Jazz Piano Improv with the Melodic Minor Scale
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One of the most common questions jazz piano students ask is, “What scale do I use to solo over a minor 2-5-1?” In fact, improvising over the exotic sound of the minor 2-5-1 progression can seem like a mystery. However, understanding how jazz musicians approach the melodic minor scale simplifies the landscape considerably. In today’s Quick Tip, John Proulx breaks down a simple process that draws on the melodic minor scale to get a hip jazz piano improv sound on minor 2-5-1 progressions. This approach sheds familiar light on what can otherwise seem like shadowy and complex jazz scales. You’ll learn:
- Intro to the Melodic Minor Scale for Jazz Piano
- Minor Turnaround Progression & Rootless Voicings
- Essential Melodic Minor Modes for a Minor 2-5-1
- Melodic Minor Improv Licks for Jazz Piano
In today’s lesson, piano students of all levels will discover the mystery of improvising complex jazz sounds with the simple melodic minor scale!
Right up front, it is important to clarify how we intend to treat the term melodic minor scale. While melodic minor scale may sound like a precise term, it is actually used differently by classical and jazz musicians. We’ll begin with the classical approach, which many piano students are taught in formal training.
In music theory, the melodic minor scale is one of three standard minor scale formations, and the only minor scale that uses a different formation when ascending and descending. The melodic minor scale is built with the following intervals above the root: (R=root, M=major interval, m=minor interval, P=perfect interval, 8=octave)
- Ascending: R–M2–m3–P4–P5–M6–M7–P8
- Descending: P8–m7–m6–P5–P4–m3–M2–R
The raised 6th and 7th tones of the ascending melodic minor scale allow for a ½ step approach (aka: “leading tone”) up to the tonic note while avoiding the augmented 2nd interval found in the harmonic minor scale that exists between the m6 and the M7. On the other hand, the descending melodic minor scale is identical to the natural minor scale, which contains a ½ step approach down to the 5th and also avoids the augmented 2nd interval of the harmonic minor scale.
Jazz musicians are much more likely to refer to the melodic minor descending scale as natural minor or aeolian. Therefore, jazz musicians generally consider the term melodic minor to refer the the unique construction of the ascending formation. Some texts choose to add clarity with the term jazz melodic minor scale to indicate a minor scale with raised 6th and 7th tones, regardless of whether its usage is ascending or descending. For the remainder of today’s lesson, this is the formation we will use as the basis for improvisation.
It is rather simple to build a melodic minor scale. However, the scale formula is commonly expressed in two different ways, depending on whether your starting point begins from the natural minor scale, or from the parallel major scale. In other words, you can construct an A melodic minor by altering tones of the A natural minor scale or the A major scale. Let’s examine the first approach: [Tap or click on each keyboard below to hear its sound.👆🖱🎹🔊]
When your staring point is a natural minor scale, use the formula 1–2–3–4–5–♯6–♯7 to convert your scale to ascending melodic minor. On the way down, simply play natural minor. Of course, this method assumes that a student has prior knowledge of natural minor scales. For additional support, check out All Major and Minor Scales Reference for pairs of major and relative minor scales by key signature. Or for a deep dive on a specific minor key, check out our Level 1 Minor Key Courses.
The second approach to forming melodic minor scales draws on the familiarity of the major scale. In fact, you can easily play a melodic minor scale on piano by simply lowering the 3rd tone of any major scale!
Using the major scale as a reference point, the ascending melodic minor scale formula is 1–2–♭3–4–5–6–7. (For the classical-style melodic minor scale, be sure to use the descending formula ♭7–♭6–5–4–♭3–2–1).
Additional Melodic Minor Scale Practice
Now that you’ve learned both approaches, let’s list each of the melodic minor scales you’ll use to improvise in today’s lesson. They appear below in the order in which we will use them later in our minor 2-5-1 chord progression.
- D melodic minor
- F melodic minor
- A melodic minor
Before moving on, see if you can think through each of these scales. You can use whichever approach is easiest for you. Then, be sure to download the PDF lesson sheet and backing tracks for today’s lesson from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily transpose this lesson to any key with our Smart Sheet Music.
Here are the answers: [Tap or click on each keyboard below to hear its sound.👆🖱🎹🔊]
In the diagram above, the blue labels above each scale tone indicate the intervallic relationship to the root. Since some of these scales are being used outside of their native key signature, it is generally easier to think in terms of intervals. For example, when we import D melodic minor into the key signature for A minor, the 6th tone of D melodic minor (B♮) is already raised! Therefore, the courtesy accidentals in the diagram indicate raised scale tones that do not require an accidental in A minor.
