Harmonic Modes

The Harmonic Major and Minor Modes and Arpeggios 

The Harmonic Minor Modes and Arpeggios

Okay, now we’ve got a complete set of the possible modes with half steps and whole steps. It’s time to throw another interval into the mix – the minor 3rd. A minor third is an interval distance of 1 1/2 steps, or a whole step plus a half step. This first group of 7 connecting modes is based on the Harmonic Minor Scale. These are the Harmonic Minor Modes. Many musicians who have a passing knowledge of music theory are familiar with the first 7 modes, the Natural Modes, or Melodic Major Modes. These 14 harmonic modes are somewhat less commonly fully known and understood.

The harmonic minor modes are no more “harmonic” than the melodic modes are “melodic.” The names came from the music theory of the period of general practice, when the melodic and harmonic scales were used. Confusing, i know, but any of them can be used equally well in constructing either melodies or harmonies. 

Remember the intervals: a half step has no other note between the 2, a whole step has one empty fret between. The minor 3rd has 2 empty frets. An example of this would be the 1st and 4th fret notes on the 1st string. Or you could think of it as a half step plus a whole step. 

In the 14 harmonic modes, as in the first two groups, the half steps never appear in a row. In this group all modes have one whole step, followed by 2 whole steps, followed by a minor third. 

Please note that these harmonic minor modes were not used during renaissance times. They’re based on more modern harmonic ideas and are commonly employed by jazz players, and some have had quite a bit of popularity in rock and metal especially during more recent years. Most players have had at least a passing experience with the Phrygian Dominant Mode. 

The Harmonic Major Modes and Arpeggios

If we have harmonic minor modes, then why not harmonic major?

In this group all modes have two whole steps, followed by one whole step, followed by a minor third:

C   D   E   F   G   Ab   B   C 

HIstorically you can find the Harmonic Major scale itself in the last bars of certain pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach, and it goes with a iv (minor) chord heading for a Piccardy third tonic chord, i.e. F minor heading for a final C major chord in a C minor piece. I – iv (C major to F minor) progressions can also be found in Romantic era pieces, as well as the Rossiniana of Mauro Giuliani, written for classical guitar solo.

The third mode of Harmonic Major is a great way to improvise against a dominant sharp 9 chord. Let’s start it on E:

E   F   G   G# (Ab)   B   C   D   E

This has the advantage of expressing the #9 note (G) AND the perfect 5th (B). It sounds more musical than the abstract overly symmetrical sound of the Diminished scale, and it avoids clashing with the 
perfect fifth of the chord the way the Superlocrian (Melodic Minor Mode 7) does – its Bb and C clashing with the chord’s B. Additionally, the gap between G# and B is intriguing to the ear in fast runs.

Special thanks to Addison Howland Kermath, Jr., for his contribution to this article.