I. Fundamentals

9. Minor Keys and Key Signatures


9.1 Introduction

Chapter 8 discusses how pieces that draw primarily from the pitches of a major scale are said to be in that major key. Similarly, pieces that draw primarily from the pitches of a minor scale—a scale based on the W-H-W-W-H-W-W pattern of whole steps and half steps—are said to be in that minor key. Minor key signatures can likewise be derived from the accidentals of the corresponding diatonic minor scale.

In this chapter we will discuss how a minor key is constructed and established as well as how minor key signatures are written and used. (We will return to this topic once more in Chapter 16, when we discuss variant forms of the minor scale.)

9.2 Minor keys

Chapter 6 discusses the construction of major scales and the various names given to each scale degree. All of the degrees of a minor scale have names as well. For the most part, these names are the same as those of major keys. The few differences are due to the lower scale degrees 3, 6, and 7. The following example shows the three systems used to label and refer to minor scale degrees:

In labeling the steps of a minor scale, the scale degree numbers are the same as in major: 1, 2, 3, etc. The solfège syllables mi, la, and ti are changed to me, re, and te to reflect the lowering of those scale degrees. The only difference in the scale degree names is that scale degree 7, in its lowered form, is now referred to as the subtonic.

The following melody is adapted from Chopin’s second piano sonata. It is in a minor key:

Example 9–2. Frédéric Chopin, Piano Sonata No.2 (Op. 35), III. Marche funèbre, mm. 1-10 (in A minor).

example_9-2

As with major keys, a melody or piece is said to be in a minor key if it uses primarily the pitches of a minor scale and gives the tonic a position of primary importance. This melody is in A minor: it begins and ends on A and uses the pitches of the diatonic A-minor scale (A, B, C, D, E, F, and G). The tonic, A, is the most important pitch in this melody. It serves as a stable starting point and brings a sense of closure when it returns at the end. All of the other pitches are organized hierarchically around A and have varying levels of stability. The Cs in mm. 5-8, for example, bring a sense of arrival. They sound stable, but not as stable as the final A.

Were the melody in Example 9–2 to be transposed to a different minor key, the new tonic would be heard in the same way even though the pitch level would be different:

Example 9–3. Frédéric Chopin, Piano Sonata No.2 (Op. 35), III. Marche funèbre, mm. 1-10 (in Bb minor).

example_9-3

Example 9–3 transposes the melody to Bb minor (the original key, as written by Chopin). It now has a new set of pitches (those of the Bb-minor scale) and Bb is heard as the new tonic.

Now consider the following melody:

Example 9–4 Louise Reichardt, 12 German & Italian Romantic Songs, 3. “Durch die bunten Rosenhecken,” mm. 1-8.

example_9-4

This melody is in F minor. For the most part, it uses the pitches of an F minor scale. Note, however, that it also includes E§ in m. 6. The presence of E§ does not prevent the listener from hearing F as the tonic. In fact, it helps make the arrival on F sound more conclusive. Unlike their major counterparts, minor scales are used in several variant forms which include one or more pitch classes from outside the diatonic scale. We will discuss these altered versions of minor in Chapter 17. The remaining sections of this chapter will be concerned only with the unaltered diatonic minor.

Activity 9-1

Activity 9–1

Identify the key of each of the following melodies in minor:


Exercise 9–1a:

Question

To which minor key has the Chopin melody been transposed below?

Frédéric Chopin, Piano Sonata No.2 (Op. 35), III. Marche funèbre, mm. 1-10 (transposed).

activity_9-1a

Hint

Look to the beginning and end of the melody for important stable notes that might represent the tonic.

Answer

E minor


Exercise 9–1b:

Question

The following melody is in which minor key?

Franz Schubert, Winterreise (D.911), 14. “Der Greise Kopf,” mm. 4–8.

activity_9-1b

Hint

Look to the beginning and end of the melody for important stable notes that might represent the tonic. Note that there may be pitches that do not belong to the the corresponding diatonic minor scale.

Answer

C minor

9.3 Minor key signatures

Like major keys, minor keys are represented with key signatures. These contain the same sharps and flats as the diatonic minor scale. The following example adds an F-minor key signature to the melody from Example 9–4:

Example 9–5 Louise Reichardt, 12 German & Italian Romantic Songs, 3. “Durch die bunten Rosenhecken,” mm. 1-8.

example_9-5

Like the diatonic F-minor scale, the F-minor key signature includes two flats: Bb, Eb, Ab, and Db. Scale degrees 6 and 7 may be raised by an accidental within the music—as they are in m. 6 of Example 9–5—but these alterations are not represented by the key signature.

