On madness and beauty of harmonic minor

Are we going to talk about them dissonances? Yes, of course, we are! I was focusing on left hand patterns during the last weeks and kind put my scale studies on power-saving mode (i. e. 20 minutes of relatively mindless recap in all keys in the beginning of the practice section as opposed to 2 hours of focused dissection in each key 😄). But I am planning to add some of harmonic and melodic minor exercises back in my routine as soon as I have a good grasp on the new left hand stuff. Can’t lose the momentum right now!

So, the harmonic minor modes. People tend to view them as harsh or dissonant or exotic or — insert your own word choice for “too f’d up to practice“. I view them as composer modes. My point being, they are so colourful that whenever you start practicing them and running them around the cycle of 4ths or circle of 5ths, you eventually end up composing a new piece. Yes, the natural 7th may sound creepy, and minor-major 7th chords are weird, but as soon as the natural 7th resolves to the root and minor-major chord steps back to reveal subtle clean minor, it suddenly clicks in your head and you see the beauty of it. To put it in a more entertaining way: the synthetic minor modes are so fucked up that their non-fucked up parts shine thousand times brighter as they would in a more balanced situation. Think of them as a completely drugged out actor who is somehow still capable to deliver the best Hamlet monologue ever — and then immediately pass out in the dressing room. Not that I’m saying that psychostimulants are a good thing, I’m just saying that Harmonic minor could be an entry poi— Okay, you got the idea, right? 🤓

I’m going to stop talking now and share a couple of scale exercises that might help you see the beauty of it more clearly by reducing the role of dissonances. No, I’m not going to make any more analogies that involve substances of abuse.

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Yeah, this is a normal (considering you follow this blog for some time, haha!) scale dissection over moving degrees, but in this case, due to the choice of note grouping and arpeggiation in the left hand, it really starts to sound interesting. There are only two notes sounding together at the same time, therefore — less mud, therefore — more fun practicing!

What I’m doing here is just running up the scale in a weird pattern: 4 notes up, then 2 down, then again 4 up starting where I left off (see my marks on the sheet). After reaching the V7 chord, I start descending in the same fashion, but in reverse.

If this exercise looks too confusing (especially after my explanation), here’s another one — it’s much more straightforward and lightweight but does pretty much the same job.

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i∆7 — V7 is one of the signature progressions of the Harmonic minor, so it makes sense to practice the scale over it. But practicing the scale in linear scalar motion is boring, so why not break it in 3rds and make your brain feel slightly confused for the next couple of hours? 😄

That’s it for today, I hope it was not too heady and I also attribute all swearing in this post to the dissonant quality of the scale in question. Practice hard, see you next time! 🤙🏻

Modal scales: aim not to become fluent, but rather a native

In the previous post I’ve shared another non-boring way to fall in love with a scale that might sound intimidating, dissonant or uncommon (or is labelled by people as such). Like a Locrian modal scale. Recently I’ve been doing some recap and used this approach with Mixolydian mode. And it turns out it works beautifully there as well!

As always, the point of doing these studies for me is to really internalise the hallmark mood of a particular mode. Major and minor (both harmonic and natural) are almost like the kids you grew up with, right? You can finish most typical runs and progression before they end. The major scale is so predictable you’re getting nauseous halfway around the circle of 5ths. But whenever you switch to the modal world, be it major mode or harmonic minor mode, or a melodic minor mode, or some exotic non-heptatonic thing, it immediately starts to feel “unfinished”. Like, why does the Lydian mode sound as if it were questioning something? Who’s Phrygian angry at? And why does Mixolydian suddenly feel annoyingly round and overly clean, like a badly photoshopped fashion model?

So, this feeling of “wrongness” and peculiarity — as opposed to instinctive nature and obviousness that you have with major and minor — apparently originates from the fact that you might not have had a chance to hang out with those modalities and make friends with them. It’s somewhat reminiscent of foreign language phonetics that sound funny — but a little more subtle. Well, there’s a way to alleviate this problem and learn to accept modal scales as they are — by dissecting them!

Here’s the same approach that I used to tame Locrian mode — applied for Mixo (you can find the detailed description in the previous post):

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Starting with simple arpeggiated modal 7th chords.

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Moving on and adding the Mixolydian scale (F in this case) dissected in groups of 3, ascending and then descending over the moving arpeggios, thus producing the unique blend that gives you a much fuller impression of the mode compared to just bluntly rolling up and down the scale.

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And finally adding the octave jumps to challenge the right hand and add even more definition and depth to the picture. That’s it! Gotta keep it short, as I’ve probably already been dragging on this topic a little bit too long. Make sure to check out other dissection posts, and tune in back later for the new (hint: left hand) stuff!

 

Falling in love with Locrian

Locrian mode is the one most people tend to avoid. The mad one. The psycho. Everyone knows it under different pejorative names but the thing is — almost all theory teachers bash it and label it as “dissonant” or “not too widely used”. Well, maybe the fact that it’s not that widely used is the direct consequence of its ostracism in pop culture (I ain’t talking about jazz here!).

I used to avoid it as well and kept postponing its studies using all kinds of excuses. And then one day— Want to hear a secret? Locrian is, in fact, the most beautiful and sexy and extra tight / please don’t go there / just say the best / of all major modes — and in order to realise this, you only need to get over its diminished first degree! Once you fall from  right into the arms of bII∆7, you’re in love with it forever.

To make this realisation as simple as possible — and also to discover the hidden beauty of this freaky scale, I applied my dissection approach to it and here’s — I’m getting to the point — here’s the exercise I’d ended up with!

