A Minor Harmonic Scale on Piano – Play with Both Hands

Learn How to Play A Minor Harmonic Scale on Piano

Whether you are a piano novice, or a seasoned player, at some point, you are going to have to be able to play scales.  It’s inevitable.  But don’t fret, as today’s lesson will be all about learning how to play an A minor harmonic scale.  

What is an A Minor Harmonic Scale?

A musical “scale” is a set of eight ascending or descending pitches that divide an “octave.” An octave here means the set of notes occupying the interval between two notes with the same name. Not as confusing as it sounds, I promise. The scales you may be familiar with are of the more common “do, re, mi” variety, as heard in The Sound of Music or plunked out on your piano by pressing the keys in order. Those scales are called “major scales” and, to our ears, anything major will sound “happy.”

Sounds like a normal scale, right? In music, however, there is no such thing as a “normal” scale. The harmonic minor scale is one of three types of “minor” scales: natural, harmonic, and melodic. Unlike the happy major scales, anything “minor” will have a “sad” or “melancholy” quality to it. So, what are the notes of the A Minor Harmonic Scale?

Like all scales, its name should be the first note, or the “root,” as it will be known for the remainder of this article.Since our scale is called A Harmonic Minor, that means we will start on its root, A, and then we will ascend (for this example) up the octave, note by note, until we arrive at the next highest A. The notes are as follows:

Please note that the # sign is the symbol for a “sharp” in music and because there is not an equivalent for this symbol on the computer keyboard, I will be using the pound sign to represent it. Just remember, it’s not a pound sign or a hashtag, it is a sharp! And the note is called, “G sharp.”

Like the other minor scales, we will start at its root (A) and then go up note by note, until we reach the seventh note. If you noted in the picture, a scale is made up of whole steps and half steps. Because we need a whole step between the sixth and seventh note, the seventh note must be a G#, one semitone higher than the note G. A sharped seventh tone is what separates a natural minor scale from a harmonic minor scale, so it is very important that the seventh note is G# and not G.

That’s it for theory! Now, let’s take what we’ve learned and apply it to the keyboard.

Navigating the Keyboard

Now that we know the notes that make up an A minor Harmonic Scale, let’s learn how to play it on the piano.

We need to start on the root of the scale, which is A, so let’s hunt down an A. First, note that the black keys in the piano, excluding the black key farthest to the left, are arranged in sets of threes and twos. Like so:

To make it easier, I’ve circled the sets of two in blue and the sets of three in red. To find an A, look for a set of three black keys.

The A is the white key between the second and third black key of that set. 

This is where A will be no matter what set of three you are playing on. For a lower sounding scale, start towards the left of the piano and for a higher pitched scale, start closer to the right. For this article, I will be using the A in the middle of the piano. Middle C is where most pianists orient themselves when they sit at the bench, so the A I will be starting on will be the one to the left of it.

Here are the notes we will be playing. Remember the picture above, the one with the whole steps and half steps? That’s the formula that makes up our scale. Starting with A, and following that formula, we will be playing the notes lit up below.

The key of A minor is one of the easiest keys for the piano, and one of the first that a beginner will start playing in, because it mostly sticks to the white notes. The only exception to this rule, right now, is that G# that we mentioned before. In music, if a note is sharped, that means it is higher pitched by one semitone. What that means for the piano is, to play a note sharped, you would instead play the very next note to its immediate right, black or white. In this case, the note immediately to the right of G is a black key.

You can play this scale with either hand and across more than one octave, just make sure to start and end on A and make sure you are playing G# in the place of G.

A Harmonic Minor Scale – Right Hand Fingering

Sure, you can plunk out the notes in order with one finger, but you’re here to learn to play the scale like a pianist so, in this section, we will learn how to do just that. 

Pianists number their fingers, with the thumb being 1 and the pinky being 5, just like the image below.

Finger numbers or “fingerings” are crucial to being able to smoothly play any scale, especially if you’re planning on playing more than one octave. To play this scale with maximum efficiency, I highly recommend using the fingering provided in this article.

Let’s start with your right hand. Put your thumb on the A of your choice and then arrange your fingers like the image below, one finger on each key. 

Take care that your fingers are nice and rounded and that only your fingertip touches the key. The heel of your palm should not be touching the piano.

Press your thumb down to play A to start, then your 2nd finger on the next note, B. Continue to the 3rd finger to play the next note, C, and then freeze, because it’s about to get technical!

