I covered major scales in the last lesson. Today I go minor. It’s really not that much of a leap from major to minor, so this should be an easy lesson, or at least easier. I’ll cover three types of minor scales in total: natural minor, melodic minor, and harmonic minor. Today, I’ll start with the easiest one, the natural minor.
If you recall, our definition of a scale is a sequence of notes played in a row that spans an octave. A major scale is made up of seven notes that follow a certain pattern of intervals. That pattern is:
The natural minor scale
The natural minor scale follows the following pattern:
So if we start with an A note and make a natural minor scale, we end up with the following:
No sharps or flats. “But wait a minute, Eddy!” I hear you saying, “You screwed up! Those are the same notes as the C major scale! Man, I thought you were smarter than that…”
Ah ha! That’s right. It turns out the natural minor scale is the same as the major scale, but starting at a different place. It’s kind of like if you watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy starting with The Two Towers, then watched The Return of the King, then finished up with The Fellowship of the Ring. Or maybe a better analogy would be Star Wars, since most people actually watched it in a sort-of shifted order, starting with episode IV, then V, VI, followed by I, II, and III later. Star Wars is the natural minor scale of science fiction franchises, even if we may want to pretend episodes I and II never happened.
Ok, so an A natural minor scale is just a C major scale with a different starting place. Why does it need a separate name? Well, it comes back to the whole concept of a tonic note that I discussed before. When a song is in the key of C major, it usually ends on a C, it often starts on a C, basically the whole melody kind of orbits around that C note. That’s the root, the tonic, the resolution. If we think about those same notes differently, if the song revolves around the A instead of the C, if we think of the A as the tonic, if we end on A, we can still get a kind of resolution. It’s a different sort of resolution, a minor one. It’s a little less final-sounding than in a major key. A little more relaxed. A little sadder, maybe. Sort of like the end of The Revenge of the Sith.
Relative major and minor
Because A natural minor uses the same notes as C major, A natural minor is called the relative minor key of C. It’s easy to find the relative minor key of any major key by just going up six notes on the scale (C, D, E, F, G, A). So E natural minor uses the same notes as G major, B natural minor uses the same notes as D major, and so on. And likewise, C is the relative major of A minor.
But how can we tell whether a song is in a major key or it’s relative minor? Well, one big clue is the harmony. A lot of minor chords often means a minor key, a lot of major chords often means a major key. The biggest factor, though, is determining where the tonic note is.
The concept of a tonic note is hard to describe because it’s a sort of nebulous concept. The same sequence of notes can be interpreted by one person as being in the key of C major and by another person as in A minor. The notes don’t change, just the interpretation. Surprisingly, though, this doesn’t happen very often. Studies have actually been done where various people were played a melody and asked to interpret what key it was in, and the vast majority of the time they agreed with eachother. Key determination is one of those things where it’s hard to come up with hard and fast rules to define it, but you know it when you see it.
How to play it
Here’s the good news: if you know how to play a major scale, you already know how to play a natural minor scale. When you want to play an A natural minor, just play a C major, but start and end on A. Easy as pie. Here’s one way to play an A natural minor:
This shape covers the whole height of the fretboard and two octaves. Again, play this up and down enough times to learn it, watching some ESPN as necessary, to keep from going crazy with boredom. Then just play around for a while, and see what kind of melodies you can come up with.
- Find more ways to play an A natural minor scale using the Scalerator.
- See how to play a C natural minor scale using the Scalerator.
Just as we can create chords from a major scale, we can create chords from a natural minor scale. As you might expect, a natural minor scale results in the same chords as its relative major. Here are the three-note chords derived from the A natural minor scale:
And once again, the same pattern of minor and major chords holds no matter what natural minor scale we use. In this case, it’s minor, diminished, major, minor, minor, major, major.
Here’s the chart for the key of F natural minor:
Turns out that’s not the end of the story for minor keys. Tune in next time for the harmonic minor and the melodic minor.