July 26, 2015
Vol 10, Num 3

Kalimba Magic NEWS

Minor Scales Explained
Plus: How SaReGaMa deals with Minor Scales

There is exactly one type of major scale, and everybody knows exactly how it goes. Listen to G major scale. Even though there are 12 different major scales, they all sound the same, they are just shifted higher or lower from each other. The major scale is the primary reference point for all other scales.

It turns out there are several different minor scales. To understand each minor scale, we ask ourselves first how each is related to the major scale. There is second reference point: how is it related to the natural minor scale? If you don't know what the natural minor scale is, read, listen and study this article!

Even if your kalimba is tuned to a major scale, it can also play one or more minor scales. Also, the three SaReGaMa karimba tunings are different sorts of minors, so understanding minor scales is very useful to anyone who plays a SaReGaMa karimba or wants to create their own tunings.

In the table below, we see visual representations of six scales, but notice that the very first one is the major scale. The second and third ones are both natural minor scales - that is, even though they start and stop on different notes, all of the intervals are the same, so they have the same general quality when we hear them.

The numbers in the table below refer to the intervals relative to the root note, which is called "1" by definition. If the number has nothing after it, it is the same note as in a major scale. If the number has a minus sign after it, as in "3-", that note has been flattened by a half step, and we call that note the "minor 3" or the "minor third."


G MAJOR and 5 Minor Related Scales

Scale 1 Scale 2 Scale 3 Scale 4 Scale 5 Scale 6
Scale 0 Scale 1 Scale 2 Scale 3 Scale 4 Scale 5
G major E minor G natural G dorian G harmonic G phrygian
(relative) (relative) minor mode minor mode
Listen Listen Listen Listen Listen Listen

TABLE KEY
Blue lines: indicate half steps of scale
Black lines: notes in this scale that are the same as the reference major scale (in Scale 2 and 3) or natural minor scale for (Scales 4, 5, and 6)
Red lines: indicate notes that deviate from the reference scale
Numbers: indicate intervals between notes and roots of scale
Minus signs: indicate flatted notes


Plus: a note about living within a scale on the kalimba.


There are 12 major scales in all - C major, C#, major, D major, and so on. Each one has the same set of intervals up the scale, and each has the same quality. The interval between two light blue lines is called a half step, and twice that interval, or two steps up on the blue lines, is called a whole step. In the major scale, from Do to Re, from Re to Mi, and also from Fa to So, from So to La, and from La to Ti are all whole step intervals. There is something open about a whole step interval: a whole step is about moving quickly from one place to another - all business! The major scale also has two half step intervals - Mi to Fa (or 3 to 4) and also Ti to Do (or 7 to 8) are the half step intervals. There is something mysterious about the half step interval: the half step is about closeness - 7 is ah so close to 8, as is 3 to 4. That closeness pushes us up to the next note with a sense of urgency and is the basic driver of harmony in western music.

Remember, kalimba players: the kalimba does not have all of the notes indicated by the light blue lines (the piano does, the guitar does). The kalimba (and also the harmonica) will not have all of those notes, but just a subset of them - the notes indicated by the black lines above. Every whole step interval means we are skipping over a possible note from the piano, and it also means one potentially bad (dissonant) note has been removed from your kalimba. Most "western" scales are made up of whole step and half step intervals, and some scales also have a 3/2 step interval. Where you put the half steps in the scale will determine what the scale sounds like, and the tables above show you clearly where the half steps fall. Be sure to listen to each scale and pay attention to the visual representations of the intervals. Can you hear that each two notes separated by a half step sound closer together?

By the way, we reference the scales here to G major, because that is the native key of the Hugh Tracey Alto and Treble kalimbas.

Now, look at scales 1 and 2 that is, G major and E minor. It turns out that hidden inside each major scale is a minor scale. Using all the same notes, but starting on E (3/2 steps down from scale 1's G), you produce what is known as the E natural minor scale. Playing on the Alto kalimba, if you emphasize G, you will be playing in G major. If you emphasize E (for example, you often start a phrase or end a phrase on E), then you are automatically playing in E minor. You don't have to retune or anything, it is just there, the shadow self of the G major scale.

What if you want to play in G natural minor? Scale 2 = E natural minor teaches us the intervals we need. We take all of those intervals and shift them up the page 3/2 steps (i.e., up 3 blue lines), and scale 3 is the G natural minor. Quickly compare scale 1 = G major with scale 3 = G natural minor. Three notes have moved down, or flattened - the 3, the 6, and the 7. This is indicated by a minus after the note number (3- or 6-), a flat after the note name (the flat of F# is F natural, or just plain F), and also by the red color, which is just indicating what has changed in this scale relative to scale 2. A flat interval is also called a minor interval, and the natural minor scale has a flat 7th, a flat 3rd, and a flat 6th.

Scale 4 is a lighter, jazzier type of minor called the dorian mode. It is just like the natural minor (which is sort of the new standard by which minor scales are measured) except that it has a major 6th (same as the 6th in the major scale) while the natural minor has a minor 6th. If you play a G kalimba, play an 8-note scale starting on the 2nd note, A, and you will be playing in the A dorian mode.

Scale 5 is the critical scale here, and is called the harmonic minor. This is the same scale as is encoded in the SaReGaMa Freygish-tuned karimba. It sounds super classical, a bit formal, maybe a bit more mysterious than the natural minor. It is just like the natural minor except that the 7th is not a minor 7th, but is the major 7th (the same 7 that is used in the G major scale). Raising the 7th that way results in the extra large 3/2 step interval (3 blue lines) seen between minor 6 and major 7. Why is it that way? Two reasons, which are really the same - first, so the D chord can be D major (D F# A) instead of D minor (D F A), which gives a bigger harmonic push back to the root chord G minor (G Bb D); and because the major 7 pushes us more strongly into the 8 note (F# into G), which gives a different character to melodies (as anyone owning a SaReGaMa Freygish-tuned karimba can tell you). Due to the 3/2 step interval in this scale, you cannot derive it from the G major scale, and it is not available on the Alto or Treble kalimbas without retuning. And another aside on this one - if you consider the D or 5 to instead be the root or 1, you have a Middle Eastern scale (called the Freygish scale among other names), which is distinguished by its minor 2nd (Eb) and major 3rd (F#) - that extra-large interval is still calling attention to itself even though we changed its position in the scale.

And last, Scale 6 is the phrygian mode. It is even more minor than the natural minor: in addition to the minor 3rd, 6th and 7th, we have also flattened the 2nd, giving this scale a middle eastern quality too.

Here are some important take-away points:

I hope this exploration of some of the different minor scales has been illuminating to you, and that the methods used in this article will stay with you and be useful on your musical journey for many years to come.

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