Major and minor scales are common in many styles of music. Minor scales contain several notes that are a half step lower than major scales, making them sound a little darker and more tense. Often listeners equate these differences to minor scales sounding "sadder" and major scales sounding "happier." It's worth noting, however, that many songs about tragedy and loss use major scales, while plenty of upbeat happy songs use minor scales.
Every scale is comprised of whole steps and half steps. Major scales follow the pattern whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half (or WWHWWWH for short). Every major scale has two corresponding minor scales built in relation to it: one said to be "parallel" and one said to be "relative." While both share similarities with their associated major scale they have significant differences between them and aren't interchangeable.
The similarities are that all minor scales build from the same natural minor scale. Its formula is WHWWHWW. In comparison with a major scale, its third, sixth, and seventh scale degrees are one half step lower. If you take a major scale and lower the third, sixth, and seventh scale degrees, you will make what is called a parallel minor scale. It's called a parallel minor scale because it starts on the same note as its parallel major scale, running "parallel" to the major scale with only small differences. For instance, if you want to turn a C major scale into a C minor scale, you would need to lower E, A, and B by one half step. Thus, a C minor scale would read: C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb-C.
C major and C minor start on the same pitch but have different patterns of whole and half steps.
The other way to generate a minor scale is to find the relative minor scale within a major scale. Relative minor scales, and the keys they come from, share the same key signature as a major scale, even though they start on a note that is three steps - or a minor third - lower than the first note (or root) of the major scale. If you build a scale with the same accidentals as its relative major scale starting from that note, you will automatically generate a scale with the pattern WHWWHWW. A minor would be relative to C major, since A is a minor third below C. It would have the same key signature as C major - no sharps and no flats.
Relative minor scales contain the same notes as their relative major counterparts but start on a different pitch to create the signature pattern of whole and half steps. In this example, the A Minor scale is the same as the C Major, but it starts on scale degree 6 instead of 1.
Becoming familiar with the two different ways of generating minor scales will help you unlock a wider range of musical possibilities. Try looking at different major scales and think about how you would get from that major scale to a minor one. This exercise will help you to see how notes relate to one another, and show you different possibilities for how to string them together.
Margaret Jones is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and music teacher living in Oakland, CA. She plays guitar in several local bands including her own songwriting project M Jones and the Melee. She also holds a Ph.D. in Music History from UC Berkeley and has taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Black Acoustic Guitar in Grey Textile Close Up Photo by Peakpx is licensed under CC0 1.0
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