• The Harmonic Function of Minor Triads

    in Chords & Progressions,Piano,Theory

    harmonic function of minor triads

    Our focus today is on the harmonic function of minor triads in minor keys.

    Another way to think about the harmonic function of a chord is simply “what it’s used for.”

    This is one post you should not hesitate to read because when the function of a chord is not known and understood, abuse is inevitable.

    To understand the function of a chord, you must think in terms of a key. In music, there are two kinds of keys (aka – “tonalities”). One is major and the other is minor.

    Considering that every key – whether major or minor – has its own scale and chord, we can say that the minor triad is the tonic triad of the minor key.

    Major key – major scale – major chord

    Minor key – minor scale – minor chord

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    For example, here is the scale and chord for C minor…

    C natural minor scale:

    C minor chord:

    In this post, we’ll be looking at the harmonic function of the minor chord.

    Attention: We have a comprehensive post on minor triads with a chord cheat sheet and a quick reference guide with 126 exercises that will help you master the minor triad in all twelve keys.

    The Minor Key

    I realize that not everyone is familiar with the minor key.

    But soon, you’ll realize how related minor keys are to major keys. For example, the A minor scale:

    …and the C major scale:

    …have exactly the same notes, but are simply ordered differently.

    In the C major scale, the notes are ordered from C to C while in the A minor scale, the notes are ordered from A to A.

    Notwithstanding that these two scales contain exactly the same notes, they belong to two different keys and should be treated as such.

    Understanding the relationship between minor and major keys is highly encouraged. However, it is improper to sacrifice the identity of the minor key on the altar of relationship.

    The A minor scale:

    …belongs to the minor key (that’s its identity).

    Perceiving or treating it as a C major scale simply because they are related, will sacrifice the identity of this scale, and this is improper.

    Primary Triads in the Minor Key

    Even though the major key has minor triads (aka – “secondary triads”), the function of minor triads can also be understood in the minor key (where they are primary triads).

    Every key, whether major or minor, has seven triads (which are essentially derived from its seven tones).

    For example, here are the triads of the seven degrees of the A minor scale:

    1st degree – A minor triad:

    2nd degree – B diminished triad:

    3rd degree – C major triad:

    4th degree – D minor triad:

    5th degree – E minor triad:

    6th degree – F major triad:

    7th degree – G major triad:

    Of all the triads listed above, triads of the 1st, 4th, and 5th degrees are minor triads.

    They are called primary triads because their quality is in harmony with the key. They are the chief triads of the minor key because of their minor quality (which other scale degrees don’t have).

    In the minor key, minor triads are the triads that give us the feel of the tonality that we’re in.

    In the key of A minor, moving from chord 1 (A minor):

    …to chord 4 (D minor):

    …and then to chord 5 (E minor):

    …will create the impression that only the minor key can give (as opposed to playing chords 3, 6, and 7 – which are major chords).

    Primary triads of the minor key are triads of the 1st, 4th, and 5th degrees.

    Primary Functions of the Minor Triad

    Now that you know that triads of the 1st, 4th, and 5th degrees are minor triads, let’s talk about their functions.

    Since the minor scale gives us three chords that are naturally minor, this means, in actuality, that every minor chord has three functions (when you think about it’s role in other keys).

    Pay attention…

    For example, in the key of A minor…

    A minor triad:

    D minor triad:

    …and E minor triad:

    …are the 1st, 4th, and 5th chords (aka – “primary chords”) of the key.

    However, in terms of function, each triad can be seen as a 1st, 4th and 5th in other keys. Here’s what I mean…

    The A minor triad is chord 1 in A minor

    In the minor scale of A minor:

    …A is the 1st tone of the scale.

    Therefore, the A minor triad is chord 1 in the key of A minor.

    The A minor triad is chord 4 in E minor.

    In the minor scale of E minor:

    …A is the 4th tone of the scale.

    Therefore, the A minor triad is chord 4 in the key of E minor.

    The A minor triad is chord 5 in D minor.

    In the major scale of D minor:

    …A is the 5th tone of the scale.

    Therefore, the A minor triad is chord 5 in the key of D minor.

