Minor Keys: Use and Understand Part 2

Blues Guitar

Read Time 3 Minutes

Sad but True

Last time we harmonized minor scales to find out what chords they contain. Now let’s figure out how to apply them.

Below is a chart of the common harmonic functions of chords from minor keys. For the most part they stay the same, with some notable exceptions.

Tonic Pre-Dominant Dominant Miscellaneous
iVI VIivIV (melodic)iio (harmonic, natural)ii (melodic)III



V (melodic, harmonic)viio (melodic, harmonic)III+ (melodic, harmonic)vio (melodic, harmonic) VII v

Each different type of minor scale produces different types of chords. This means that they’ll have different functions when used in context. The interesting thing about minor music is that we can pick and choose which chords to use depending on that context. Sometimes you need a dominant sound and sometimes you don’t. The song “The Unforgiven” from Metallica’s Black Album for example, has a chord progression that goes like this (starting from about 0:34 on the record):

Am (i) – Cmaj (III) – G (VII) – Em (v)
Am (i) – Cmaj (III) – G (VII) – Emaj (V)

The first time through, they use the regular old minor v chord. On the second round, they use the major V to establish a solid cadence. This is a stellar example of how the raised 7 is often used in popular music. In classical music they tend to be a bit more stringent in their methods, but there’s still a lot of “line blurring” harmonies.

Another common use is in the minor 12-bar blues form. The progression often goes:

i i i i
iv iv i i
VI V i i

Notice how it’s typically chords from the natural minor scale until the V comes along. Then it’s raised 7 all the way.

You may have also noticed chords built on the same scale degree easily change function based on which minor scale you’re drawing from. I’ve included a miscellaneous column because a couple of chords don’t really fit into the old harmonic paradigm. For instance, ♭VII is not typically thought of as dominant, but we see it used in ♭VII – i cadences all the time (very common in jazz and metal). It can also be seen as a “V of” chord – a dominant of another chord that isn’t I or i. For instance, the progression ♭VII – ♭III in a minor key could be seen as V – I in its relative major.

These two keys are related. They use the same notes, and therefore the same chord movement could be thought of in two different ways:

E minor: (D major) VII – (G major) III
G major: (D major) V – (G major) I

This is a common way to change the key center from minor to relative major. A chord shared between two keys like this is referred to as a pivot chord. But we’ll get to that kind of stuff another time.

The minor v you see in the miscellaneous column is there because v – i is also not seen as dominant movement. Rather, this kind of thing is very modal, and is the typical kind of thing we’d see in the Aeolian mode.

The augmented chord occurring on the ♭III in both harmonic and melodic minor is dominant. To split hairs though, it’s a non typical dominant used in place of a typical one, generally for color. Once again, it very handily could be seen as the dominant of another non tonic chord – in this case ♭VI. This is a common way to lead to ♭VI or, acting as a pivot chord, to change keys altogether:

E minor: (G augmented) III+ – (C major) VI
C major: (G augmented) V+ – (C major) I

Some chords can even have multiple functions. The iio is cool because as a diminished chord, it sounds dominant. That means you can use it for dominant tonic movement; say as a passing chord from i to III. When you make it a seventh chord (by adding the next third), it becomes a half diminished (m7♭5) chord (built off of scale degrees 2 4 ♭6 1). This chord works really well as a pre-dominant, and is used heavily in this context. A strong example would be the opening progression in the jazz standard Black Orpheus:

Key of A minor: Am7 (i-7) Bm75 (ii-75) E7 (V7) Am7 (i-7)
Function: Tonic Pre-Dominant Dominant Tonic

Once again though, a bunch of chords keep their expected functions. The iv chord is pre-dominant and the V is obviously dominant; just like in major keys. A final note: all cadence names are the same. It doesn’t matter if we’re dealing with V – I or V – i¸ its still considered an authentic cadence. The same goes for plagal, deceptive and half cadences.

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Adam Pietrykowski

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