Minor Progress

Songs written in minor keys can be sad, mysterious, ominous even. To the listener, they deliver an incredible variety of emotional ranges.

And to the fledgling songwriter, as well as the experienced music theorist, songs in minor keys can cause no end of emotional impact as well, usually frustration and bewilderment. But hopefully today we can dispel some of the mysteries and anxieties that surround these wondrous sounding songs.

Up ’til now, whenever we’ve been looking at melodies and chord progressions, for the most part I’ve stuck to working in major keys. This has been mostly owing to the fact that I wanted to get those of you with little background in theory some kind of footing before veering off into the uncharted territories of minor keys. Before we get too much further you might want to take a quick look at two past columns, Scales Within Scales and The Power of Three. There is information in both of these pieces that will serve as a foundation on which we can build a study of minor chord progressions without freaking ourselves out too much.

And let’s get this out of the way, too, shall we?

These files are the author’s own work and represents his interpretation of these songs. They are intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.

Preparing Your Palette

The first fun thing about minor keys is that you have three scales with which to work. Let’s use the key of A minor as an example. Here are the three minor scales in that key:

A Minor - Natural Minor Scale
A Minor - Harmonic Minor Scale
A Minor - Melodic Minor Scale

Now in order to come up with our chords for this key, we simply build triads upon each of the notes of our A minor scale. But you see how this is going to be, shall we say, interesting? Because each of our A minor scales provides us with different sets of chords with which to work, we have three “chord groups” at our disposal:

A Minor - Natural Minor Chord Group
A Minor - Harmonic Minor Chord Group
A Minor - Melodic Minor Chord Group

“So, David,” you’re saying, “we see how we come up with these chords. How do we choose which ones we want?” That, my friends, is the sheer beauty of working with minor keys. Any and all of these (plus others, as we’ll (eventually) see) are fair game.

Making Resolutions

One thing we have to remember, though, is that chord progressions should have a purpose. Well-constructed songs have a good sense of tonality, that feeling of “home” that we discussed last summer in Five To One.

(And I guess that this is as good a place as any to mention that you might also want to review Five To One as well as its companion piece, You Say You Want A Resolution.)

Musically speaking, fewer things nail down the tonality of a song as the V to I “authentic” cadence. Songs in minor keys actually give us an additional cadence, VII to I, that also helps us to establish our sense of home. Try out these chord sequences, done with chords taken from our “natural minor” palette:

Natural minor palette

And now again with the V chord taken from the harmonic (or melodic) minor, while the VII is still from the natural minor:

Root V root

As you can hear, resolving to your “home” key from either V or VII works very well. You probably know lots of songs that use either (or even both) of these resolutions. Two Talking Heads numbers are, in fact, perfect two-chord examples of either transition:

Life During Wartime
Listening Wind

You can hear how easily both these chord patterns slip in and out and back into the home key. There is a lot to be said for simplicity sometimes.

Here is another song that uses the I to V to I progression. But this time the V is from the natural minor chord group. Listen to how the changes seem subtler. Even though you do get a good feeling of “home,” the overall sense of tonality is somehow more elusive:

Losing My Religion

A favorite progression for songwriters of songs in minor keys is a straight descent from I to VI and back again. Here are a couple of examples:

All Along The Watchtower
Don't Fear The Reaper

Another progression you will often encounter extends this descent from I all the way to V. The start of Greensleeves (the same music as the Christmas carol What Child is This) is a good example with which I am sure many of you are familiar. Here are a couple of interesting variations on this idea:

Like A Hurricane
Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad

You can see (and hear)(that is, if you’re playing along…) how the chords in Like A Hurricane go right “down the ladder,” from I to VII to VI to V. But Young opts to use the V from the natural minor chord grouping and you can just hear and feel that resolving to Am from Em is just not as dramatic as it is from G. It is the shift from the natural V to the natural VII that provides this song with its punch.

In our second example, we descend from I to VI (and I’m sure by now you’ve all caught on to the fact that this is almost always traditionally done within the natural minor chord grouping) and then go to III (also in the natural minor group) before grabbing the V from the harmonic/melodic group.

Going Fourth

As a rule, and please, please, please remember that there are often as many “exceptions” as “rules,” when writing in a minor key, the V will usually come from the harmonic or melodic minor chord groups. The III, VI and VII are most likely to come from the natural minor chord group. There are quite a few songs that use both of the possible V’s and we will look into this a bit next time out.

It is the IV in minor-keyed songs that tends to provide most of the interest. Listen to the difference in tone between these two songs, even though they are both in A minor (yes, I transposed the first one to make it easier!) and both use a I – IV – I – IV progression:

I Shot The Sheriff
The Story In Your Eyes

Songs that use the IV from the melodic minor chord group usually have a very dynamic, edgy feel to them. Think of songs like Somebody To Love or Another Brick in the Wall (part 2). Part of this is owing to the fact that even though we have already accepted the home key as whatever minor we happen to find ourselves (A minor in the case of this Moody Blues song, The Story In Your Eyes), we’re kind of half waiting for the song to change key on us.

One final note for today – if you are writing a song in a minor key, take the time to experiment. Listen for the changes between chords and feel free to go from one minor chord grouping to the next. Use chords from all three, as this song does:

House Of The Rising Sun

See how it takes the III (the C chord) and VI (F) from the natural, the V from the harmonic (and/or melodic) and the IV from the melodic. Pretty cool, huh?

I hope that this has been helpful, even though we’re just scratched the surface. You’ll hopefully find that much of this will be useful next time out when we’ll look at modulation and key changes.

As always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or topics you’d like to see covered in future columns. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Forums or email me directly at [email protected].

Until next week…