Many of us are familiar with popular major chord progressions like I–IV–V–I. Now it’s time to delve into the exciting world of minor chords. Minor scales give flavor and emotion to a song, adding a level of musical depth that can make a mediocre song moving and distinct from others. Because so many of our favorite songs are in major scales, those that are in minor scales can stand out, and some musical styles like rock or jazz thrive on complex minor scales and harmonic wizardry.
Just take a listen to this famous R.E.M. tune “Losing My Religion” transposed to a major key. Characteristic of major chords, the song sounds unusually chipper and almost happy, regardless of the lyrics and meaning behind the song. Notice how the change from minor chords to major chords nearly changes the overall style to something that might fit better on a country radio station.
R.E.M. seems pretty chipper in this major scale version of “Losing My Religion.”
Now compare to the original song, and you can hear how the minor chord progressions add a distinctly morose moodiness that is not evident in the major scale version. The original R.E.M. tune’s use of minor scales gives it a particularly brooding quality.
Chords in Minor Scales
Before you can play with chord progressions, let’s talk about the different chords available in minor. Because there are three distinct minor scales – Natural, Harmonic, and Melodic – some of these chords are altered based on which scale you choose.
Because of the way that we traditionally write a chord progression, where specific tones move towards the tonic or dominant for resolution, we often use the chords found in the Melodic or Harmonic Minor scale rather than the Natural Minor Scale. The Natural Minor Scale is often ambiguous, lacking specific harmonic motion. Because of this, it lacks movement and can often kill a tune by stripping it of musical motion.
This doesn’t mean that you will never use the natural minor scale—depending on your musical style, you may run into it a lot. But for most commercial purposes, you will avoid building a chord progression using the Natural Minor Scale.
To build a basic chord, remember you need to build up triads in the key. In A Major, the chord would be A- C#-E, but in A Minor, the minor chord is A-C-E. You have the tonic, the flat third, and the fifth. You can build up this minor chord in any minor scale.
Because A Minor, the relative minor of C Major, has a simple key signature with no sharps or flats, we will use this key for the examples. You can apply what you learn with A Minor to other keys.
Listen to the A Minor Chords several times. Notice the quality of the different chords available in the minor scale. Because the leading tone (or G#) wants to move to the tonic A, you will often use the diminished seventh chord from the Melodic Minor scale.
Just like the popular major chord progressions, the minor chord progressions want to resolve and move to the tonic or the dominant of the key. What is different is the quality of the chords.
When spelling out the minor chords, keep the key in mind. Listen for resolutions and progressions that bring movement to your song.
Top 3 Minor Chords
You will find out quickly that many of the favorite Major Chord Progressions are mirrored by popular Minor Chord Progressions. Just like progressions in major scales, those in minor scales focus primarily on moving between three chords: the 1, 4 and 5.
As we learned in the first part of this tutorial on Minor Scale Basics, the 5 (a.k.a. “dominant”) chord in a minor key can be the major version (V) or minor (v).
Listen to the audio example below. The first four chords have a minor 5 chord (E minor). The second has the raised 7th, making the 5 chord an E Major Chord. Listen for the differences in the quality between the two 5 chords:
While you may write other chords in, like the IV chord (or submediant chord), you will most likely be moving around the i, iv and v (or V) chords of the minor scales.
Remember that in most forms of western music, you will be moving to resolve to the dominant or tonic. For example, in the key of A minor, you will be trying to resolve back to the A or the E. In the key of D minor, you will want to resolve back to the D or the A. In most cases, you will be resolving back to the tonic (the first note of the scale), but because ending with the dominant is common, keep that in mind as you play around with chord progressions.
Chord Progression: i-ii dim-V-i
Just like many Major Chord Progressions, you will find that in Minor Chord Progressions the ii chord and the V chord are paired together. In this example, you will hear a simple chord progression: Am-Bdim-E-Am.
- Look at the sheet music.
- Listen to the example.
- Play along with the chords.
Exercise: Minor Chord Progressions
In this article we talked about several different minor chords. For this exercise you will need a piece of paper and a pencil, and your instrument. Choose a key to use for this exercise (you might like to start with A Minor).
If you can’t play chords on your instrument, try playing broken chords or arpeggios instead.
- Choose up to 4 chords from the lists above and write a progression of 4 bars using them on a piece of paper in your chosen key. Start by using just the i, iv and V chords.
- Practice playing through your chord progression several times.
- Now choose another set of chords and write a new progression underneath your first one.
- Practice playing that new chord progression several times.
- Combine the two chord progressions into one long chord progression and play through all of the chords.
- Create a third chord progression from the same key and write it under the second one.
- Practice playing the third chord progression.
- Play through all three chord progressions without stopping.
- Continue adding chord progressions until you are playing through at least eight different chord progressions.
- Practice this same exercises with other keys.
Minor scales offer a harmonic and emotional richness that set them apart from the run-of-the-mill major chord progressions. Because of this, mastering them takes dedicated practice. The expanded opportunities for musical expression are well worth it!
In the next part of this tutorial you will get a head start on your minor chord progression practice. You’ll be playing popular minor chord progressions in a variety of practical exercises that test both your hands-on and ear training skills.
For now, spend some time getting to know the sounds of each of the chords commonly used in a minor key. Experiment by creating your own minor key chord progressions and playing through them. Soon those minor key chords will be as familiar to you as their major cousins!
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