Lessons in Order
29: Minor Key Triads
Lessons by Topic
Lesson 29: Minor Key TriadsThis lesson teaches minor keys and the chords commonly used with them.
Before taking this lesson, you should know:
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:
So, the common natural-minor diatonic triads in any minor key are:
I ♭III IVm Vm ♭VI ♭VII
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:
For reference, here are the commonly used triads in each common minor key:
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 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:
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.
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:
You can add these activities to your writing exercises (from Lesson 2: Practicing Songwriting):