How to Build Minor Scales on the Piano

Minor Keys

There’s nothing quite like minor keys to communicate the message or mood of a song. They lend themselves quite naturally to reverence and introspection. So let’s learn how to build minor scales on the piano.

What Is a Scale?

A scale is a group of eight notes, played in alphabetical order, starting and ending on the same note (if a scale starts on C, it will end on the next C). Scales are groups of notes used to write songs.

Types of Scales

Major scales are often used for happier-sounding and more upbeat songs, while minor scales work well for reflective and somber songs.

Keynotes

The first note of the scale is called the “keynote”, and this is also the note the scale is named after (an “A minor” scale starts on an “A”). The notes in the A minor scale are also the notes used to write songs in the key of A minor.

Three Types of Minor Scales

There are three types of minor scales:

  • Natural minor scales
  • Harmonic minor scales
  • Melodic minor scales
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Natural Minor Scales

Natural minor scales are really neat, because they each have a twin on the piano – a major scale with the exact same notes!

Here’s how it works: natural minor scales are built off the sixth notes of their relative major scales, and they contain the same notes as their relative major scales.

A Natural Minor

Since the sixth note of a C major scale is A, an A natural minor scale contains all the same notes as a C major scale. The difference is a C major scale starts and ends on C, while an A natural minor scale starts and ends on A.

Here are the notes:

A B C D E F G A

Even though we’re using the same notes as the C major scale, A natural minor won’t sound the same as C major, because we’re starting and ending on “A” instead of starting and ending on “C”.

Another Way

Another way to find the notes of any natural minor scale is to memorize the pattern of whole and half-steps used to build natural minor scales.

This is the pattern:

W – H – W – W – H – W – W

You could memorize that pattern if it’s easier, or you can build the natural minor scale by remembering it’s relative major scale.

Relative Majors and Minors

Here’s a list of all the relative major and natural minor scales:

C – Am
C♯ – A♯m
D♭ – B♭m
D – Bm
E♭ – Cm
E – C♯m
F – Dm
F♯ – D♯m
G♭ – E♭m
G – Em
A♭ – Fm
A – F♯m
B♭ – Gm
B – G♯m
C♭ – A♭m

Enharmonic Scales

Some scales are enharmonic. This means they use the same notes on the piano to build their scales, but go by two different names.

There are three sets of enharmonic major scales:

B major and C♭ major
F♯ major and G♭ major
C♯ major and D♭ major.

Since these major scales are enharmonic, their relative minor scales will also be enharmonic.

Here are the enharmonic minor scales:

G♯ minor and A♭ minor
D♯ minor and E♭ minor
A♯ minor and B♭ minor

Natural Minor Scales List

Here’s a list of all the natural minor scales:

A minor
A B C D E F G A

A♯ minor
A♯ B♯ C♯ D♯ E♯ F♯ G♯ A♯

B♭ minor
B♭ C D♭ E♭ F G♭ A♭ B♭

B minor
B C♯ D E F♯ G A B

C minor
C D E♭ F G A♭ B♭ C

C♯ minor
C♯ D♯ E F♯ G♯ A B C♯

D minor
D E F G A B♭ C D

D♯ minor
D♯ E♯ F♯ G♯ A♯ B C♯ D♯

E♭ minor
E♭ F G♭ A♭ B♭ C♭ D♭ E♭

E minor
E F♯ G A B C D E

F minor
F G A♭ B♭ C D♭ E♭ F

F♯ minor
F♯ G♯ A B C♯ D E F♯

G minor
G A B♭ C D E♭ F G

G♯ minor
G♯ A♯ B C♯ D♯ E F♯ G♯

A♭ minor
A♭ B♭ C♭ D♭ E♭ F♭ G♭ A♭

Harmonic Minor Scales

Another type of minor scale is the “harmonic minor scale”. This scale is the same as a natural minor scale, except the seventh note of the minor scale is raised 1/2 step, (1/2 step is the distance from one note to the very next, whether black or white).

Here’s an example of an “A harmonic minor” scale, where you can see the seventh note has been raised 1/2 step, compared to the natural minor scale.

If you’re wondering why we call the black key a “G sharp” instead of an “A flat”, remember that one of the definitions of a scale is that the notes progress in alphabetical order. Since this note follows an “F”, it has to be a type of “G”, so it’s labeled “G♯”.

Why do we need harmonic minor scales? Why don’t we just use natural minor scales? Well, since harmonic minor scales raise that seventh note, they create some nice variety when used to write songs.

