Minor Keys: Use and Understanding Part 1

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Sad to the Bone

Minor keys are awesome. They sound dark and dramatic, and many musicians over the centuries have made great music with them. They’re also kind of a hassle to figure out. As I promised in a previous post, we’re going to delve into minor scale harmonization and their harmonic areas. If you are unfamiliar with the makeup of minor scales, please check out Smitch’s explanation here.

The same “third-skipping” process we employed to harmonize major scales can be applied to minor scales. If we take the notes from E natural minor (E F♯ G A B C D) and arrange them as triads, we get this:

Chord numberTriadsQuality
iE G BE minor
iioF♯A CF♯ diminished
IIIG B DG major
ivA C EA minor
vB D F♯B minor
VIC E GC major
VIID F♯AD major

*Note: Common practice is to compare the minor scale to the major scale. Therefore chords like the III chord in minor are referred to as ♭III, being a minor third above the root.

Compared to the major scale’s series of chord qualities:
Ma Mi Mi Ma Ma Mi Dim

We have:
Mi Dim Ma Mi Mi Ma Ma

Literally the exact same series shifted over. We could then assume that the chord functions – which harmonic areas they may fit into – stay the same. But this isn’t the case. There are three different forms of minor scales that are commonly used in tonal music: natural, harmonic and melodic. The differences between the three of them are fairly easy to spot.

E natural minorEFGABCD
E harmonic minorEFGABCD
E melodic minorEFGABCD

Or expressed numerically:

E natural minor1234567
E harmonic minor1234567
E melodic minor1234567

The problem is that now we have different notes and thus, different chords depending on what form of minor we’re using. For example, the v chord which was previously composed of scale degrees 5 ♭7 2 is now 5 7 2. That raised scale degree 7 changes the v chord to a V chord, or minor to major. To understand the full implications of this, let’s talk about the development of these scales in western music.

Another note: The following section is a loose summary of generations of musical evolution. The way music theory was taught and used was way different back then. The technical explanations still stand. If any musicologists have complaints, send them to the Guitar-Muse.com editors. I probably won’t read them.

Basically, some folks were writing music hundreds of years ago and noticed that minor keys didn’t have the same resolving pull that major keys did. They noticed that scale degree 7 in a major key resolved very nicely upwards by a half step. Minor keys however, had a whole step to go before resolving to 1. To remedy this situation, they started the practice of raising the 7 in minor keys to provide a pleasing resolution. There were also all sorts of rules put in place about when and where the altered 7 was allowed to be used. When harmonized, this scale has the added benefit of creating a V – i movement – a perfect cadence – rather than a v – i. This is where we get the modern name “harmonic” minor; because of its stronger sound when harmonized. Play these chord progressions and notice how the major V movement creates more of a pull to the i:

Em (i) – Cmaj (VI) – Am (iv) – Bm (v) – Em (i)
Em (i) – Cmaj (VI) – Am (iv) – Bmaj (V) – Em (i)

These old school dudes came to the conclusion that the distance between the ♭6 and the raised 7 (an interval known as an augmented 2nd) was kind of tough to sing. To remedy this situation, they decided to raise scale degree 6 as well. This made certain melodic lines easier to sing and thus the modern term “melodic” minor. It was common practice for centuries to only raise these scale degrees on the way up. Descending the scale meant playing your regular old ♭6 and ♭7. This was so common, that even today people refer to a melodic minor scale played the same way in both directions as jazz melodic – jazz being a very young style compared to western classical music.

Back to the present and what this means for you. Harmonizing the harmonic and melodic minors yield these results:

E Harmonic Minor:

Chord numberTriadsQuality
IE G BE minor
iioFA CF diminished
III+G B DG augmented
ivA C EA minor
VB DFB major
VIC E GC major
viioD FAD diminished

E Melodic Minor:


Chord number
TriadsQuality
iE G BE minor
iiFA CF minor
III+G B DG augmented
IVA C EA major
VB D FB major
vioC E GC diminished
viioD FAD diminished

Take careful note of the differences between the chords that occur in natural, harmonic and melodic minor scales. It’s a good idea to review your scale fingerings, as well as finding a few comfy fingerings for some of the harder chords.

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Adam Pietrykowski

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