We’re almost ready to start improvising, but first let’s review the chords and voicings for a 2-5-1-6 chord progression in A minor.
First, let’s review the chord progression we’ll be soloing over with root position chords. This is essentially the minor turnaround progression (i-viø-iiø-V7), but beginning on the 2-chord. It’s always a good idea to visualize the chords in root position, even if you don’t intend to voice them in that manner.
Root Position Chords
When playing a progression like this with root position chords, you may notice that it involves a lot of lateral movement. The chords aren’t very close and they don’t seem to flow together quite so smoothly. In addition, the F♯ø in particular is a bit muddy in this register.
Rootless Voicings for Minor Turnaround Progression
There are several methods that jazz pianists use to improve on the sound of the previous example. One of the most common techniques is through the use of using rootless voicings. This voicing technique results in improved voicing leading and adds additional harmonic colors by means of chord extensions. This is especially common in ensemble settings that include a bass player. Here is one voicing solution that sounds quite nice:
The first three voicings in the example above are labeled A Voicing or B Voicing. The term “A voicing” refers to a voicing that is built up from the 3rd of the chord. On the other hand, the term “B voicing” refers to a voicing built up from the 7th. The final chord, F♯ø, is neither an A voicing or B voicing. However, it still follows the principle of smooth voicing leading and is a great choice in this context.
Take some time to play the root position chords and rootless voicings along with one of the backing tracks. Can you feel your way through the progression with the rootless voicings without looking? If you can, this will enable you to give better focus on your right hand when improvising.
Now, let’s examine which of our melodic minor scales go with which chords.
You may have noticed an apparent “misalignment” between the melodic minor scales we’ve covered so far and some of the chords in our chord progression. If you did, you are probably asking, “How are these musical elements related?”
On the surface, F melodic minor doesn’t seem to be associated with E+7? And what about D melodic minor and Bø?
The answer is that there is actually another column to the table. Each chord type in the minor 2-5-1 progression has a related jazz scale. These jazz scales come from different modes of the melodic minor scale.
Learning the parent scale or source scale (the right column) for each jazz scale of the minor 2-5-1 progression makes improvising much more accessible.
Let’s examine these relationships one-at-a-time.
Over the 2 Chord
The chord quality for our 2-chord is half-diminished. In the key of A minor, that chord is Bm7(♭5) and includes the notes B–D–F–A. But what other notes can you play with Bm7(♭5)? One of the most popular scales that jazz musicians like to use on half-diminished chords is the Locrian #2 Mode. To play the Locrian #2 Mode, you would use the following tones from a major scale: 1–2–♭3–4–♭5–♭6–♭7.
If you want, you can apply the Locrian #2 formula to the B major scale. When you do, you would get the notes: B–C♯–D–E–F–G–A. However, it’s much easier when you realize that this is the same as a D melodic minor scale beginning on the 6th tone. We call this the 6th mode of D melodic minor. Therefore, whenever you see a half-diminished chord, you can play the melodic minor scale that is up a minor 3rd from the root.
Improv Scale Shortcut for Half-Diminished Chords
Wow, what a difference that knowledge makes?
(For Theory Nerds Only: We should mention that Locrian #2 is also called Locrian ♮2. Why, you ask? Well, the regular Locrian mode, 7th mode of the major scale, is 1–♭2–♭3 –4–♭5–♭6–♭7. So the 6th mode of melodic minor is really just “un-flatting” the 2nd tone of the Locrian mode to make it a major 2nd above the root…hence, “Locrian ♮2.”)
Now, let’s take a look at our 5-chord!
Over the 5 Chord
The chord quality for our 5-chord is dominant, but it is not a “pure dominant.” In the key of A minor, the chord symbols that appear on our lesson sheet are E+7(♭9) and E+7(♯9). This symbol may also be written E7(♭9♭13), E7(♯9♭13), not to mention a few other ways. This is a fully altered dominant chord. In fact, a common chord symbol you may see for this sound is simply E7(alt), in which “alt” is short for “altered.” This chord comes from the Altered Scale.
To build an altered scale, use the following tones from a major scale: 1–♭2–♯2–3–♭5–♯5–♭7. This formula may also be expressed 1–♭9–♯9–3–♯11–♭13–♭7.
