Composing in Double Harmonic Minor Scale (Hungarian Minor)

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Cover Photo by Raymond Cozkes

Introduction

– Mode structure: 1 2 ♭3 ♯4 5 ♭6 7 (Fig. J)
– Characteristic Note: ♯4
– Analogous to the fourth Mode of Double Harmonic Major Scale

The Double Harmonic Minor scale features two sets of augmented second intervals, similar to the Double Harmonic Major scale (or Byzantine scale) in the previous section. In fact, the two scales are seemingly related. In other words, we can think of G Double Harmonic Minor as the fourth mode of the D Double Harmonic Major scale.

“In other words, we can think of G Double Harmonic Minor as the fourth mode of the D Double Harmonic Major scale.”

Once again, the term “double harmonic” refers to its two augmented second intervals, and “minor” indicates that the third note of the scale is a minor 3rd above the tonic. The structure is actually very close to a harmonic minor scale, except for the raised fourth degree, resulting in the augmented interval between scale notes ♭3 and ♯4 (see Fig. J). Since this note distinguishes the scale from harmonic minor, we can think of the ♯4 as a characteristic note for the scale.

Fig. J G Double Harmonic Minor Scale

This scale is often associated with some of the traditional music of Eastern Europe. It is sometimes colloquially known as “Hungarian Minor.” It is also equivalent to the Carnatic raga Simhendramadhyamam in Indian classical music and the Arabic maqam Nawa Athar. 10) 

Musical Examples with a Strong Usage of Double Harmonic Minor Scale

Hora Lăutărească – Nicu Stănescu, (year unavailable)

Joe Satriani, “Musterion” from the album Professor Satchafunkilus and the Musterion of Rock (2008)

John Williams, “Anthem of Evil” from the movie Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (Episode IX) (2019)

Composing with Double Harmonic Minor Scale 

Double Harmonic Minor
Composition Example (Double Harmonic Minor/Hungarian Minor)

Analysis

In this example, we used G Double Harmonic Minor exclusively to write a slow and mysterious piece. Piano carries the melody while bassoon and strings provide sparse harmonic support. Owing to its similarity to the harmonic minor scale, the Double Harmonic Minor scale provides a dark and gloomy quality at such a slow tempo.

In measure 1, the piano melody moves between D and B♭, whereas in measure 2, it moves a half-step lower to C♯ and A. In fact, the first note of each measure is either C♯, D, or D♯, all within a step of each other. This sort of chromatic movement may contribute to the sense of tension in the piece, adding perhaps a gothic quality to the piece. 

During the first four measures, the strings shadow the first note of the piano in each measure (though they anticipate in measure 2). Piano and string bass maintain the tonic (G) throughout. Notice how all instruments emphasize the character note, C♯ (♯4) in every other measure, starting in measure 2. This trend continues in measures 5-8 with the addition of bassoon. Since C♯ is an augmented fourth (or tritone) above G, they sound particularly discordant against the tonic. This recurring tritone provides yet another source of melodic and harmonic tension.

Dulcimer joins in measure 5, playing winding passages up and down the scale and adding variety to the texture. The notes on beats 1 and 3 support the harmony in each measure, with the slight exception of measure 8.

SUMMARY

The double harmonic minor scale, also known as the Hungarian minor scale or Gypsy minor scale, is a seven-note scale with a unique and distinctive sound. Here’s a breakdown:

Structure:

  • It consists of the following intervals (whole and half steps) relative to the tonic (root): 1, 2, ♭3, ♯4, 5, ♭6, 7.
  • Its key features are:
    • Two augmented seconds (one in each tetrachord): between the 1st and 2nd degrees, and between the ♭3rd and ♯4th degrees.
    • An augmented fourth between the 1st and ♯4th degrees.

Sound:

  • Due to its augmented intervals, the double harmonic minor scale has a chromatic and exotic sound, often described as “dark,” “oriental,” or “gypsy-like.”
  • It’s frequently used in musical styles like jazz, flamenco, and Eastern European folk music.

Comparisons:

  • It’s related to the harmonic minor scale, which has only one augmented second. Raising the 4th degree in the harmonic minor creates the double harmonic minor.
  • It’s also not to be confused with the double harmonic major scale, which has a different structure.

Additional points:

  • The double harmonic minor scale is not commonly used in classical music from Western culture.
  • It has a unique “ambiguous tonal center” due to its many half steps.

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View complete editions of music scores (PDF), score analysis (PDF), and HD music examples used in this lesson.

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