    The primary functions of the minor triad is:

    • Chord 1
    • Chord 4
    • Chord 5

    You just learned the primary functions of the A minor triad:

    • Chord 1 in the key of A minor
    • Chord 4 in the key of E minor
    • Chord 5 in the key of D minor

    Now, I’m going to show you how to determine the primary function of any minor triad.

    How to Determine the Primary Function of a Minor Triad

    If you’re given the D minor triad and asked to determine its primary function, you’ll have to ask yourself the following questions:

    “In what key is the D minor triad chord 1?”

    “In what key is the D minor triad chord 4?”

    “In what key is the D minor triad chord 5?”

    If you’re able to answer these questions, then you’ll certainly know the primary function of the minor triad.

    To help us in this primary function determination, I want to introduce the circle of fourths/fifths:

    circleoffiths1

    “Can you see the minor keys in the inner circle, and their relationship with major keys in the outer circle?”

    In the 12 O’clock position is A minor (our reference all along). If you recall what I said earlier…

    The A minor triad is chord 1 in the key of A minor.

    circleoffiths1

    If the A minor triad is chord 1 in key of A minor, that means that the minor key and minor triad are in the same position on the circle.

    In the same vein, we can say that:

    The E minor triad is chord 1 in E minor.

    The B minor triad is chord 1 in B minor.

    The F# minor triad is chord 1 in F# minor.

    The C# minor triad is chord 1 in C# minor.

    …this is because in each case, the minor triad and the minor key are in the same sector of the circle of fourths/fifths.

    The A minor is chord 4 in the key of E minor.

    circleoffiths1

    If the A minor triad is chord 4 in key of E minor, that means that the minor key is one sector away from the minor triad in a clockwise direction.

    If I repeat the same question I asked earlier:

    “In what key is A minor triad chord 4?”

    The answer is as simple as moving to the adjacent sector in clockwise direction and this will take us to the answer:

    “In the key of E minor.”

    Let me drill you with a few more questions…

    “In what key is E minor triad chord 4?”

    answer is: “In the key of B minor.”

    “In what key is B minor triad chord 4?”

    answer is: “In the key of F# minor.”

    “In what key is F# minor triad chord 4?”

    answer is: “In the key of C# minor.”

    “In what key is C# minor triad chord 4?”

    answer is: “In the key of G# minor.”

    We arrived at the answers above by simply “moving to the adjacent sector in clockwise direction” based on my simple explanation earlier.

    The A minor is chord 5 in the key of D minor.

    circleoffiths1

    If the A minor triad is chord 5 in the key of D minor, that means that the minor key is one sector away from the minor triad in a counter-clockwise direction.

    If I repeat the same question I asked earlier:

    “In what key is A minor triad chord 5?”

    The answer is as simple as moving to the adjacent sector in a counter-clockwise direction and this will give us the answer:

    “In the key of D minor.”

    Important: This is pretty much a reversal of what we did in the determination of chord 4. We are now approaching it from the counter-clockwise direction.

    Here are a few questions for you:

    “In what key is E minor triad chord 5?”

    answer is: “In the key of A minor.”

    “In what key is B minor triad chord 5?”

    answer is: “In the key of E minor.”

    “In what key is F# minor triad chord 5?”

    answer is: “In the key of B minor.”

    “In what key is C# minor triad chord 5?”

    answer is: “In the key of F# minor.”

    Similarly, the answer is as simple as “moving to the adjacent sector in counter-clockwise direction”.

    Putting It Together

    If you’re given a triad to determine its primary function, all you have to do is apply the three things we covered earlier:

    Derive chord 1 by remaining in the same sector.

    Derive chord 4 by moving to the adjacent sector in clockwise direction.

    Derive chord 5 by moving to the adjacent sector in counter clockwise direction.

    Here’s a million dollar question:

    “What are the primary functions of the G minor triad?”

    You may need the circle of fourths/fifths to answer this question. Here you are:
    circleoffiths1

    Can you spot G minor on this circle?

    Clue: It’s in the 10 o’clock position.

    Step #1 – Derive chord 1 by remaining in the same sector.

    The outcome of remaining in the same sector is G minor. Therefore, the G minor triad is chord 1 in the key of G minor.

    Step #2 – Derive chord 4 by moving to the adjacent sector in clockwise direction.

    The outcome of moving to an adjacent sector in a clockwise direction is D minor. Therefore, the G minor triad is chord 4 in the key of D minor.

