While most of the music that you hear on the radio sticks to basic major chords, it is important to learn how to use minor chord progressions in your music, whether you are a performer, producer, or songwriter. You can hear minor chords in all musical styles from rock to hip hop and pop music.
Classical music has literally hundreds of famous songs in minor keys, and our favorite suspenseful and scary film scores are often in minor keys. Example: the Halloween Theme Song by director John Carpenter modulates between minor keys.
Why Use Minor Chord Progressions?
While major chord progressions are often upbeat and happy, more moody and brooding music is created using minor keys. Sad songs benefit from the overall emotional sounds in the minor keys. Sometimes just dipping into a minor key temporarily changes the feel of a song or can add some sentimentality that was missing in the brighter major keys. In this article you are going to learn the basics of minor minor scales which minor chord progressions are based on.
Watch the A minor chord progressions in Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance:
Three Types of Minor Scales
While major scales have one form, when you explore minor scales you find that there are three flavors: the Natural Minor Scale, the Harmonic Minor Scale, and the Melodic Minor Scale.
Each has a very distinct sound that can be used a variety of ways. It might take some practice but you can learn to recognize these scales when you hear them in use.
You can find the relative minor of a major scale by going to the sixth note of the major scale. Because the major scale and relative minor share the same key signature, it is easy to figure out the basic minor scales.
For example, the relative minor scale of C Major is A minor because A is the sixth note of the C Major scale. Both of these scales share the same key signature (no accidentals). This makes A minor easy to use and very popular, and we will use the A Minor Scale for many of the examples in this series.
1: The Natural Minor Scale
This is the easiest minor scale to figure out because the accidentals stay the same. On a keyboard you would play all white keys for A Natural Minor. The process for finding the natural minor scale is to start the scale on the sixth note, then run through an entire octave.
For example, in the key of C Major, the sixth note is A. To find A Natural Minor, start there and then play all the keys up to the A again. This is the A Natural Minor Scale.
The Natural Minor Scale is also called the Aeolian Mode, based on the modes used before Western harmony as we know it was formed. Instead of using major and minor scales, musicians used a series of church modes. For this reason the Natural Minor scale can sometimes sound ambiguous and almost timeless.
Exercise: Play along in Natural Minor
In this exercise, you will play along with the backing track using the A Natural Minor Scale. If you are on a keyboard, this will be all white keys, starting from A. You would spell this scale: A-B-C-D-E-F-G.
Improvise on your instrument or with your voice, using only this Natural Minor scale. This is just to help you get used to hearing the scale and practice playing along.
Improvise on the A Natural Minor Scale:
2: The Harmonic Minor Scale
When you play the Harmonic Minor Scale, you may recognize its distinctive sound. Play the video below, and listen. If you have a keyboard available, try to imitate what the pianist plays.
Listen to the Harmonic Minor Scale:
Does it sound familiar? Classical composers used to write in the Harmonic Minor Scale to represent “exotic” music that they heard from the Middle East. Using the Harmonic Minor Scale was popular in the Baroque and Classical Eras, and continues to be used today in every genre, including rock and world music.
You can build the Harmonic Minor Scale by playing the Natural Minor Scale and raising the 7th note. For example, the A Natural Minor Scale is A-B-C-D-E-F-G. You create the A Harmonic Minor Scale by spelling out A-B-C-D-E-F-G♯-A.
3: The Melodic Minor Scale
While there are many ways to build the minor scales, building the Melodic Minor Scale can get a little tricky because it is different on the way up than it is on the way down! On the way up, there is a raised 6th and 7th note, but when you play the Melodic Minor Scale down, you simply play the Natural Minor Scale.
The scale gets its name from the fact that it is often used for composing melodies, where it sounds good to use these different accidentals for parts of the melody which are ascending and those which are descending.
Seems confusing? This video demonstrates the Harmonic Minor Scale:
Watch which notes he plays on the way up, then compare to the notes he plays on the way down. As you listen to the Melodic Minor Scale, notice how the accidentals change on the way up and the way down and so how the scale sounds different on the way up than on the way down.
It takes some practice to memorize all of the Melodic Minor Scales on your instrument! You can use these tips to make practicing scales more fun.
Chords in the Minor Scale
With major keys, we can easily derive the set of chords from the key, just by drawing from the notes of the major scale. With minor keys, we have three different scales, resulting in many more possible chords!
Following the chords in the three types of minor scale, you will come across the following chords. While this may seem like many chords to remember, the reality is that you will most likely only use a handful of these chords on any tune.
As with major keys, the chords most often used are the tonic, dominant, and subdominant chords. In the key of A minor, for example, these would be the Am, Dm, and E chords.
Here are the chords which follow from each of the three types of minor scale. The dominant chord (V) is usually formed with the raised 7th to create movement towards the tonic. You can transpose the chords below into any key.
Notice that the Harmonic Minor Scale Chords are different descending than ascending.
How to Learn the Minor Scales
If you are new to minor scales and minor chord progressions, these may seem a little daunting. After all, with major scales, you only need to learn one way to play, and then you’re jamming. But here are a few tips:
- You won’t use all these minor scales equally, so focus on the minor keys and scales that you will most likely use first.
- Start with scales that have fewer accidentals. For example, A Minor, E Minor, and D Minor are easy scales to learn for most beginners.
- Take your time. You want to spend time learning the scales accurately. It can be easy to run through these scales quickly, but you really need to commit them to memory.
- Learn with a friend. Work on scales with a friend. You can either practice jamming in minor scales together or just commit to learning one new scale a week.
- Find favorite songs that use minor scales. This makes learning fun and easier as you apply what you are learning to a real song.
In our next articles we will look at some practice exercises that will help you develop your skills in minor chords and minor chord progressions, including what chords are used in the most popular minor chord progressions.
Extending your chord progressions to minor keys opens up a new world of harmonic possibilities for your music-making. Start out right, by mastering the minor scales and understanding how the minor chords used in minor key progressions follow from them.