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29: Minor Key Triads

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Lesson 29: Minor Key Triads

This lesson teaches minor keys and the chords commonly used with them.

Before taking this lesson, you should know:

Diatonic Triads


We mentioned minor keys in Lesson 19: Keys. A basic set of chords we can use in a minor key are the diatonic triads from the key's natural minor scale. If you understand how we found the major-scale diatonic triads in Lesson 22: Diatonic Triads, and you know the natural minor scale, then I hope it's easy to understand how these natural-minor diatonic triads work. Let's use an example to find them:

Say you want to find the diatonic triads for the key of B minor. The B natural minor scale consists of these pitches:

  B   C♯   D   E   F♯   G   A   B

This table shows how we construct the B-minor diatonic triads by selecting notes from the B minor scale:

Scale notes
12♭345 ♭6♭789 ♭1011 Chord Roman
BC♯ DE F♯GA BC♯DE Bm Im
BC♯D EF♯G ABC♯ DE D ♭III
BC♯D EF♯ GA BC♯ DE Em IVm
BC♯D EF♯ GA BC♯ DE F♯m Vm
BC♯DEF♯ GA BC♯ DE G ♭VI
BC♯DEF♯ GA BC♯ DE A ♭VII

So, the common natural-minor diatonic triads in any minor key are:

      I   ♭III   IVm   Vm   ♭VI   ♭VII


Notes:
  • Remember, I use the "Berklee Roman system" (Lesson 20: Roman Numeral Chords). So, for example, the triad built on degree 3 of the minor scale is called ♭III, not III.
  • I skipped scale degree 2 for now because it's not commonly used in pop music.

Vm vs. V Major


The diatonic "five chord" in natural minor is Vm, a minor chord, as you see above. However, in classical music (and often in pop music too), the "five chord" that's actually used in minor-key music is V, a major chord, even though it's not diatonic. This is because it's considered to sound more dominant and lead more strongly back to the tonic than the Vm chord does.

In your minor-key song, you can use either V or Vm:
  • V sounds more "traditional" or "classical".
  • Vm sounds more "natural-minorish" or "modal".

Chord Chart


For reference, here are the commonly used triads in each common minor key:

Key Im ♭III IVm Vm V ♭VI ♭VII
A minor AmC DmEmEFG
B♭ minor B♭mD♭ E♭mFmFG♭A♭
B minor BmD EmF♯mF♯GA
C minor CmE♭ FmGmGA♭B♭
C♯ minor C♯mE F♯mG♯mG♯AB
D minor DmF GmAmAB♭C
E♭ minor E♭mG♭ A♭mB♭mB♭C♭ D♭
E minor EmG AmBmBCD
F minor FmA♭B♭m CmCD♭E♭
F♯ minor F♯mA BmC♯mC♯DE
G minor GmB♭Cm DmDE♭F
G♯ minor G♯mBC♯m D♯mD♯EF♯

Mixing Major and Minor


Major and minor keys can be mixed in the same song. There are two main ways this is done:
  • Parallel major and minor
  • Relative major and minor

Parallel major and minor keys are pairs of major and minor keys which have the same tonic (the same "name" or "home pitch"). For example, the keys of B major and B minor are a parallel major/minor pair.

Parallel major and minor keys are often mixed by borrowing chords from the parallel minor when a song is mostly in a major key. For example:
  1. Say a song is in the key of C major, and uses an E♭ ("E-flat major") chord.
  2. E♭ is not a diatonic chord in the key of C major, so where does it come from?
  3. The Eb chord's Roman analysis, in the key of C, is ♭III.
  4. Notice that ♭III is a diatonic chord in the key of C minor. So, this chord is borrowed from the parallel minor key.

Relative major and minor keys have the same relationship as relative major and minor scales (Lesson 27: Natural Minor Scale); they use the same pitches as each other. For example, the C major scale and the A natural minor scale are relative major and minor scales; therefore, the key of C major and the key of A minor are relative major and minor keys.

Relative major and minor keys are often mixed by having the song move back and forth between the major and minor keys. For example, a song might be in the key of C major in one section, and then be in the key of A minor in the next section. It can be hard to decide, when you're analyzing a song, whether such a "relative key change" is happening at all, since the pair of relative major and minor keys share the same diatonic chords.

Diatonic Functions


To understand the different effects of these minor-key chords, you'll want to understand their diatonic functions (T, SD, or D), like we did for major-key diatonic chords in Lesson 26: Diatonic Function Analysis. The diatonic functions of the minor-key chords are not as well established as they are for the major-key chords, but here's how I classify them:

ChordFunctionReason
Im T The tonic chord
♭III (T) I in the relative major key
IVm SD The subdominant chord
V or VmD The dominant chord
♭VI SD IV in the relative major key
♭VII (D) V in the relative major key

Exercises


You can add these activities to your writing exercises (from Lesson 2: Practicing Songwriting):
  • Practice playing this chord sequence, Im - ♭III - IVm - Vm - ♭VI - ♭VII, in different keys.
  • Analyze songs: This new set of chords will let you understand and "Roman-label" more of the chords in songs you like, like we showed in Lesson 26: Diatonic Function Analysis.
  • Practice using them: Make up chord progressions using these minor-key chords.

Next:

Lessons

1: Introduction
2: Practicing Songwriting
3: Pitch Names
4: Letters Game
5: Sharps & Flats
6: Half-Steps & Whole-Steps
7: Steps Game
8: Scales
9: Major Scale 1-2-3
10: Major 1-2-3 Games
11: Major Scale 1-5
12: Major 1-5 Games
13: Chords: Major Triads
14: Major Triad Games
15: Minor Triads
16: Minor Triad Games
17: Major Scale 1-8
18: Major Scale Games
19: Keys
20: Roman Numeral Chords
21: Scales Above 8
22: Diatonic Triads
23: Using Diatonics
24: Tonic Function
25: Subdominant & Dominant
26: Diatonic Function Analysis
27: Natural Minor Scale
28: Natural Minor Games
29: Minor Key Triads
30: 7th Chords
31: 7ths Games
32: Suspended-4th Chords
33: Time: Beats & Measures
34: Starting a Song: Hook Chords
35: Melody: Chord Tones
36: Treble Staff
37: Treble Staff Game
38: Note Lengths
39: Tied & Dotted Notes
40: Rhythm: Rests
41: Key Signatures
42: Diatonic 7ths
43: Non-Root-Bass Chords
44: Major Pentatonic Scale
45: Embellishing Tones
46: Melody Rhythm: Rolling Stone
47: Pitch & Frequency

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