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Natural Minor scales

Strings

In 2012, we introduced the natural minor as a requirement for all Bowed Strings at Grade 1 and as an alternative to the harmonic and melodic forms for all instruments at Grades 1 and 2, where applicable.

Including the natural minor within scale requirements at the early grades can help develop a student’s understanding of the minor mode, its connection to its relative major, and can begin to encourage a greater understanding of scales, both aurally and theoretically.

Grove’s definition

The natural, melodic and harmonic minor forms are defined by Grove Music Online as follows:

"There are three ways of conceiving the minor scale in tonal theory. The natural minor (ex.1) consists simply of the ascending or descending sequence of tones and semitones given under the scale from A to A.

Example 1

The melodic minor (ex. 2) has raised sixth and seventh degrees ascending, but is the same as the natural minor descending. This scale can be abstracted from the characteristic movement of minor key melodies where the raised seventh acts as a leading note in the ascending direction (the sixth is raised to avoid an augmented interval between the sixth and seventh degrees). 

Example 2

The harmonic minor scale has a raised seventh in both directions, but the sixth is left unaltered.  In this way it becomes the product of the three primary harmonic functions, being generated from the triads of the tonic, subdominant, and dominant (with raised third), as illustrated in ex. 3."

Example 3

The sound of natural minor

The natural minor can be heard in a range of musical genres.

Popular tunes that use the natural minor include ‘Moondance’ (Van Morrison), ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ (Nirvana), ‘House of the Rising Sun’ (Trad./The Animals), Bamboleo (Gypsy Kings) and ‘The Sound of Silence’ (Simon and Garfunkel). Folk music examples include ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again’, ‘All the Pretty Little Horses’, ‘Farewell to Nova Scotia’ and ‘Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier’. The natural minor is also used within the classical tradition, such as the carol ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ or Tchaikovsky’s ‘Old French Song':

Old French Song

Old French Song

If you are unfamiliar with the sound of the natural minor, here are two more tunes from different musical genres that use it. The first is Hatikvah - Israel’s national anthem. This tune is a firm favourite among Music Medals candidates:

Hatikvah

Hatikvah

The second is the folk song 'Poor Wayfaring Stranger':

Poor Wayfaring Stranger

Poor Wayfaring Stranger

Teaching major and minor

Natural minor scales clearly illustrate how a minor scale is related to its relative major, how different modes can be derived from one diatonic system by taking the same key signature and starting on different degrees.

This is very easily demonstrated on the piano, where you can physically see the tones and semitones in a way that is more difficult on a wind or string instrument. In fact for pianists this is particularly straightforward, as the natural minors starting on A, E and D all have the same fingering as C major.

If developing an understanding of the natural minor is omitted from teaching, many students fail to properly grasp this basic relationship between the major and the relative minor. This can impact the depth of understanding of the harmonic and melodic minors and why some of the sharps or flats are placed in the key signature and others as accidentals. The question of why the G# in A minor is not indicated in the key signature is often not addressed with any conviction.

 

By introducing the natural minor in the lower grades, students can best begin to hear and appreciate how scalic patterns really work, rather than simply learning the harmonic and melodic minor scales kinaesthetically by rote as exercises, without fully appreciating or understanding the way they function theoretically and musically.

 

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