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Yes, I used C# key intentionally — mostly because it’s just fun to get out of C basecamp sometimes, no? 🤔

So, left hand here plays the simple 7th arpeggios of the harmonised C# Locrian scale: C#ø7 — D∆7 — Em7 — etc., and is then joined by the right hand that goes up the same scale in groups of 3 notes, with each group starting on the last note of the previous group. Like so: C# — D — E, E — F# — G, G — A — B, etc.

The scale runs blend with moving arpeggios, creating an intricate, very rich and surprisingly harmonious and — yes — pleasant landscape. I was really blown away by it!

Another thing to do here — and that may also add some challenge for the right hand — is to add diatonic jumps (while going up) and broken major 6ths (when going down).

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I highly recommend playing the whole thing one octave higher, so you could truly appreciate the sound of it. Of course, you can take it to all the other keys or use it over chord progressions or ye olde II — V — Is and so on.

I’ll share some practice ideas for Mixolydian mode and touch upon melodic minor topic in the next posts. Harmonise till it hurts—

Practice session: lost in dissonances, rescued by Lydian sweetness

Scale studies

  • All Hm1 scales
  • All Hm1 scales, focus on descending motion
  • Accidentals jam (Dorian scales in all keys) — must confess that this exercise does not really apply well to anything other than harmonic minor 😕

  • Scale dissection: C, F, Bb Lydian over moving major 7th arpeggio in groups of 3
  • Scale dissection: C, F, Bb & Eb Lydian over arpeggiated scale degrees in groups of 3

Here’s what I mean:

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Surprisingly, it’s slightly easier to play than over the moving root arpeggio (because you don’t have to think about inversions all the time and simply go up the scale degrees) — and it sounds much better. Especially in sweet Lydian mode 🍭 Might get tricky in keys with a lot of accidentals though.

Jazz voicings + left hand

  • iim9 — V13 — I∆9 — IV∆ | iiø — V7b9 — m9 in C thru A, descending broken 10ths with the left hand

Session timing: 2h

How to deal with mad accidentals in harmonic minor modes

Harmonic minor is a bitch. Well, what I wanted to say is that it’s tricky in terms of getting fluent in it and not messing it up when you improvise. That raised 7th degree is super dissonant, it almost gives a feeling of a “wrong note” in a lot of contexts, so in order to get it properly wrong, you need to make sure your fingers remember what it is. The problem with accidentals in Hm is that the standard formulas for flats and sharps do not work, and “4 flats” does not automatically mean “Bb, Eb, Ab, Db”, as it would in any major mode. So you really need to get quick at figuring out what the 7th is and then raising it half step — or just get comfortable with all the accidentals in each key. Sounds like a lot of boring math, but I actually came up with a fun exercise that makes it sound super fancy and can turn your next practice session into a — you guessed it — extremely entertaining pastime.

The idea is simple: one of your hands only plays scale degrees with accidentals, the other one only plays naturals — in any octave, in any combination, harmonically or melodically. That’s it! You do it for one measure, and then you change hands. If the left was playing only altered degrees, it has to switch to naturals, the right then will switch to accidentals. For the next measure, you change the key (like, go around the cycle of 4ths maybe?). Here’s an example of Bb harmonic minor going into F harmonic minor going into Eb harmonic minor:

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And here’s how it sounds:

It might start sounding a bit like shit once you get to the keys with a lot of accidentals (like Eb here), but in this case, you can just turn off the restrictions and use all notes in both hands.

Oh, and yes — try in any major mode or blues scale to experience the instant gratification of not having to think about the raised 7th 😆

Till later—

Practice session: harmonic minor and rootless broken 10ths

Scale studies

  • All Hm1 scales

Left hand

  • Broken 10ths recap: Dorian DNA (i7 — IV) in all keys
  • Descending motion focus: rootless broken 10ths
  • Having some classical time: all minor 7th arpeggios in descending motion

What do I mean by “rootless broken 10ths”? 🥴

These are normal broken 10ths with some diatonic line (going from Cm to Fm):

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Here, I’ve just replaced 1s (C) with the 9ths (D) to get a super sexy sound of a 9th played below. Give it a try (and ignore the second measure):

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Session timing: 1h 45m

Practice session: permutations and more Gershwin studies

Scale studies

  • All Lydian scales
  • All Ionian scales
  • Scale dissection: Ab Lydian over Ab∆7 moving arpeggios in groups of two
  • Scale dissection: F# Dorian over F#m7 moving arpeggios in groups of three
  • Scale dissection #2: F# Dorian in groups of three over F#m7 regrouped arpeggios
  • Scale dissection #3: F# Dorian in groups of three over all F#m7 inversions in 1-3-5-7 permutations (several slow passes, but couldn’t really play it fluently)

Left hand

  • Gershwin reversed stride bass (#14 from Jazz Piano: The Left Hand)
    • Original chord progression (dominant descent over the cycle of 4ths from F#, in fact 🤓)
    • Minor variation
      • Only reversed stride in 3-7 → R | 7-10 → R pattern
      • Reversed stride + broken 10ths + block triads up the octave (sounds super dope 🔥)
  • Descending 10ths in a free jam: focus on 10-5 movement

Improvisation

  • Major blues scale around the cycle (quick recap)

Session timing: 2h 30m

Observations

Variations are great! It definitely is much more inspiring an empowering than simply learning the piece from sheet music and finally reading it without any errors. Understanding the logic behind the particular composition and the techniques that are used in it — and then being able to freely play your variation of it in which one can still recognise the original — this is extremely satisfying.