In my series, The Only Theory Lesson You’ll Ever Need, I covered what I consider to be the absolute, must-know info about music theory. All the good stuff, none of the fluff.
In Part 1, we hit all the fundamentals, such as the musical alphabet, whole-step and half-step intervals, and accidentals.
In Part 2, we took that information and used it to construct major scales and understand keys.
Finally, in Part 3, we learned to harmonize those same major scales with chords. Armed with this information you could rule the world, or at least your garage band. 🙂
But the shiny, happy do-re-mi of the major scale is not all there is to music – just ask Yngwie. Sometimes you need a tune that’s moody, dark, sad, even eerie. Those moments require a heaping dose of the minor scale.
Getting a handle on the minor scale will not only give us the flip side of the musical picture, but it will also provide a great starting point for understanding other minor-type scales and modes (of which there are quite a few). So strap in and put your thinking caps on, rock stars. We’re about to embark on a little journey through the wonderful world of minor!
Following the Formula
Remember how we used a particular sequence of whole steps and half-steps to construct the major scale in Part 2 of The Only Theory Lesson You’ll Ever Need?
Well, the minor scale – also called natural minor or pure minor – can also be constructed by using a unique formula:
WHOLE – half – WHOLE – WHOLE – half – WHOLE – WHOLE
For example, an A minor scale would be built as follows:
Starting pitch = A
A + whole step = B
B + half step = C
C + whole step = D
D + whole step = E
E + half step = F
F + whole step = G
G + whole step = A
The A minor scale, then, consists of the notes A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A.
You may notice that A minor requires no sharps or flats to complete the formula, just natural notes. This is identical to the C major scale. Coincidence? I think not!
It’s All Relative
When a minor scale has exactly the same notes as a particular major scale, that relationship is called relative. In this case, A minor is termed the relative minor of C major (and vice versa), and it can refer to the A minor chord as well as the A minor scale. Let’s look a little closer.
If we take the C major scale and number it with scale degrees, we get:
C = 1
D = 2
E = 3
F = 4
G = 5
A = 6
B = 7
C = 8
When you reorder the notes by starting and ending on the 6th degree, A, you get the A minor scale we discussed above: A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A. This relationship occurs in every major key; just pick the 6th degree as your “home base” and you have the relative minor of that major key.
Since a scale serves as the basis for the key we’re playing in, making the A minor scale our “home base” sound really means we’re now playing in the key of A minor. All the rest of the relationships and chords within the key of C major remain; we’ve just reordered them to match the scale, with A minor as our tonic (root) chord:
Am – Bdim – C – Dm – Em – F – G – Am
The concept of chords within a key is discussed thoroughly in Part 3 of The Only Theory Lesson You’ll Ever Need. Check it.
Do the Math
If you’re starting with a major key, chord or scale, and you want to find the relative minor, you can count up from the tonic of the major scale to get to the 6th degree. But honestly, that’s a bit cumbersome. I usually recommend counting backwards 1-1/2 steps from the octave root note (8) to arrive at the 6th:
C (8) half-step back to…
B (7) whole step back to…
But what if you have no major scale as a starting point, and you just want to know how to play a particular minor scale? Remembering that a minor scale starts on the 6th degree of any major scale, you can count forward 1-1/2 steps to arrive at the relative major. Again, using A minor:
A (6) whole step up to…
B (7) half-step up to…
Since you are probably pretty good at the major scales by now (you are, aren’t you?), you can use that information to determine the note sequence of the minor scale you want
The Saddest of All Keys
An alternate method for deriving a minor scale – and ultimately, a more efficient method – is by making some simple adjustments to the major scale that shares the same root note. This is referred to as the parallel major and minor.
A parallel approach to scales and modes can often be the quickest way to achieve the sound we’re looking for. It doesn’t require remembering another formula of whole steps and half-steps, and it doesn’t require the multiple steps of the relative approach. With the parallel approach, we simply start from a major scale and adjust a few specific notes, either sharp or flat, to get the target scale.
In order to derive a minor scale using the parallel approach, take a major scale of the same root and flatten the 3, 6 and 7. For example, the A major scale looks like this:
A (1) – B (2) – C# (3) – D (4) – E (5) – F# (6) – G# (7) – A (8)
If we make our minor scale adjustments by flattening the 3, 6 and 7, we get our A minor scale yet again:
A (1) – B (2) – C (b3) – D (4) – E (5) – F (b6) – G (b7) – A (8)
The 3rd, 6th and 7th degrees of the minor scale are interchangeably called “flat 3, 6 and 7” or “minor 3, 6 and 7”, because they are adjusted downward from the “major 3, 6 and 7” of the parallel major scale. Lowering these notes – especially the 3rd – gives the minor scale its characteristic dark sound.
[TRIVIA ALERT: How does the title of this section match the picture above? Hint: “It’s a ‘Mach’ piece.”]
The Big Finish
To recap our lesson, there are three methods for deriving a minor scale:
1 – Use the minor scale formula and build it in whole steps and half-steps.
2 – Use the relative approach and get the minor scale from its relative major (same scale, different root note).
3 – Use the parallel approach and get the minor scale from its parallel major (same root note, different scale).
All of these methods will work and you should ideally be able to derive a minor scale by using any of the three methods. But understanding this material is in no way easy, so take your time and patiently work with each approach.
Being able to differentiate between major and minor scales is the next giant step in your understanding of music theory!
QUESTION: Which of the three methods seems easiest to apply? Which seems most challenging to understand? Leave me a comment below!