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# working with minor chords

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(@snooker)
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Joined: 20 years ago
Posts: 5
Topic starter

I've found a nice progression that I'd like to work with as the platform for a song.

Dm - Am - Gm

so I can mix those up a little bit and I think it has a nice feel.

I understand that basic theory that tells me if I have a major key, say C. then this runle of thumb follows:

I = major = C
II = minor = Dm
III = minor = Em
IV = major = F
V = major = G
VI = minor = Am
VII = dim (i think) = Bdim

So with my progression starting off with a minor chord (using all minor chords for that matter), how do I determine what key I'm in? Does this have anything to do with my chords being relative to another major scale?

I'd like to find some other chords that work with this key so I can build on my little tune. But more importantly, I'd like to better understand how to make this determination.

Thanks in advance for any help here. I hope I've made my question clear, and apologize if it's a little ambiguous.

(@greybeard)
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Posts: 5840

If you're using the relative minor of a major scale, the progression starts on the 6th (vi) of the major scale (the root of the relative minor), so in C you'd have

i = minor = Am
ii = dim = Bdim
III = major = C
iv = minor = Dm
v = minor = Em
VI = major = F
VII = major = G

To find the scale that the progression Dm - Am - Gm belongs to, you need to find a scale containing those chords. G and A are next to each other, so you need to find a position in the minor chord sequence where 2 consecutive chords are both minor, which you can see is the iv and v of the minor scale. Following along, the next minor chord is on the root position. So if we substitute the chords from your progression (starting from the two consecutive chords) we get Gmin, Amin, B, C, Dmin (root), Edim and F. Your progression fits nicely into a i, iv, v progression in Dmin.

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(@noteboat)
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Joined: 21 years ago
Posts: 4921

With three different chords, you can find the key by looking at the notes the contain.

Dm = D-F-A
Am = A-C-E
Gm = G-Bb-D

Line them all up: D-E-F-G-A-Bb-C-D and you have a scale - one flat, so it's the key signature of F, and the relative minor is Dm.

The strongest resolution in a progression is V-I or V-i. Here you've got v(minor) instead of V for the A... most progressions in Dm will have A7 at some point to resolve back to D. A7 uses C#, which would still have you in D minor, but the harmonic version, with the seventh note (C) raised a half step.

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(@mp173)
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Joined: 21 years ago
Posts: 16

Correct me if I am wrong...if you are playing in minor, then you just reverse the key.

In other words ( I havent phrased this well, I know), but in a major key you have this pattern
I - major
II - minor
III - minor
IV - major
V - major
VI - minor (relative)
VII - ??
Root

Would it be this in minor?
I - minor
II - major
III -major
IV - minor
V - minor
VI - major
VII ??

or am I all messed up?

ed

(@noteboat)
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Posts: 4921

Sorry, Ed, you're messed up.

To get the chords in a key, you take every third scale note. In C major, the notes are C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C, so the I chord is C-E-G (C major), the ii chord is D-F-A (D minor), and so on.

There are three different minor scales, the natural, harmonic, and melodic, so there are three different ways to harmonize a scale. To take the harmonic minor, you end up with:

i = minor
iiÂº = diminished
III+ = augmented
iv = minor
V = major
VI = major
viiÂº = diminished

Minor keys aren't the 'opposite' of major keys, which is where I think you're getting the idea of reversing the chords. They're the complement of major keys.

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(@mp173)
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Joined: 21 years ago
Posts: 16

I know that minor chords are not the opposite of major chords. I also understand how to construct chords. I guess this gets down to something I never quite understood in my 1.5 years of music theory class...can a song be in the key of a minor chord?

I knew after I posted that my logic was flawed, by running thru my "progression" for Aminor...the II would have been B major...which contains five, if I am not mistaken sharps, obviously not Aminor "key" material.

I am now basically under the impression that a piece can only be in the key of a major chord. Is that correct? or not? The key signature obviously signals the number of sharps or flats in the piece, but in the case of no sharps and flats (C major), can that also designate that it is the key of A minor?

