Chords In Minor Keys

In pop music, the difference between a minor key and its relative major can be small, and the chords we use in minor keys frequently are closely related to those we use in major. The leading tone, which is a half step below the tonic, can make the distinction between minor and major easier to hear.

In a music appreciation class, you might learn that major keys essentially sound happy, and minor keys sound sad. That’s a decent shorthand to describe the way major and minor keys sound in classical music. It has a grain of truth in pop music, too. But in pop music, the emotional quality of minor keys is a frequently ambiguous. A minor key and its relative major key can sound quite similar to one another.

To see why, let’s create a chord palette for a minor key, much as we did with G major in Chapter 3. Here’s our E natural minor scale. Note that E minor is the relative minor of G major, since both have a key signature of one sharp. (For review of natural minor, and relative major/minor, return to the end of Chapter 1.)

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Now let’s add triads, just as we did in major.

Chord Palette For Natural Minor

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In Chapter 3, we learned that in pop songs in major keys, there are four main chords: I, IV, V and vi.

Likewise, in pop songs in minor keys, there are often four main chords, but this time they’re i, III, VI and VII. So if we’re in E minor, the four main chords will be Em, G, C and D.

These four chords are the same as the four main chords in the relative minor key of G major.

Main Chords For Pop Songs In E minor:
i (Em)
III (G)
VI (C)
VII (D)

Main Chords For Pop Songs In G:
I (G)
IV (C)
V (D)
vi (em)

So the four main chords used most frequently in a minor key will also be used most frequently in its relative major. If we’re listening to a song and we hear these four chords, then, how can we tell whether we’re in E minor or G major?

There are two main answers to this question, both of them complex. The first is that, in pop music, major and minor simply aren’t that different. They’re distinct from one another mainly in that minor-key progressions begin with (or perhaps heavily emphasize) a minor chord, while major-key progressions begin with a major chord. The result is that many pop songs in minor keys don’t really sound melancholic in the way classical pieces in minor keys often do.

For example, here are the opening measures of Iyaz’s “Replay,” which is in F# minor.

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The song doesn’t sound sad, in part because the chords (F#m, D, A and E) are the same as the primary chords we would use in A major. The i-VI-III-VII progression makes it one of many pop hits of the last few decades that prominently feature minor chord progressions but don’t feel sad, such as Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” or MGMT’s “Kids,” both of which feature that same i-VI-III-VII progression.

The minor key of “Replay” does, however, undercut the giddy quality of the lyrics somewhat, and perhaps listeners would have found “Replay” to be too sugary if it had been written in a major key. Scholars have demonstrated that the use of minor keys in pop music has increased in the last several decades because listeners increasingly prefer music that features complex “emotional cues.” It’s interesting, then, that a number of recent hits in minor keys, such as “Replay” and Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” (with a chorus progression of i-VII-III-VI), have unambiguously happy lyrical themes and quick tempos. These songs are in minor keys, but they almost feel like they’re in major.

The similarity between major and minor keys also means that songs can move almost seamlessly between major and relative minor, and vice versa. An example occurs in the chorus of Bruce Springsteen’s “Radio Nowhere.”

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The first two lines feature a i-VI-III-VII progression in F# minor. But in the third line, Springsteen pivots to a I-IV-vi-V progression in A major. Because these two keys feature the same chords, is isn’t obvious that the key has changed — and, in fact, maybe we should not think of it as a key change. I once played this example for my students, and they had a hard time hearing any difference of key at all.

Nonetheless, there is a sort of pivot from F# minor to A major. The change is audible, but it involves a very subtle change of inflection. This example suggests very strongly that the actual aural difference between major and minor in pop music is often quite small.

Quick Quiz 7.1

Name the i, III, VI and VII chords of the following keys.

D minor
C minor
G# minor

The Leading Tone

The second answer to the question of how we tell the difference between major and minor keys involves a tricky theoretical concept. To really understand minor, we need to master the concept of the leading tone. This is an important concept for this chapter and for later ones on secondary dominants and modulations, so pay close attention and consider rereading this section if you don’t get it the first time.

The leading tone of any key is the note a half step below the tonic. Let’s first think about how leading tones work in major keys, and then we’ll come back to minor keys. If we are in the key of G major, for example, the leading tone will be F#. The leading tone leads us up to the tonic, which is G.

