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  • Writer's pictureMary Barton

Minor Keys - Playing a Major Role!

Don’t be deceived by their seemingly belittling designation! Minor keys play a major role in the music we love. They create moods and ranges of emotion that major keys dare not touch! What is the primary difference between a major and minor key, or a major and minor scale? (Remember, as we learned last time, music keys are built upon the major and minor scales after which they are named.

Listen to the difference yourself!

Did one sound more bright and cheerful than the other? If you couldn’t tell, or didn’t notice, have another listen. And while you’re listening, imagine which one walks you down the aisle at your wedding, and which one might be more suitable for less happy or more sombre occasions?

You were listening to C Major followed by C minor. Here is another audio sampling, this time D major, followed by D minor, and G major, followed by my personal favourite, G minor:

If our human emotions were restricted to only moments of bliss, we might not even need a minor key, but then again, minor keys can add an appropriate pensiveness, depth or beauty to any happy occasion. Like when we cry tears of joy, relief, or appreciation. Tears of wonder. Tears of love. All of these and so much more are the primary job of the minor key to emote.

So what is a minor key and how is it formed? Simply put, minor keys are based on minor scales, which are tweaked versions of corresponding major scales.

Each minor scale corresponds to two different major scales known as:

  1. Parallel major

  2. Relative major

Did you notice in the audio examples above the major and minor scales that shared a common letter name were paired together? This is because C minor is based on C major, D minor on D major, G minor and G major and so on. These are the parallel majors, also called tonic majors, because they share they same tonic (remember the tonic is the first note of the scale because it sets the tone for everything that follows).

A parallel minor is formed by lowering by a half-step the 3rd and 6th degrees (notes) of the tonic major. The notes E and A in C major are lowered to E flat and A flat in C minor, respectively, creating what’s known as the harmonic form of C minor.

Like major scales, minor scales follow a set pattern of tones and semitones. However, unlike major scales, which adhere to a fixed pattern, minor scales enjoy three forms due to possible variations on the 6th and 7th degrees of the scale:

  1. Natural minor

  2. Harmonic minor

  3. Melodic minor

Of these, the harmonic is the most beautiful and therefore the most commonly used. The minor scales in the audio samples above were all in the harmonic form. Here we compare its pattern of tones and semitones to a major scale:

C Major: T T S T T T S (2 :1, 3:1 tones/semitones)

C Minor harmonic: T S T T S T+S S ( 1:1, 2:1, 1.5:1)

Note how different the pattern of tones and semitones has become! Suddenly it looks like a completely different scale! But we are actually still playing all of the same notes; we simply lowered 2 of them to flats. What has changed is the journey from one note to another.

The semitones of the harmonic minor interrupt the flow of tones (whole tones), allowing only 2 consecutive tones throughout, creating a less stable sounding journey filled with tension and dissonance. And, on top of that, the minor harmonic stretches the distance between the 6th and 7the degrees to 3 semitones (tone plus semitone), instead of the single tone found in the major scale. This widened gap between the 6th and 7th degrees is what gives the harmonic minor its unique, haunting beauty.

C minor also corresponds to a different major scale, known as its relative major. It’s related not by sharing a common tonic, but rather by sharing common characteristics such as the same sharps or flats. To

determine a minor key’s next of kin, so-to-speak, we simply count up 3 semitones (the next 3 black or

white keys on the piano) to arrive at its relative major. For example, counting from C in this manner, we end up at E flat. Therefore, E flat major is the relative of C minor. We can also simply jump to the 3rd degree or note of the C minor scale, which is E flat, to identify the relative major.

Conversely, we can determine the relative minor of any major key by counting down 3 semitones from the tonic or by jumping to the 6th degree of the major scale:

So how are C minor and E flat major related in the family tree of music? Through the flats. C minor, in its natural form, contains all the same notes of E flat major, without adjustment. So, in essence, it’s the same as playing E flat major, but starting on C:

E Flat Major: E flat F G A flat B flat C D

C Minor Natural: C D E flat F G A flat B flat

* Note: when playing a scale, we normally end on the tonic again (upper tonic), but I have excluded it in these examples to demonstrate the 7 degrees that comprise minor or major scales.

Below we see that C minor harmonic has only 2 flats because we stretched the gap between degrees 6 and 7, which resulted in the 7th degree, B flat, being raise a semitone to B natural:

C Minor Harmonic: C D E flat F G A flat B

And finally the melodic form raises both the 6th and 7th degrees, leaving only one flat. A flat is raised a semitone to A natural:

C Minor melodic: C D E flat F G A B

Minor melodic scales are usually played ascending, but then followed by the natural minor descending as it gives a more complete or finished sound. Again, listen for yourself. The first time is C minor melodic only, ascending and descending. The 2nd time is melodic ascending followed by natural descending.

All major keys have the identical patterns of tones and semitones, and so now comparing E flat major with all forms of C minor:

E Flat Major: T T S T T T S (2 :1, 3:1 tones/semitones)

C Minor harmonic: T S T T S T+S S ( 1:1, 2:1, 1.5:1) C Minor melodic: T S T T T T S ( 1:1, 3, 1:1)

C Minor natural: T S T T S T S (1:1, 2:1, 1:1)

Another factor that binds the relative major and minor together musically is that their tonic chords have two notes in common:

E flat triad: E flat G B flat

C minor triad: C E falt G

These commonalities are so strong that the relative minor tonic chord can be substituted for the relative major tonic chord to add colour and mood to a musical phrase!

Minor keys play a critical role in the vast vault of musical literature. Much of the world's most enduring music, including Beethoven's Fur Elise, Moonlight Sonata, and 5th Symphony, would not exist if it were not for those emotional minor keys! I'm happy that there's music out there that can make me ... cry!

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