Lesson 1.3 - The Minor ModeClick here to Print

Building Scales in the Minor Mode

The other mode commonly used in tonal music is the minor mode which, like the major mode, prescribes a particular sequence of half steps and whole steps. The minor mode is most recognizable primarily by its mediant (3^), which lies one half-step lower than that of the major mode.

For example, in the key of D major, the third scale degree is F, while in the key of D minor, the third scale degree is F natural.

Another important difference between the major and the minor modes involves the sixth and seventh scale degrees. In the minor mode these pitches are variable. A composer can raise or lower these scale degrees, depending upon the direction of the melodic line. Because of this variability, the minor mode is often considered to be more flexible than the major mode.

Example 1.11 presents the D major and D minor scales; you can clearly see that the minor scale has a different pattern of half and whole steps than the major scale. In the example, these pitch differences are depicted as filled-in notes. This form of the minor scale, with half steps between 2^ and 3^, and 5^ and 6^, is called the natural minor scale. Notice that both 6^ and 7^ in the minor scale are a half-step lower than in the major scale.

 

Example 1.11: Major and Natural Minor Scales
Example 1.11: Major and Natural Minor Scales

 

Composers often use the minor mode to intensify melodic motion, resulting in a small rearrangement of the half steps and whole steps in the final three pitches of the minor scale. These variations can take two forms, comprising what are traditionally called the harmonic minor scale and the melodic minor scale. Example 1.12 illustrates all three forms of the minor scale: natural, harmonic, and melodic.

 

Example 1.12: Natural, Harmonic, and Melodic Minor Scales
Example 1.12: Natural, Harmonic, and Melodic Minor Scales

 

You should view the three forms of the minor scale as slight variations of a single “minor collection” rather than as three different scales. In essence, the minor scale involves a repository of nine pitch classes from which a composer can draw for melodic purposes.

Minor keys are represented by key signatures derived from the natural minor scale. The order of minor key signatures is in exactly the same pattern as that for the major key signatures, following the cycle of fifths. That is, one sharp is added to the key signature for each scale that lies a fifth higher than the previous scale (i.e., from 1^ up to 5^). Similarly, one flat is added to the key signature that lies a fifth lower than the previous scale (i.e., from 1^ down to 4^).

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Relative and Parallel Relations

Major and minor keys with the same key signatures are called relative keys.

  • The relative major key of a minor key lies three half steps (i.e., skipping one letter name) above the tonic of the minor key.

  • Of course, you can also think of relative minor keys as lying three half steps below the tonic of the major key (e.g., A minor to C major).

The diagram in Example 1.13 illustrates the pairing of relative major and minor keys around the circle of fifths. Major keys are represented by uppercase letters and minor keys by lowercase letters on the circle of fifths.

 

Example 1.13: Relative Major and Minor Key Signatures
Example 1.13: Relative Major and Minor Key Signatures

 

Parallel major and parallel minor scales and keys are those that share the same tonic but obviously do not share the same key signatures. For example, the parallel minor of D major is D minor, and the parallel major of B minor is B major.

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