• What Musicians Mean When They Say “Minor Key”

    in Piano,Scales,Theory

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    You’ll learn what the term minor key means in today’s lesson.

    If you’ve been around musicians for a long time, then it’s possible that you might have come across the term minor key, but what do musicians really mean when they say minor key?

    Find out for yourself in this lesson.

    Historical Background On The Concept Of Key

    What we know as key today evolved some 400 years ago. Before the concept of key came to be, an ancient system that used modes was used.

    A mode [that is not transposed] consists of a collection of white notes (aka – “naturals”) from a given white note to its octave.

    The concept of modes used every white note (aka – “natural”) on the piano to form a scale. There are seven modes, considering that there are seven natural notes on the piano (A to G):

    …and each natural note produced its unique mode when played to its octave. Here’s how to form modes from each natural note…

    From C to C:

    …the ionian mode.

    From D to D:

    …the dorian mode.

    From E to E:

    …the phrygian mode.

    From F to F:

    …the lydian mode.

    From G to G:

    …the mixolydian mode.

    From A to A:

    …the aeolian mode.

    From B to B:

    …the locrian mode.

    In middle ages (AD 400 – 1400), music was composed using these modes. Just the same way we can have compositions in D minor today, then, it wasn’t so. You’ll rather see a piece of music written in the dorian mode.

    Although modes have been replaced by the concept of tonality, a knowledge of modes can help you appreciate the concept of tonality, and most important, there’s a way to relate tonalities with modes.

    The Concept Of Key

    Modes eventually evolved into key centers and two modes stood out from the rest as the major and minor scales, consequently, the major and minor key centers.

    The concept of the key center is the establishment of a given note on the keyboard as a central tone (aka – “tonic”.) This creates a tonal environment, where the tonic is the the center of attraction. The scholarly word for this tonal environment is called tonality.

    When a note is established as a key center, the outcome is one out of these two distinct tonalities – the major key and the minor key.

    The two tonalities have different feelings. While the major tonality captures emotional feelings like brightness, happiness, etc., the minor tonality rather depicts the fearful, ghostly, dark, and other feelings that contrast that of the major key.

    The aeolian mode:

    …formed from A to A, has the same notes with the A natural minor scale – the traditional scale of the minor key. Check out the natural minor scale in all 12 keys…

    C minor scale:

    C# minor scale:

    D minor scale:

    Eb minor scale:

    E minor scale:

    F minor scale:

    F# minor scale:

    G minor scale:

    G# minor scale:

    A minor scale:

    Bb minor scale:

    B minor scale:

    Here’s The Minor Key

    The minor key is the key center made up of a step-wise arrangement of notes in whole steps, with half step between the 2nd & 3rd degrees, and the 5th & 6th degrees.

    Believe it or not, the easiest minor key you can relate with on the keyboard is the key of A minor:

    …and this is because it has exactly the same notes of the A aeolian mode:

    However, I want you to pay attention to the distance between adjacent notes, which is basically in whole steps, save for the 2nd and 3rd degrees:

    …and the 5th & 6th degrees:

    …where adjacent tones are a half step apart.

    To take you further in today’s study, let’s consider some vital properties of the minor key.

    Avoid Note

    The sixth tone of the minor key is usually considered to be an avoid note. In the A minor scale:

    …the sixth tone (which is F):

    …is usually considered an avoid note. The A melodic minor scale:

    …does not have the avoid note because it has F#:

    …as its sixth tone.

    If we substitute the sixth tone of the A natural minor scale (F):

    …with the sixth tone of the A melodic minor scale (F#):

    …the outcome is the A dorian scale:

    …another minor scale without an avoid note.

    Further reading: Avoiding the avoid note.

    The Natural Minor Scale

    If the notes in the minor key are played in ascending and descending order, it forms the natural minor scale. If the notes in the key of A natural minor scale:

    …are played from A:

    …to A:

    …in a melodic fashion, the outcome would be the A natural minor scale, which is the traditional scale of the minor key.

    Simple Intervals

    An interval is the relationship between two notes [in terms of the distance between them].

    Intervals can be formed between any two notes of the natural minor scale. However, in this segment, we are concerned with intervals that are formed between the first note of the natural minor scale [aka – “tonic”] and other scale tones.

    Simple intervals are intervals within the compass of an octave.

    The tonic of the A natural minor scale:

    …is A:

    Therefore, we can form the following simple intervals between the tonic and other tones in the key. Check them out…

    A and A:

    …a perfect unison, formed between the tonic and the first tone of the natural minor scale.

    A and B:

    …a major second, formed between the tonic and the second tone of the natural minor scale.

    A and C:

    …a minor third, formed between the tonic and the third tone of the natural minor scale.

    A and D:

    …a perfect fourth, formed between the tonic and the fourth tone of the natural minor scale.

    A and E:

    …a perfect fifth, formed between the tonic and the fifth tone of the natural minor scale.

    A and F:

    …a minor sixth, formed between the tonic and the sixth tone of the natural minor scale.

    A and G:

    …a minor seventh, formed between the tonic and the seventh tone of the natural minor scale.

    A and A:

    …a perfect octave, formed between the tonic and the eighth tone of the scale.

    Perfect intervals are formed between the tonic and the first, fourth, fifth, and eighth degrees of the natural minor scale.

    A major interval is formed between the tonic and the second tone of the natural minor scale, while minor intervals are formed between the tonic and the third, sixth, and seventh degrees of the natural minor scale respectively.

    Apart from perfect intervals (that represent stability), minor intervals dominate the minor key. If you do the math, 37.5% of simple intervals are minor intervals.

    The Tonic Chord

    According to Jermaine Griggs, “A chord is a collection of three or more related notes.”

    If a chord is formed on the first tone of the key, such a chord is called the tonic chord. In the key of A minor, we can play this collection of notes:

    …that are related in thirds (aka – “tertian harmony“) as the tonic chord because the root of the chord is A:

    …which for all intents and purposes is the tonic of the A minor scale.

    Further reading: The Tonic Chord.

    Primary Chords

    There are four common triad qualities – the major, minor, diminished, and augmented triads, known to HearandPlay students [like me] as the fantastic four.

    Although the minor key has three out of the fantastic four triad qualities – the major, minor, and diminished triads, triads that have the same quality with the minor key are called the primary chords.

    If you evaluate the quality of all the scale degree triads in any given minor key, you’ll discover that only triads of the first, fourth, fifth degrees have the minor quality. Therefore, triads of the first, fourth, and fifth degrees of the minor key are primary chords in the key.

    In the key of A minor:

    …the primary triads are the A minor triad:

    …of the first degree, the D minor triad:

    …of the fourth degree, and the E minor triad:

    …of the fifth degree.

    Attention: In another post on elementary keyboard harmony, we’ll be covering the application of these primary chords.

    Final Words

    Next time you hear “I’m playing in the key of G minor”, I believe the term minor key and what it represents – the avoid note, the scale, the simple intervals, the primary chords, etc., would come to your mind.

    See you in another post.

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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 the head of education, music consultant, and chief content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with hundreds of thousands of musicians across the world.

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.




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