Jazz Concepts: Melodic Minor Scales & Modes

Many bassists play “any ol’ go-to-hell note,” as New Orleans legend Pops Foster famously said.
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Many bassists play “any ol’ go-to-hell note,” as New Orleans legend Pops Foster famously said.
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Many bassists play “any ol’ go-to-hell note,” as New Orleans legend Pops Foster famously said. No problem with that—bass playing shouldn’t be a brain drain. However, only a few bassists choose to learn deeper aspects of music theory and bass technique. They take the road less traveled, and that’s why they stand out. Are you ready to walk the unbeaten path?

Last month, we looked at modes generated by the seven scale degrees of the major scale. There are four common diatonic scales that jazz players use: major, harmonic minor, harmonic major, and melodic minor. This month, let’s tackle the melodic minor and the seven modes found within that scale.

The melodic minor scale in classical music often uses a different pattern ascending and descending (Ex. 1). Listen to music of the baroque and classical composers and you’ll hear the top four notes of a melodic minor scale ascending like a major scale, and descending like a natural minor scale. J.S. Bach’s “Bourrée” (Suite in E Minor, BWV 996) is a popular melody that uses the melodic minor scale in its traditional construction.

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Modern classical composers such as Béla Bartók, and jazz players of the bop era, began using the melodic minor scale (also called the jazz minor scale) with the same intervallic construction ascending and descending (Ex. 2). The melodic minor scale creates a curious effect: It sounds both major and minor. Notice that the C melodic minor is exactly the same as a C major scale, except the 3rd is lowered: The C major scale is C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and the C melodic minor scale is C, D, Eb, F, G, A, B. You can build a melodic minor scale starting on any note by using this formula of half- and whole-steps: W H W W W W H. Note that in the examples in this article, we are using the jazz construction, not the classical construction. The intervallic patterns remain the same both ascending and descending the scale.

The seven modes of the melodic minor scale are used in all styles of modern jazz and sometimes in pop music. Examples 3 and 4 show typical licks based on the melodic minor scale over a Cm(maj7) chord. Here are the seven modes generated by the notes of the C melodic minor scale:

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To learn the C melodic minor scale, play slowly through the seven modes in the chart and notice where the half- and whole-steps lie. Playing all of the modes generated by one scale emphasizes the sameness of the modes in relation to that home scale, in this case C melodic minor.

Another approach to practicing scales (which we used last month with the modes of the major scale) is to play through the seven modes of the melodic minor, starting on a common root. Examples 5–11 show all modes of the melodic minor starting on the note C. This practice method highlights differences in tonal color, brightness, and darkness.

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In the following chart, I’ve grouped the modes in order from the brightest- to the darkest-sounding. I’ve noted the chord symbol that suggests the use of each mode, the name of the mode, and the parent melodic minor scale that generates each mode. Play through the exercises slowly or even out-of-time, and notice the differing tonal and emotional qualities that the modes create:

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If you implemented the practice suggestions from my Woodshed last month, you’ve already started down a road less traveled. You can better hear when a scale or mode has a certain color, and know why a particular bass line sounds funky, romantic, or profound. Mastering the melodic minor scale will take you further on your journey and let you discover new sonic vistas.



John Goldsby is teaching in July at the Aebersold Summer Jazz Workshops in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Sligo Jazz Workshop in Ireland. Introduce yourself in person, or online at johngoldsby.com.

Quiz Time!
Calling All Theory Nerds: Test Your Modal Knowledge

1.Gb Lydian-dominant is derived from which melodic minor scale?
2. What is the 7th mode of an Ab melodic minor scale?
3. Which movement number is the “Bourrée” from J.S. Bach’s Suite in E minor?
4. Which melodic minor scale would fit well over the first chord, a Cm(maj7), in the Miles Davis classic “Solar”?
5. What is the 7th mode of the Db melodic minor scale?
6. The bridge of the standard “Alone Together” starts on an Am9(b5) chord. Which mode would fit well over that chord? Which melodic minor scale is the parent scale?
7. The second half of the bridge to “Alone Together” starts on a Gm9(b5) chord. Which mode would fit well over that chord? Which melodic minor scale is the parent scale?
8. Which modes, generated from melodic minor scales, could you use over each of the chords in this minor IIm–V–Im progression: Fm9(b5), Bb7#9(b13), Ebm(maj7)?
9. You’re playing a jazz gig at the Headache Lounge. The bandleader hands you a lead sheet for his new original, “When Rabbits Mourn,” which begins with an open bass solo over an Emaj7(#4#5) chord. Which mode would you use?
10. Name all of the modes generated from the Eb melodic minor scale.

Quiz Time! Answers:1.Db melodic minor 2. G altered 3. 5th movement 4. C melodic minor 5.C altered (sometimes called C diminished whole-tone, or C super Locrian) 6.A Locrian # 2; C melodic minor 7.G Locrian #2; Bb melodic minor 8.F Locrian #2; Bb altered; Eb melodic minor 9.E Lydian-augmented 10.Eb melodic minor, F Phrygian # 6, Gb Lydian-augmented, Ab Lydian-dominant, Bb Mixolydian b 6, C Locrian # 2, D altered