PPP067: Piano Teacher, Marcia Vahl, Explains the Differences Between the Three Forms of Minor Scales

Home / Podcast / PPP067: Piano Teacher, Marcia Vahl, Explains the Differences Between the Three Forms of Minor Scales

Marcia Vahl is a piano teacher in Minnesota. She is currently serving as President of the Minnesota Music Teachers Association.

In addition to sharing her own piano insights, Marcia will also tell us a little history about the three forms of minor scales.

Tell us your personal piano story as well as how you chose piano teaching as a career.

My piano story didn’t start until I was in 6th grade when my grandmother gave us her old upright piano. Some of the cousins were jealous, but later said the right person got it! We had it in our basement, where I practiced, for years. My cousins and I took lessons from the same teacher, who simply took us through the John W. Schaum series. I quickly went through the whole series, and somehow I learned to be a good sight reader despite the constant finger numbers throughout the book.

By the time I was in high school, I was playing for every youth service, including a Singspiration, weekly, which required playing all the songs and choruses by ear, since no music was provided. I’m grateful to my youth pastor, who explained I, IV and V chords in every key to me, and I was really on my way!
I went to a Christian college, and had piano lessons, of course. My freshman year I signed up for practice rooms for 17 hours a week! I declared a major in piano and music education and after graduation, I taught classroom music, choir, band, and orchestra for more than 10 years. I started my piano studio later after my children were young, teaching every morning except Fridays at their private school. Much later I moved all my students to my home studio and have been teaching here ever since.

Were you a good student?

I learned quickly and soaked up everything I could.

You have a great story that you use to teach your students about the three forms of minor scales.

Here’s the story that I found surfing one day on the internet very long ago:


NATURAL Naturally follows the scale pattern, starting on the 6th step of the major scale

HARMONIC For Harmony. The dominant must be a major chord, a leading (a half step) 7th note to the tonic must be there, therefore raising the 7th note.

MELODIC For singing. Singing the interval of a step and a half (in the harmonic minor) was difficult so raising the 6th note as well made it smoother. On the way down the leading note is not necessary and therefore it is natural.

In the Medieval and Renaissance eras (400-1600 AD), there was a concept called “musica ficta” (i.e. false music) where the performers would sharpen or flatten notes, even though it wasn’t written in, in order to avoid awkward intervals and to improve ending cadences.

As the concept of chord progressions and harmony evolved, the modal system of scales fell further and further out of use.

Two of the church modes — the ones added late in the 1500’s — the Ionian and Aeolian, were considered the ones most suited to harmony, and they became our major and minor scales. By this time, virtually all composers were indicating all alterations of pitch in their music, effectively ending the practice of musica ficta.

Thus, the Harmonic and Melodic minor scales are essentially “musica ficta” written out.

Now, that explanation works for “eggheads,” but for other students, I tell the (somewhat long-winded) story like this:

Back in the day, music was made up from just the white keys … they could make things sound bright (play C scale) or dark (play D Dorian scale) just by starting and stopping on a particular note. (play the other modes and ask the student if it sounds bright or dark) This was wonderful when everyone was singing the same part — the same melody, which is what everyone did then.

Well, this worked for almost 600 years, and then some people began to realize that they could sing something DIFFERENT along with the melody … and those people “invented” harmony without realizing it.

So for several hundred years, people played around with harmony … combining notes in really neat ways and experimenting with the new sounds they were making.

After a while, people began to realize that certain combinations of sounds fit together better than others, and that was all good, but that sometimes that meant changing a note in the music, making it sharp or flat .. even though that sharp or flat wasn’t written in. The composer knew that the singers would change it, because the singers wanted to make a piece sound as good as possible, so to save ink (ha!) he didn’t write it in.

This changing of notes was really noticeable at the end of a song. (Play an a natural minor scale then a i-iv-i-v-i cadence in a minor, using g natural in the e chord) .. for some reason, that didn’t sound so good to these people. So they raised a note up, and now (Play a i-iv-i-V-i cadence, using g-sharp in the E chord) … it sounded much better!

[The student usually agrees]

So now the scale we used to make those chords is (play the a harmonic minor scale). That’s how we got the harmonic minor.

BUT … now we have another problem … (play the 5-6-7-8 degrees of the a harmonic minor scale) … there’s this weird interval that sounds Middle Eastern to our ears. That’s hard for people to sing.

So, some really smart people got together and decided to raise another note in the scale (play the a melodic minor scale but KEEP THE NOTES RAISED GOING DOWN, and play a i-IV-i-V-i cadence, playing a D major chord and an E major chord) …

And we had ANOTHER problem — the scale sounds okay, but now it’s losing it’s darkness .. the minor quality that people wanted to use! Why we’re one note away from becoming a whole different scale — one of the bright scales! (Play an A Major scale and show how close the modified melodic minor and the major scales are.)

So, the REALLY smart people got together one last time and discussed and debated this for months, maybe years … and finally decided (in a typically complex and bureaucratic way — if the student understands that political concept!) to keep the notes raised when the scale went up, but to go back to the original scale when going down, so that it would still sound dark and minor, but not have any weird intervals to throw off a singer. (Play the a melodic minor scale, and then play this chord progression:

Top note: E F# G# A G F E E E
chord: i IV V I v iv i V7 i )

And that’s why we have three minor scales. Most of the time we use the harmonic minor in piano, but you need to know the others, too.


After telling that story, most of my students seem to understand. And they can hear some “evolution” of harmony in the process.

Do you have a favorite piece that you enjoy teaching your students that reinforces any of the forms of the minor scale?


I don’t have a specific piece, but I take the opportunity in every minor piece to have the student discover which minor form is being used.

There was a quote I heard from Suzanne Guy, a piano teacher in Virginia that went something like this:

It is important to learn the various forms of the minor scale. Then, when you notice them in a piece you are studying you can say, “Hi! I’m glad to see you. You’re a friend!” This is much better than being unfamiliar with them.

This reminds me of Episode 062: The Wit and Wisdom of Mr. Miyagi. Piano teachers share musical concepts with their students to help them be prepared to play them in pieces.

  1. What is one thing you often say to your piano students?

”Do you see any patterns here?” The Piano Safari sight reading cards have been a big help for some students.

Is there a common struggle your piano parents deal with? How do you help them through it?

Making their students practice consistently. I post articles to help parents on the studio Facebook page and send the same info in emails. One of the ones I wrote is entitled “You DO have time to practice.”

What keeps you motivated as a teacher?

Inner motivation, giving back to my profession, providing a climate of excitement about achievement and music in general in my studio, good friends who challenge me.

Tell us about an app or technology that you find useful in your teaching.

I use Piano Maestro, MusicTheory.net and others for sightreading and drills for theory. Other favorites are Flash Note Derby, Ningenius, Note Works, and Note Rush (Listen to my interview with Note Rush app developer, Thomas Grayston)

If you could visit with any composer or musician who would you choose and why?

That would be Bach because he attributed all his work “To the Glory of God”

Here is one of Marcia’s favorite Bach pieces to play.


What parting words of wisdom or quote do you have for parents of new piano students?

Learn with your child; establish a consistent time for practice every day, involve your student in piano activities (just like sports activities), they will value what you value.

My aunt spoke at my wedding shower. What she said applied to my upcoming marriage but I think it works for piano teachers too. She said, “Just don’t make a big deal out of every little thing.”

What is the best way for potential students to get in touch with you?

My website contact format Maple Grove Piano Studio, email, phone call.

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