Minor key signatures also come in two varieties: those with sharps and and those flats. The following examples show all of the minor key signatures up to seven sharps or flats:

As you can see, minor key signatures look just like major key signatures. The accidentals are written in the same order and pattern on the staff.

Activity 9-2

9.4 Parallel and relative keys

Parallel keys, as discussed in Chapter 7, are keys that share the same tonic. C major and C minor, for example, are parallel keys:

C minor is the parallel minor of C major, and vice versa. As you can see from Example 9–8, a diatonic minor scale can be derived from a major scale by lowering scale degrees 3, 6, and 7 by a semitone each (to Eb, Ab, and Bb, respectively). Parallel keys share the same tonic (and scale degrees 2, 4, and 5), but have different key signatures. C major, to use this example, has no sharps or flats while C minor requires three flats.

Activity 9-3

Activity 9–3

Answer the following questions regarding parallel keys and their key signatures.


Exercise 9–3a:

Question

How many sharps or flats does the key signature for A major have?

Answer

3 sharps

Follow-up question

What is the parallel minor of A major?

Hint

Remember, parallel keys have the same tonic.

Answer

A minor

Follow-up question

How many sharps or flats does the key signature for the parallel minor of A major have?

Answer

0 sharps and 0 flats

Follow-up question

Write out the key signatures for A major and its parallel minor:

Answer

Exercise 9–3b:

Question

How many sharps or flats does the key signature for E major have?

Answer

4 sharps

Follow-up question

What is the parallel minor of E major?

Hint

Remember, parallel keys have the same tonic.

Answer

E minor

Follow-up question

How many sharps or flats does the key signature for the parallel minor of E major have?

Answer

1 sharp

Follow-up question

Write out the key signatures for E major and its parallel minor.

Answer

Parallel keys have a strong relationship with one another. Despite having only four of their seven scale degrees in common, the shared tonic tends to lead listeners to hear them as different versions of the same key as opposed to being completely foreign to one another. There are, however, some pairs of major and minor keys that have the exact same key signature. These are known as relative keys and they too have a strong relationship with one another. Eb major and C minor, for example, both have three flats in their key signature:

C minor is the relative minor of Eb major and Eb major is the relative major of C minor. They share all of the same pitch classes, but emphasize different notes as the tonic. The tonic of any minor key is always a minor third below its relative major: in this case, C is a minor third below Eb. Another way to think of this is that the relative minor begins on scale degree 6 of a major key (or, the relative major begins on scale degree 3 of a minor key).

Note: Throughout this chapter, every example of a minor scale has been labeled with solfège syllables starting on “do.” In this system—sometimes called “do-based minor”—the tonic is always sung as “do,” regardless of whether the scale/key is major or minor. You may, however, encounter texts and teachers using “la-based minor,” where minor-scale solfège begins on “la” and follows the same pattern of syllables used in major (“la, do, re, mi, fa, sol, la”). This system draws attention to the fact that a major scale and its relative minor use the same set of pitch classes with minor starting two steps lower down. Example 9–9 makes it clear why some individuals prefer this other system: scale degree 1 in C minor (C) is “la” in Eb-major.

Activity 9-4

Activity 9–4

Answer the following questions regarding relative keys and their key signatures.


Exercise 9–4a:

Question

What is the relative major of G minor?

Hint

Remember, the tonic of the relative major is a minor third above the tonic of a minor key.

Answer

Bb major

Follow-up question

How many sharps or flats does their shared key signature have?

Answer

2 flats

Follow-up question

Write out the key signature for G minor and its relative major on the staff provided:

Answer

Exercise 9–4b:

Question

What is the relative major of B minor?

Hint

Remember, the tonic of the relative major is a minor third above the tonic of a minor key.

Answer

D major

Follow-up question

How many sharps or flats does their shared key signature have?

Answer

2 sharps

Follow-up question

Write out the key signature for B minor and its relative major on the staff provided:

Answer

9.5 Summary

Minor scales are created by the following ascending pattern of intervals from the tonic: W-H-W-W-H-W-W. They can also be created by lowering scale degrees 3, 6 and 7 of a major scale by one semitone each.

As with major keys, minor keys are based on the pitches of the corresponding scale and are indicated by key signatures at the beginning of each new line of music. Minor key signatures are derived from the diatonic version of the minor scale. Minor key signatures look just like major key signatures and following the same pattern and placement on the staff.

Minor keys can be closely related to major keys in several different ways. Parallel keys—C major and C minor, for example—share the same tonic. Relative keys—C minor and Eb major, for example—have different tonics but share the same key signature. Every key signature, then, can be used to represent two different (relative) keys.

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Fundamentals, Function, and Form by Andre Mount is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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