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What is a Harmonic Scale?

A harmonic scale is a musical sequence of notes where each tone resonates to create a pleasing auditory journey, often found in classical and jazz compositions. It's the backbone of melodic structure, shaping the emotional landscape of a piece. How does it differ from other scales, and what magic does it bring to music? Explore the harmonies with us.
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

The harmonic scale is a musical scale that follows a specific tonal pattern. Like most major musical scales, the harmonic contains seven notes and repeats every octave. While it is less used in musical composition than the diatonic scale, the major and minor versions of the harmonic scale are seen in jazz, some pieces of the 16th-19th century, and occasionally to mimic a Middle Eastern scale.

In music, a major scale consists of a seven notes that follow a specific pattern of whole and half step increases in pitch. A diatonic major scale’s pattern is two whole steps, one half step, three whole steps, one half step. In the key of C the sequence involves no sharp or flat notes. This key is easy to play on a piano, as they are laid out to match a C major scale exactly. A major harmonic scale is nearly identical, with the only difference being that the sixth note is flattened by one half step.

Played on the guitar, the harmonic scale requires a major shift in chord structure halfway through the scale.
Played on the guitar, the harmonic scale requires a major shift in chord structure halfway through the scale.

A minor scale is essentially a major scale with the third note flattened by one half step. Consequently, the harmonic minor has both the third and sixth step flattened. This scale is particularly disturbing to those only used to hearing the diatonic major and minor scales common in Western music. The harmonic minor scale is also called the Mohammedan scale, as it is similar to a popular scale in music of the Middle East. Because most Eastern music involves quartertones, which Western instruments cannot be tuned to, the harmonic minor is one of the only scales that can be mimicked in Western music.

Emotively, harmonic scales may evoke sadness.
Emotively, harmonic scales may evoke sadness.

If you are used to Western music and are not a trained musician, the harmonic scale can sound very off-putting at first. It is difficult to play as chords on the guitar, as it requires a major shift in chord structure halfway through the scale. It can also be tricky for vocalists, as the flattened sixth note is a highly unusual component of most vocal music.

A harmonic scale should be relatively easy to play on piano.
A harmonic scale should be relatively easy to play on piano.

Emotively, harmonic scales are generally said to evoke sadness or eeriness. Harmonic minors are often used to augment the harmony component of minor chords, although a diatonic minor is used to create the melody. Musical experts usually refer to the harmonic scale as having a strong or intense sound. With few exceptions, the harmonic scale is not generally sustained throughout an entire piece of music, but used rather for emphasis. For composers, the harmonic scale allows nuance and texture to be added to a piece, to draw attention to specific musical themes.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a harmonic scale in music theory?

A harmonic scale, specifically the harmonic minor scale, is a type of musical scale that features a unique interval structure. It is derived from the natural minor scale but with a raised seventh degree, which creates an augmented second interval between the sixth and seventh notes. This alteration gives the harmonic minor scale its distinctive sound, often associated with a sense of tension and resolution, making it a favorite in classical, jazz, and metal music compositions.

How does the harmonic scale differ from other minor scales?

The harmonic scale differs from other minor scales primarily in its seventh degree. While the natural minor scale has a whole step between the sixth and seventh degrees, the harmonic minor raises the seventh, creating an augmented second interval from the sixth to the seventh note. This contrasts with the melodic minor scale, which raises both the sixth and seventh degrees ascending and reverts to the natural minor form when descending.

What is the purpose of using a harmonic scale in composition?

Composers use the harmonic scale to introduce a heightened sense of drama and tension within their music. The unique interval between the sixth and raised seventh degrees provides a strong leading tone to the tonic, which is particularly effective in cadences and to establish a minor key. This scale is also used to evoke exotic or mysterious atmospheres, thanks to its distinctive sound.

Can the harmonic scale be used in various music genres?

Yes, the harmonic scale is versatile and can be found across various music genres. It is a staple in classical music, especially in Baroque and Romantic compositions. In jazz, the harmonic minor scale is used for improvisation and to create complex chord progressions. Metal musicians often employ this scale to achieve a dark and intense sound. Its adaptability makes it a valuable tool for composers and musicians in many styles.

Are there any famous pieces that utilize the harmonic scale?

Many famous pieces of music utilize the harmonic scale. For instance, Johann Sebastian Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D minor" showcases the dramatic potential of the harmonic minor scale. In modern music, the harmonic minor scale can be heard in the guitar solos of metal bands like Iron Maiden and in the improvisations of jazz legends like Miles Davis. Its use spans centuries and genres, underlining its enduring appeal.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a MusicalExpert writer.

Learn more...
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a MusicalExpert writer.

Learn more...

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    • Played on the guitar, the harmonic scale requires a major shift in chord structure halfway through the scale.
      By: mekcar
      Played on the guitar, the harmonic scale requires a major shift in chord structure halfway through the scale.
    • Emotively, harmonic scales may evoke sadness.
      By: Vibe Images
      Emotively, harmonic scales may evoke sadness.
    • A harmonic scale should be relatively easy to play on piano.
      By: BlueSkyImages
      A harmonic scale should be relatively easy to play on piano.