Try playing a G major scale, but stop on F#. After you stop, you should feel that what you’ve played is incomplete. The F# wants to resolve to G.

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The leading tone thus creates tension, and the tonic resolves it.

Classical music depends very heavily on this relationship between the leading tone and the tonic. The relationship between the leading tone and tonic is less strong in pop music, but it’s frequently still important.

When the leading tone appears, it is often embedded in a V or V7 chord. Here’s an example, returning to the key of G major.

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The leading tone, F#, is part of the D major chord, D F# A. In major keys, the leading tone occurs normally as the seventh degree of the scale. For example, in the key of G major, the leading tone is F#, which is in the key. We don’t need to adjust to the scale to include it.

The problem is that the leading tone does not occur in natural minor. Let’s return to the E natural minor scale.

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Note that the seventh degree of the scale, D, is not the leading tone, because it’s a whole step away from E, rather than a half step. D#, not D, is the leading tone of E. The leading tone is always a half step below the tonic, so the leading tone of E minor (D#) will be the same as the leading tone of E major (also D#). In minor, however, the leading tone will not be in the key signature.

Quick Quiz 7.2

Name the leading tones of the following keys.

D major
D minor
B major
B minor

Harmonic & Melodic Minor

In a music theory class, you would learn two variants of the minor scale that do contain the leading tone: harmonic minor and melodic minor.

Harmonic minor 

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Melodic minor 

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In harmonic minor, we raise the seventh scale degree from natural minor (D, in this case) one half step (to D#) so that it becomes the leading tone, a half step below the tonic (E). In the process, we create an interval of an augmented second between the sixth and seventh scale degrees (C and D#), which gives harmonic minor a Spanish or Arabic sort of feel. (The Middle Eastern-sounding guitar riff in the Offspring’s “Come Out And Play,” for example, is due to the presence of an augmented second, although the song is not in harmonic minor.)

In melodic minor, we raise the sixth and seventh scale degrees when we ascend, and lower them back to the sixth and seventh degrees from natural minor when we descend.

If you like, you can play around with these scales yourself, but we will not investigate them much further here. They are perhaps overemphasized in studies of music fundamentals. For both classical music and pop, harmonic minor in particular is a somewhat inaccurate abstraction that doesn’t show us much about how the leading tone is actually used. For our purposes, what’s important is that minor keys will often feature the leading tone, even though the leading tone is not present in the natural minor scale.

The Leading Tone In Minor Keys

Let’s return to our natural minor chord palette.

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Look carefully at the v chord, B minor. Then try playing around with chords in e minor (em, G, C, D) and including a B minor every so often.

It doesn’t sound bad. But try doing the same thing but replacing the B minor chord with a B major chord.

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Just as in the key of E major, this chord is called V when it appears in E minor. (The “V” is capitalized to show that it’s a major chord.) The key signature for E minor is always based on natural minor, so we have to notate a D# for this chord. Usually, this V chord heads to i, because the leading tone buried within it (D#) points back at the tonic. Going from V to VI is also a good option – the deceptive cadence, which we discussed in Chapter 4, works just as well in minor keys as it does in major.

If all of the above makes your eyes glaze over, the important thing to remember is this: In minor keys, the chord based around the fifth scale degree is often a major chord.

Using the V chord (that is, the major chord) in minor keys increases our impression that we are in minor – it draws attention to the i chord. Ambiguously-minor pop songs like “Replay” and “Radio Nowhere” might avoid the V chord or use it sparingly, but it can be a powerful tool.

For example, here are the chords for the intro to Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats,” which is in F# minor:

 

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The song begins with a standard i-VII-VI-VII progression in the key of F# minor, but the second time through the progression ends with a V chord. Note that this is a C# major chord, because C# major includes E#, the leading tone of F#. Listen to the song and pay attention to the way this chord functions. It points us back in the direction of F# minor and gives us a clue that the verse is about to begin.

Note, also, that this song sounds darker than “Replay.” This is no accident. Both songs are in minor, but Underwood’s use of the V chord makes her song sound darker, a sensible accompaniment to the song’s dark lyrics about taking revenge on a cheating lover. (It can also be interesting to write happy-sounding music to accompany dark lyrics, or vice versa, but this song takes the more obvious route.)