Then if it is the "key" of Aminor, the chord construction process would essentially give you the same chords as in the key of C.

Thinking back, my MT instructor really didnt address the issue of my questions or "minor keys", obviously due to the three minor scales and the complexity of explaining that concept to a 40 something year old with next to no music experience or training. He kinda shook his head and said we would discuss it later. I never brought it up and quite honestly, there was plenty to work on.

Thanks for your help...but am I all wet regarding the concept of "minor keys"?

ed

(@noteboat)
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Posts: 4921

The short answers first: yes, a song can be in a minor key. Yes, a key signature designates TWO keys - the major and its relative minor.

Now for the longer stuff your instructor skipped over (the coward :) !)

What makes a key minor rather than major is the 'tonic', which is the I (or i) chord. The tonic defines the key.

What the tonic means is poorly defined. I refer to it as the 'tonal center', the note that serves as the focus of the melody. Even though you're using the same notes in C or Am, there will be a difference in sound.

There have been a number of attempts to define the tonal center with theory rules, but the every rule seems to have so many exceptions, they're more 'guidelines'. It ends up that defining a minor key is a lot like defining pornography... "I know it when I see it" is the essence of most definitions.

The real trouble with hard definitions stems from two ambiguities in music: first, there are three different minor scales. The natural minor contains exactly the same notes as it's relative major. The melodic minor scale differs from the major scale by only one note - C major becomes C melodic minor by flatting the E. Consequently, a section of melody can sometimes be interpreted as being in either a major or a minor key.

Second, any one chord can appear in multiple keys. The C major chord can fall in the key of C, F, G, Am, Dm, Em, Gm, or Fm (there are more minor choices than major ones because there are three different minor scales that can be harmonized). Some melodies are harmonized with just a couple of chords, which means the harmony can't always define the key by itself.

At any rate, some of the things that MAY define a minor key, in roughly descending order of importance:

- the last cadence in a minor key is often an authentic cadence in the harmonic minor (E7 to Am). The raised 7th of the harmonic minor creates a seventh chord that builds tension, which is resolved to the tonic.

- the last note of the melody will often fall on the tonic

- the notes that fall on the strong beats (on beat 1 & 3 in 4/4 time, beat 1 in 3/4 or 6/8 time) will often be on tonic chord tones. Since major and relative minor keys share 2 of their 3 triad notes, you're looking for the odd one - a melody with a lot of G notes on strong beats will lean towards major tonality in C, while one with a lot of A notes will lean towards minor tonality in Am.

- the notes with the longest duration in the melody will tend to be the tonic and dominant notes (A and E in Am; C and G in C major)

- the tonic will sometimes begin, and often end, the phrases (2-4 bars each) that make up the melodic structure

- the tonic will often appear more frequently than any other note in the melody

Textbook examples will follow these rules. E7-Am cadences will alway sound like A minor, while G7-C cadences will always sound like C major. The goal of this portion of theory study, which is hardly ever stated, is to train your ear to find the tonic... then when you get into 'real world' music, you can navigate the differences by ear.

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(@stratwrassler)
Active Member
Joined: 20 years ago
Posts: 17

All of the fine, thorough theory discussion aside, here is a rule that almost always works.

When you finish playing the song, what chord do you "land" on to make it feel/sound like the end? Whatever chord it is, that's the it's in.

I know there are exceptions, and sometimes people just add chords at the end for a "cool" or "weird" effect, but usually it is just this simple.

My opinion.

Peace,
-Rick

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(@mp173)
Eminent Member
Joined: 21 years ago
Posts: 16

Tom:

Thanks for the explanation. It makes sense. It would not have made sense two years ago, which was why we didnt cover it.

Your explanation of "knowing it" was good and that is one of the things I have sometimes struggled with. I am a "rows and column" person, things should fit nicely in place. With music, that is not always the case. If it sounds good, do it.

ed

(@snooker)
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Joined: 20 years ago
Posts: 5
Topic starter

All great explanations. Thanks for the input. It's a lot to digest, but should get me started.