Harmonic Minor Scales List

Here’s a list of all the harmonic minor scales:

A harmonic minor
A B C D E F G♯ A

A♯ harmonic minor
A♯ B♯ C♯ D♯ E♯ F♯ G♯♯ A♯

B♭ harmonic minor
B♭ C D♭ E♭ F G♭ A B♭

B harmonic minor
B C♯ D E F♯ G A♯ B

C harmonic minor
C D E♭ F G A♭ B C

C♯ harmonic minor
C♯ D♯ E F♯ G♯ A B♯ C♯

D harmonic minor
D E F G A B♭ C♯ D

D♯ harmonic minor
D♯ E♯ F♯ G♯ A♯ B C♯♯ D♯

E♭ harmonic minor
E♭ F G♭ A♭ B♭ C♭ D E♭

E harmonic minor
E F♯ G A B C D♯ E

F harmonic minor
F G A♭ B♭ C D♭ E F

F♯ harmonic minor
F♯ G♯ A B C♯ D E♯ F♯

G harmonic minor
G A B♭ C D E♭ F♯ G

G♯ harmonic minor
G♯ A♯ B C♯ D♯ E F♯♯ G♯

A♭ harmonic minor
A♭ B♭ C♭ D♭ E♭ F♭ G A♭

Melodic Minor Scales

The third type of minor scale is the melodic minor scale, and they aren’t as common.

Melodic minor scales raise the sixth and seventh notes of the scale when played ascending (moving up the scale), and play the natural minor scale notes descending (moving down the scale).

Make It Happen

For application, you could practice building these five natural minor scales using the notes of their relative major scales (review how to build major scales here):

C major – A minor
G major – E minor
D major – B minor
A major – F♯ minor
E major – C♯ minor

Conclusion

Now you know the three types of minor scales, as well as the patterns for building them. And you can use that knowledge, starting on any key, to build other minor scales.

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18 Comments

  1. Connie

    Another cool pattern, very well explained!

    Reply
    • Julie

      I love these patterns, thank you!

  2. JAMES BRUNSWICK

    I want to learn, but remember the scale forms,
    and I guess it means that consistence practice or playing is
    necessary to actually learn them and recall them. I am 74 now and anxious to digest these basics so I can explore sounds on the keyboard. I know my major chords in all
    the keys on the keyboard.
    I have learned that memorizing chords and signatures doesn’t mean you know how too play. Playing is different than practicing chords.

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      I’m so glad you’re jumping in! Yes, learning scales and chords on the piano lays a foundation, and then you can take that knowledge and apply it to creative playing (using inversions and block and broken chord patterns would be the next layer).

  3. Fabio

    Hi Julie. I have just started to learn piano. I love the way you teach making music much easy and enjoyable. Thank you very much for sharing.

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      You’re welcome! I’m so glad it’s helpful!

  4. Abram Mahlangu

    Hi Julie you make it easy to understand now I see my self play like a champ

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      Wonderful, I’m glad to hear that!

  5. Irene Farley

    I will give these a try. Thank you bunches.

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      I’m so glad it’s helpful, you’re welcome!

  6. Josep Proenza

    Gracies Julie
    M’encanten els teus escrits-
    Pots enviar-me alguna cançò teva?

    Reply
  7. Henry

    What about the chords for the minor scale

    Reply
  8. Irene

    Julie, Please tell me what to do to enhance playing ” Amazing Grace”. I know a little bit of playing the basics but I want to make a fuller sound, spice my playing up a bit. I got so much to learn.Thanks.

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      Good question Irene, first I would practice playing the chord symbols in both their root positions and inversions. And then I would practice playing both the root position chords and inversions using both block and broken chord patterns. Block chords are when the notes of the chord are played all at the same time, and broken chords are when the notes of a chord are played separately. Then at that point you could experiment with chord substitutions, where you switch out a major chord for maybe a suspended second, suspended fourth, fifth or sixth, etc. depending on what you like. I hope that helps!

  9. Jenn

    Thank you so much for clear explanation of minor scales. I look forward to your email each week! I just started teaching piano this fall. I have been finding it difficult to explain what I have done for over 30 years. I am a church pianist and have two students who want to learn hymnplaying.

    Reply
    • Julie Swihart

      That’s wonderful, I’m so glad to hear that! Thank you for the encouraging words, and I’m really glad to know you’re finding this helpful in your teaching!

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