hoffman demonstrates all three minor scale types on the piano, for all 12 minor keys. For melodic minor, he shows the jazz tradition – the version that doesn’t change when going back down.
Note: Mr. Hoffman does play these scales pretty quickly, so you might want to slow the video’s speed down at first! Click on the wheel icon for “Settings” and try changing the speed to 0.5x or 0.75x.
Download the Minor Scales Fingering Guide, plus Tips & Tricks for Mastering Scales
Back in our Major Scales Guide, we went over some tips and tricks for playing any scale on piano, including basic fingering and black key fingering rules. Check it out for a refresher!
For a quick reference to the notes and fingerings for all 12 natural minor, harmonic minor, and melodic minor scales on piano, download our Fingering Guides!
Some more tips for playing minor scales on piano:
- Natural Minor fingerings are the same as Harmonic Minor fingerings.
- For Melodic Minor, we recommend downloading both the Melodic guide and the Natural guide. If you’re using Classical tradition for Melodic Minor, you’ll need the Natural Minor notes and fingerings for the way down.