When you construct this scale for the chord symbol E7(alt), you get the notes E–F–G–G♯–A♯–C–D. However, let’s replace the ♯’s with their enharmonic equivalents: E–F–G–A♭–B♭–C–D. This is the same a F melodic minor, beginning on the 7th tone! That’s because the altered scale comes from the 7th mode of a melodic minor scale. Therefore, when you play the V7 chord on a minor 2-5-1, you can think of the melodic minor scale that is a ½ step above the root.
Improv Scale Shortcut for Fully Altered Dominant Chords
We should mention that the Altered Scale goes by several other names. It is also the Altered Dominant Scale, the Super Locrian Mode as well as the Diminished Whole-Tone Scale. The last name raises an interesting point. When you play the Altered Scale, you are playing the first 5 notes of a diminished scale and the last 5 notes of a whole-tone scale. Of course, it is not a 10 note scale—these fragments overlap such that the two middle notes (G♯ and A♯ in the example above) are part of both the diminished segment and the whole-tone segment.
Over the 1 Chord
The chord quality for our 1-chord is minor-major. In the key of A minor, that chord is Am(maj7) and includes the notes A–C–E–G♯. This chord comes from the A melodic minor scale, which we’ve already examined. Let’s play these sounds together:
Improv Scale Shortcut for Minor-Major Chords
Over the 6 Chord
Like our 2-chord, the 6-chord is also half-diminished. In the key of A minor, that chord is F♯m7(♭5) and includes the notes F♯–A–C–E. What other notes can you play over F♯m7(♭5)? This also calls for a Locrian #2 scale. What are the notes of F♯ Locrian #2? Sounds like a final exam question for a college-level music theory class, doesn’t it?
If you remember, we said earlier that you can play the melodic minor scale that is a minor 3rd above the root. Since A is a minor 3rd above F♯, the parent scale for F♯m7(♭5) is also A melodic minor. Let’s play these sounds together:
Now that you have learned rootless voicings and a familiar melodic minor scale for each chord of the minor turnaround progression, you are ready to play some stunning jazz piano improv lines.
The follow sample piano lines represent common improv techniques with the melodic minor scale. The first example primarily uses scalar motion. However, check out the descending Fm(maj7) chord outline over E+7(♯9). Since the E Altered Scale contains the same notes as F melodic minor, you can outline the F m(maj7) chord which contains some hip chord alterations over E7 including the ♯5 and the ♭9.
Melodic Minor Jazz Piano Lick #1
Our next sample improv line represents a bit of classic jazz language that includes a quotation from the jazz standard “Cry Me a River.”
Melodic Minor Jazz Piano Lick #2
Next, we have an improv line that uses a polychordal approach. Let’s take a listen, and then we’ll break it down.
Melodic Minor Jazz Piano Lick #3
This lick is based on melodic shapes that outline triads, but not the R-3-5 of the given harmony. Instead, they are upper structures triads that bring out some of the more striking complexity of the melodic minor harmony. For the 2-chord, John uses an A major triad, which is built on the minor 7th of Bm7(♭5) and contains the the 7th, the #2 and the 11th. Next, on the 5-chord, which is E7(alt), John uses a B♭ major triad. This upper structure is built on the #11—a tritone above the root—and contains the #11, the 7th and the ♭9. Finally, on the 1-chord, John outlines an E major triad over Am(maj7) which contains the 5th, 7th and 9th. To learn more about polychords, check out our full-length course on Coloring Dominant Chords with Upper Structures (Level 3).
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on Jazz Piano Improv with the Melodic Minor Scale. No doubt, you’ve seen first-hand how piano foundations like major and minor chords and scales are intricately connected to advanced concepts and techniques. By the way, have you completed one of our Piano Foundations Learning Tracks? These learning tracks are one of the best ways to hone your current skills and prepare your foundation for future growth. You can check out our learning tracks using the links below:
- Complete Beginner Piano Foundations
- Intermediate Piano Foundations (Part 1, Part 2)
- Advanced Piano Foundations
If you enjoyed today’s Quick Tip, you’ll also love the following resources:
- The Incredible Minor Turnaround (Level 2)
- Scales for Improv on Major and Minor Chords (Levels 1–2)
- Scales for Improv on 7th Chords (Levels 2–3)
- Jazz Scales—The Complete Guide (Level 2)
- Piano Musical Modes—The Complete Guide (Level 2)
- Piano Chord Extensions (Level 2)
- Piano Chord Alterations (Level 2)
- Coloring Dominant Chords with Upper Structures (Level 3)
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
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