A true pianist does not pick up their hands and shift them while playing a scale. Your hand will still be moving upwards, but think climbing, like a spider, rather than shifting, like a typewriter. To do this, pay careful attention to the fourth note of the scale, a D. Instead of playing this with your 4th finger, you will instead, turn your wrist out, bring your thumb underneath your 2nd and 3rd fingers and put your thumb on the D. Like so:

Once your thumb is anchored on the D, pivot your hand and reset your fingers like this, with 1st finger on D and 5th on A. Note that the 4th finger goes right for G# and does not sit on G until the last second. 

Now that your hand is reset, you can continue up the scale in order, finger by finger. Your thumb has just played the note D, so follow that with your 2nd finger on E, your 3rd finger on F, 4th finger on G# (not G!) and your 5th finger on A, to end the scale. 

Great job! Now, what goes up must come down, of course, so once you’ve mastered the ascending A Harmonic Minor Scale, you can work on descending. To come back down, you’ll follow the same steps, just in the opposite order.  Descending, you’ll start with your 5th on A, 4th on G#, 3rd on F, 2nd on E, 1st on D and then we stop and get technical again!

There are three notes left in the scale to get back to where we started, so we will need three more fingers. With your thumb on D, we will now do the reverse of the motion we did while ascending. This time, pivot on your thumb, cross your 3rd finger over from F to land on the C, like so: 

Once your 3rd finger is anchored, bring your thumb back under and reset your hand in the exact same position it was in when you started. Your 2nd finger will play B and your 1st (thumb) will end the scale on A and that’s it! You’ve played the A Harmonic Minor Scale with your right hand!

A Harmonic Minor Scale – Left Hand Fingering

Now to do the same with our left hand! Our hands are mirror images of each other and you’ll notice that the steps for the scale in the left hand are the opposite of the ones you just learned for the right hand.

You’ll start with your 5th finger, your pinky, this time. Set your pinky on the A of your choice and then set up your hand like this: 

The 5th finger will play A, then you’ll move up the scale, finger by finger: 4th finger on B, 3rd finger on C, 2nd finger on D, 1st finger on E, and it’s time for more technical finger work. 

Just as you did with your right hand, anchor your 1st finger on that E and then pivot on your thumb and cross your 3rd finger over to land on the F. The move will look like this:

Once your 3rd is safely on F, reset your hand to play the rest of the scale.

Again note that your 2nd finger will go straight for the G# and then your 1st will hit the final note, A. To descend, do the opposite. 1st on A, 2nd on G#, 3rd on F and then…you guessed, technical time! With your 3rd finger anchored on the F, bring your thumb underneath your 2nd and 3rd fingers and place it on the E, as in the image below:

Once your thumb is placed on the E, pivot over and reset your hands in position to finish the scale, ending up exactly the way you started.

2nd finger on D, 3rd on C, 4th on B, and finish it off with your pinky on A. You’ve done it! You’ve played an A Harmonic Minor Scale with both hands!

Practice, Practice, Practice

Scales are a tricky thing to master and the only way to do so is to practice. As you practice, please pay very careful attention to the way your hands are set on the piano. Changing positions as you play is difficult in itself and almost impossible to do so with incorrect posture. To set yourself up for success, I highly recommend setting your hands like the picture below.

Note the round shape of the hand and the way the fingertips touch the keys. This will be crucial to smoothly and effortlessly play your scales; it is very difficult to bring your thumb underneath, if your hand is not rounded the way it is in the picture.

Also, scales are played one note at a time so take care not to let notes “bleed” into each other, as in one note starting before the previous note is lifted, creating a dissonance between them. Play each note one at a time and go slowly, lifting up one note before starting the next. 

Speaking from experience, it is wise to start with one hand at a time and to go SLOW. Over time you will develop the muscle memory needed to play your scales faster and more accurately, but this cannot develop if you are stopping and starting over, again and again and again. Go slow. Seriously. It makes it easier.

And that’s all there is to it! Practice slowly, one hand at a time. Practice going up, then practice going down. Practice in lower octaves, practice in higher octaves and, only when you’ve mastered it with both hands separately, try both hands together! Playing hands together adds a whole new level of difficulty, as your hands will be repositioning at different times. Take your time, go slow, and in time, you will master this too!

Looking for another challenge? Try playing more than one octave! To do that, you’ll need to reset your hands at the end of each octave. Check out the clip below, when you’re ready!

 And that does it for the A Harmonic Minor Scale! Happy practicing and we hope to see you in the next article!

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Vocabulary in this Article

Scale – graduated sequence of notes dividing what is called an octave

Octave – series of eight notes between, and including, two given notes

Root – note that establishes the tonality of a musical key, chord, or scale

Major – tonality based on a major scale, the 3rd tone being a major third above root. “Happy” sounding.

Minor – tonality based on a minor scale, the 3rd tone being a minor third above root. “Sad and Melancholy” sounding.

Sharp – raises a note by a semitone

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