Part Eleven

Minor Keys - I

One of the first questions people ask, after seeing the maps for major keys, is "What about minor keys?"

To explore the world of minor keys, let's adopt the following strategy. We'll use "concepts" and "approaches." The "concepts" are ideas to consider until they become part of the way you think. The "approaches" are assignments or experiments you can do to gain skills working with minor keys.

Minor Keys - Concept #1

The first concept to consider is this: not all songs that sound minor are really "Minor." In other words, you can create music with that minor sound, but it may not be coming from the place we call "Minor," so let's talk about that for a minute.

Music tends to sound minor when the "home chord" is a minor chord. If you play a song, and a minor chord seems to be the center around which everything is happening, people will say, "That sounds like minor."

If you spent some time reading through the previous section on modes, you will remember there are three modes which have a minor chord as the home chord: the Dorian mode, the Phrygian mode, and the Aeolian mode. Let's review.

Reviewing the Dorian and Phrygian Modes

If we take any major scale, number the individual notes 1 through 7, and number the chords built on those notes as I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, and vii (where I, IV, and V are major chords, ii, iii, and vi are minor chords, and vii is a diminished chord), we will be playing in the Ionian mode, or major.

If we keep these same notes and chords as a kind of family (related to one another, and meant to be played together), but think of note 2 as the starting point, and chord ii as the home chord, creating a song that keeps coming back to ii, we will be playing in the Dorian mode.

If we keep writing songs in this mode, we will eventually get so familiar with it that we will no longer think of the home chord as being chord ii in some major scale. Instead, we will begin to see it as chord i in this interesting scale that has a different sound. Also, we will no longer see the root note as note 2 of some other scale; we'll see it as note 1 of this new scale, the Dorian scale.

But regardless of how we label it or think about it, the song we play will sound to the casual listener as though we are playing in a minor-sounding key. It's not really minor, of course. It's Dorian.

The same line of reasoning can be used for the Phrygian mode, except that the home note is note 3 and the home chord is chord iii. Songs written in the Phrygian mode will have a minor feel to them, because the home chord is a minor chord.

What About the Aeolian Mode?

The Aeolian mode is built on note 6 of a major scale. This is where the "Minor Keys" discussion begins to get interesting.

Minor Keys - Concept #2

Our second concept is this: what we call minor develops out of the Aeolian mode. In fact, the Aeolian mode is sometimes called "Natural Minor."

Take any major scale, find note 6, and renumber everything so that note 6 is called 1. This new scale will be numbered 1 through 7, but the jumps between the notes will follow the formula "whole - half - whole - whole - half - whole - whole" or W-H-W-W-H-W-W.

To make it easier to see, let's choose C major, find note 6 (which is A), call that 1, and then play the Aeolian mode. The notes are A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A.

This is an interesting mode, and you can write songs in it using the same chords you were using in the key of C major - C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, and Bdim - but the home chord is now Am. If you start with Am, end with Am, and keep coming back to Am, you will have established a minor chord in the listener's mind.

Now let’s take another look at the chords we're using, paying particular attention to the five chord.

The one chord is Am.
The two chord is Bdim.
The three chord is C.
The four chord is Dm.
The five chord is Em.
The six chord is F.
The seven chord is G.

Minor Keys - Concept #3

Notice that the five chord is minor. Many years ago, musicians working with the Aeolian mode thought about this and decided it would be nice if the five chord was major instead of minor. This would allow the progression V to i to go from major to minor. But in order to make the five chord major, they had to change one note in the Aeolian scale: note seven. So they sharped note seven (shifted it one half-step to the right).

In our example using A Aeolian, instead of playing the scale A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, we would now play A, B, C, D, E, F, G#, A. This creates a rather unusual jump in the scale between notes 6 and 7, but it did accomplish the primary goal of getting a major chord as the five chord. This scale is called "harmonic minor."

So that brings us to our third concept: Harmonic minor is the Aeolian mode (sometimes called “natural minor”) with note 7 raised a half-step, allowing the five chord to be a major chord.

Say It Again

Let's go through the process once more.

Start with any major scale... play those seven notes... then play the same seven notes beginning on note 6... renumber the notes so note 6 is now called 1... this new scale is the Aeolian mode or natural minor... now play the Aeolian mode with note 7 raised a half-step.

Let's do an example.

The F major scale: F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E, F. Find note 6. It's the D. Play the scale again, starting with note 6: D, E, F, G, A, Bb, C, D. So far, so good. That's D Aeolian or D natural minor. To get D harmonic minor, we raise note 7 a half-step: D, E, F, G, A, Bb, C#, D.

Again, notice the unusual jump from Bb to C#. It kind of grabs your attention. Well, it grabbed everyone's attention a long time ago too, and they found they didn't always like that big jump from note 6 to note 7, especially if someone was playing a musical line that was just one note at a time (like a voice singing, or a violin, or trumpet, for example).

One interesting way to smooth it out is to start with the harmonic minor scale and then "bump" note 6 a little higher when going up the scale, and "pull" note 7 when coming down.

In other words, we smooth out the big jump using two different adjustments: one adjustment when playing up the scale, and a different adjustment when coming back down. The result is notes 6 and 7 are played like the major scale when going up, and like the natural minor scale (or Aeolian) when going down.

This smoother scale is called "melodic minor," which brings us to our fourth concept.

Minor Keys - Concept #4

Starting with harmonic minor, we get melodic minor by raising note 6 when going up the scale, and lowering note 7 when coming down.

You Can Also Find Melodic Minor This Way

Start with any major scale. Number it 1 through 7, and also play note 8. It would look like this.


Now flat note 3.


Good.  You’re halfway there. Now come back down the scale, but this time lower notes 7, 6, and 3.


That’s Melodic Minor.

Minor Keys - Approach #1

Your first assignment: take well-known tunes in major keys... play just the melody, one note at a time... but flat notes 3 and 6. Listen carefully to this new sound. Notice especially the jump between notes 6 and 7. Remember that you can make this jump smoother by "bumping up" note 6 when playing up the scale and "pulling down" note 7 when playing down the scale.

Let’s Review

In this section we saw how minor keys grow out of the Aeolian mode.

We had to make an adjustment however. The Aeolian mode (or natural minor) sounds minor and feels minor, but it doesn't have that nice V to i sound, because the five chord in Aeolian is minor. We can get the V to i sound by raising note 7 a half-step.

This gives us a major chord for chord five. It also gives us a wide jump between notes 6 and 7 of the scale.

Sometimes we like this jump, but sometimes we would rather close this gap to make musical lines play more smoothly. Raising note 6 in passages going up, and lowering note 7 in passages coming down gives us the melodic minor scale.

Because that takes a while to think through, we talked about another way to find it. Starting with any major scale, we can flat note 3 when playing up the scale, and flat notes 7, 6, and 3 when coming back down.

When you feel you understand these concepts, move on to Part Twelve.

Copyright 1998 - 2017 Stephen Mugglin

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