A terrific example of the impact of the V chord in minor occurs in Lukas Graham’s “7 Years.” The song is in G minor and mostly revolves a standard pop progression of i-VII-III-VI-VII, with no hint of a leading tone. The song steadily builds through its first two and a half minutes. Then the drums drop out at the beginning of a quiet verse, which gradually increases in volume and intensity until the pattern repeats, this time with a VI chord in place of the i that usually begins the song’s progression.

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To this point, the song is in minor. Aurally, though, it seems to reside in the space between major and minor that contemporary pop songs in minor keys often inhabit. Then, however, a V chord – the major chord with the leading tone, F# – arrives, and strings swoop in as the drums reenter.

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The arrival of the D major chord and the subsequent re-entrance of the drums form the most affecting moment of the song. (We’ll discuss what the sus4 chord does in a later chapter.)

Quick Quiz 7.3

Name the V chords, and the notes they contain, in the following keys.

D minor
F minor
B minor

 

Songwriting Exercise

Write a verse or chorus in a minor key that includes the following chords: i, III, VI, VII and V.

viio in Minor

In addition to using the leading tone in the V chord, we can also use it in the chord associated with the seventh scale degree. To do this, we’ll need to change the root of the chord.

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This is a diminished chord. To create it, we took our usual VII chord in E minor (which is D) and raised the root (D) a half step (to D#). The viio chord is very similar to V in function, but it sounds weaker and less stable. For that reason, it appears far less often than V.

Hall and Oates’ “Sara Smile,” which is in D minor, contains a viio7 (that is, a fully diminished chord based around the leading tone) in its prechorus.

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The C#o7 chord creates a pleasing ascending motion from Bb to C to C# to D, enhancing the feeling that the line is headed toward the Dm7 chord at its end.

The other chord we could potentially change to accommodate the leading tone is III.

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Adding the leading tone to the III chord a stack of major thirds that is known as an augmented chord, which we indicate with a + sign. An augmented chord can produce an interesting change of pace. In general, they are rare in pop music, but we’ll discuss them in a bit more detail in Chapter 16.

Other Chords In Minor

In addition to the i, III, VI, VII chords and chords that contain the leading tone such as V and viio, we can also use the other chords in our palette, such as iio and v. (Note the difference between V and v – we capitalize the former because it is a major chord, and it contains the leading tone. The chord v, meanwhile, occurs normally within the key and does not contain the leading tone.) The iio and v are much less common than i, III, VI, VII or V, but they do occur.

For example, the prechorus of the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” which is in A minor, contains both iio and v. v appears in the very first line. (Again, we’ll discuss the role of the sus chord in a later chapter.)

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The end of the prechorus contains a iio chord. (There’s another weird chord to contend with – the line in question begins with an A major chord, even though we’re in the key of A minor.)

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This song is from 1981. Listen to the way these chords feel – there’s a sourness to them, particularly in the iio chord, that is rare in radio pop songs today.

By the way, iio, when it appears, is frequently followed by V or V7. The Human League eventually head to V after the iio chord, but there’s a first-inversion i chord in between.

Let’s look now at other seventh chords that might be available to us in minor keys, using the key of A minor.

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The key of A minor is the relative minor of C major. You can compare seventh chords from the two keys and see that many of them are the same (although they are labeled differently). The two that appear in A minor but not in C major are E7 (V7 in a minor) and G#o7 (viio7). Both contain the leading tone (G#).

Quick Quiz 7.4

Name the following chords and the notes they contain.

iio in E minor
viio in D minor
viio in B minor

Next Chapter: Modes And Scales

Quick Quiz Answers

7.1
D minor: Dm, F, Bb, C
C minor: Cm, Eb, Ab, Bb
G# minor: G#m, B, E, F#

7.2
Leading tone of D major = C#
D minor = C#
B major = A#
B minor = A#

7.3
V in D minor: A major (A C# E)
V in F minor: C major (C E G)
V in B minor: F# major (F# A# C#)

7.4
iio in E minor: F#o (F# A C)
viio in D minor: C#o (C# E G – don’t forget, the root of viio will be the leading tone, which means that if we’re in a minor key, it will not be in the key signature)
viio in B minor: A#o (A# C# E)