So, a while back, I was teaching a bit of compositional theory (as you do) and I asked the students a seemingly outrageous question: “What is the purpose of the harmonic minor scale? Why is there a raised 7th in there?”
But I was not deterred and thought I’d push them even further… “OK, what about the melodic minor scale? A raised 7th AND a raised 6th.”
Tumbleweed, and a bell tolling in the distance…
Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve asked the music students that question. And it certainly wasn’t the first time it was met with silence. In fact, no student has ever been able to tell me why these scales are there. So, I carried on…
“OK, has it ever ocurred to you, when you’re doing your ABRSM exams to ask WHY am I learning these things? Or, what they’re there for, these scales?”
Nope. No one.
But, to be fair, I sometimes I get the response: “Well, the melodic minor is more ‘melodic’.”
“Um… OK… more melodic than what?” I usually reply.
Anyway, to cut a very long and boring story short, I eventually coax out a response that explains away the raised 7th as the major third of chord V in a minor key, and the raised 6th as the major third in chord IV of the key. But in fact, you’d be hard pushed to find an instance where the melodic minor scale is used ‘as written’; up and down. It certainly isn’t used like this in improvisational theory and I’ve never encountered anyone extolling its merits thusly in a composition class.
Also, the ‘melodic minor descending’ is not its real name. This scale is a backwards version of ‘the scale formerly known as the natural minor scale‘. The melodic minor ascending and descending is really just a Frankenstein’s monster kinda scale; that random assemblage being someone’s idea of a good thing.
Now, and this is the problem, classical music education tends to ignore the purpose of scales and their functions in creating music. Of course, the accent in our system has always been on performing not creating, but a little knowledge goes a long way. I usually ask the students to ask their instrumental teachers if they know anything about the minor scales they learn. After all, they are the people who usually have to teach them the Grade syllabus. The answers are usually very similar to their own: ‘more melodic’, ‘ask your theory teacher’ or ‘never mind that just now, play it again’.
However, jazz instrumental teachers are different, they know what scales are for. They’re there for making stuff up with. Darn right. Having said that, some older jazzers don’t know what the scales are, nor do they care, because everything has been learned by ear. Joe Pass is a good example of the non-theorectial approach, but this is much out-dated nowadays as the material for learning is so readily available in the institutions and online. Not so in Joe’s day.
In classical tuition, scales are taught alongside the music. In jazz tuition, they ARE the music. This all comes down to learning your trade, and what the job requirements are, and, ironically, classical music-making loses out simply because you don’t need to make stuff up. You’re a ‘vessel’ to be filled by the person with the filling-up stuff (ie. us composers). You don’t need to know what’s going on, you just need to make it look like you do. I’m not saying it’s easy, or unimportant, it’s just that… wouldn’t it be better to be able to understand things a bit more?
As an aside, I can remember being on a classical guitar course when a visiting performer was invited to ‘jam’ with a few of the punters. It turned out that said artiste did not know any chords beyond first position. I was stunned.
But back to the issue. When I teach the major scale modes I always teach them in terms of either a major scale (with alterations) or a natural minor scale (with alterations). Then I discuss their usage in composition; what chords they can be used over etc etc. It’s pointless talking about the Lydian mode without reference to it’s use over major 7th chords and their extensions; the ♯11 is the logical extension of the triadic construct of maj3rd, minor 3rd, major 3rd, minor 3rd etc.
It is also interesting to see that the last of the 12 tones to become ‘revealed’ in this additive manner (ie major 3 – minor3 etc…) is the F♮- an avoid note in improvising over Lydian tonalities.
So, my point is this. Theory is always presented as being dry and boring. That’s because people forget how important the ways in which knowledge can be presented actually is. Context is everything. And the simpler it can be explained the better.
With that in mind: I can remember at a lecture at the wonderful and now sadly defunct Dartington College of Arts when the tutor Max Paddison (then, and now, a highly regarded Adorno specialist) said: “You know, WHY is often the best question to ask.” Seems obvious now…
To sum up… you may be a self-taught, singer-songwriter type and ignorant of all this. Fine. You may be Paul McCartney. But just remember it’s always more fun to know what you’re doing when you’re doing it. Otherwise you run the risk of being misunderstood; your metaphorical rocket missing your imaginary moon, or, at the very least, look a bit silly in my composition class.