    Step #3 – Derive chord 5 by moving to the adjacent sector in counter clockwise direction.

    The outcome of moving to an adjacent sector in a counter-clockwise direction is C minor. Therefore, the G minor triad is chord 5 in the key of C minor.

    The answer to the question is:

    Chord 1 in the key of G minor

    Chord 4 in the key of D minor

    Chord 5 in the key of C minor

    It is my hope that you are now able to determine the harmonic function of any minor key in all 12 keys.

    See you next time.

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    Hello, I'm Chuku Onyemachi (aka - "Dr. Pokey") - a musicologist, pianist, author, clinician and Nigerian. Inspired by my role model Jermaine Griggs, I started teaching musicians in my neighborhood in April 2005. Today, I'm privileged to work as a music consultant and content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with thousands of musicians across the world.


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    { 16 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 johnson

    Thanks man.

    Reply

    2 Davy Chiyambu

    iam a gud sight read , i only depend on sheet music , how do i play songs using chords only?

    Reply

    3 Adekoya sunday

    i want to ask
    how do i play songs using chords only?

    Reply

    4 apostle psaphyso

    playing songs using chords is much simpler…..a song cn be given in any key then the chords above the lyrics…1st you should knw the scaling of that key….
    .den basically we assume u should knw da root chords, 1st nd second invesions of the 12 keys…..from basic fingering we ussume…root chords are formulated using the 1,3,5 formulae…thus knowing da 12 root chord together with their inversions….u cn play a song using chords…with the help of the scaling of that key….

    Reply

    5 Yakub

    Wow! Your esplanation of the minor chords is the most clearest i have ever read across the internet, thank you so much.

    Reply

    6 Robert Essien

    I can’t find words to express my gratitude, your lesson is lucid indeed. Thanks

    Reply

    7 john

    What is this used for? How do I use this when I play? Why do I need to learn this? I am confused! This is what I want to know? Can this help me with improvisation?

    Reply

    8 enrique

    Of course this helps with improvisación. These primary chords are what yellow magenta and blue are for printing but un música. Would you daré paint a canvas if you were impaired and could only see black and white and not shadows of grey?

    Reply

    9 bidemi

    Thanks, very useful, I seem to love songs in major keys. Do give me some samples of songs in pure minor keys to listen to. Most of my favourites gospel songs are in Major keys and sounds happy. This believe that songs in minor keys are sad does not really encourage me at playing them and identify them easily in music.How do I identify them easily in songs? .Thanks for calling my attention to minor keys.

    Reply

    10 Hopstylz

    Woooow,this z really great man!! I didn’t know that the circle of fifths could be used in such a way.I had partially given up on it coz I didn’t understand much of it.I hope more about it z coming.THANKS MAN!!

    Reply

    11 chimzyboy

    Thanks for your helpful explanation

    Reply

    12 Kevin Mokoena

    I would like to learn how to play a piano

    Reply

    13 mike

    You seem to have missed FUNCTION ANALYSIS in your music theory analysis.
    In the key of Am, the chord Em is rarely played FUNCTIONALLY. what is played
    instead is E major or E7 whose FUNCTION is to serve as the DOMINANT CHORD LEADING TO Am, the key of the piece.

    Reply

    14 Olaide Samuel.A

    I really want to thank u for giving this opportunity to all beloved brother who are interested in learning how to play piano, though I was one of the tutor teaching in churches/ area and do search for material online cos what am playing to day was discovered through online/ download material cos nobody ready t teach but when I searched material I was able to play like pro knw both theory and practical and using d same method to teach. Through ur material again I was able to discovered more idea, knowledge addition to what I’ve already learnt online. I pray Almighty God will continue to bless u more abundantly and increase u spiritually, materially and blessed u more than ur expectation in Jesus name. Amen Pls do send some to my email most especially video and hand out like this and God will continue to help u. amen and amen

    Reply

    15 PROMISE CHIBUNDU

    Admin kudos to the good work you are doing more grease to your elbow I would love if you inbox me some of your articles thanks so much and remain bless

    Reply

    16 shantanu

    Great artice ! But how and where do i use this theory , i work in one scale and then use transpose , is this helpfull to me ?

    Reply

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