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Chords in Relative Minor Keys

Gary Nelson

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Hey guys - 

Hopefully a quick confirmation about the chords you would play in a relative minor key.    I went back through the How Music Works materials we got from Steve last year and didn't really see this concept spelled out.      And naturally, I am finding conflicting information on different internet sites.   

As we know, the chords in a major key follow a certain pattern.   Using C Major as an easy example we would play C, Dm ,Em, F, G, Am, Bdim.    But when playing chords in A minor, am I correct that you would play the same chords - just in a different sequence -  Am, Bdim, C, Dm, Em, F, G?    I have seen some internet sites that suggest the 5 chord in a minor key is played as the major chord - so in this example the Em would be played as E.     

I'm sure our "crazy nuts" can point me in the right direction!


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When composing in a minor key, the natural minor creates both harmonic and melodic problems. In the Common Practice Period, composers solved these by altering the scale. The natural minor of C is Am, and this leads to a whole step interval between the seventh and tonic (namely, G to A), which means no tension in the leading tone. They addressed this by raising the seventh by a half step (now G# to A), creating the harmonic minor scale and a dominant V. Thus A harmonic minor is A B C D E F G# A, and the chords built upon this are i ii(o) III+ iv V VI vii(o) i.

But this created a new problem in the melodic lines: an augmented second between the sixth and seventh scale degrees. Augmented seconds are difficult to sing. So they also raised the sixth scale degree by a half step (going up in melody), so singers have only half and whole steps. No change was necessary going down. This is the melodic minor scale. Harmonic and melodic minor exist to create authentic cadences (V-I).

So, to play in A minor, the chords in the key are Am, Bdim, C+, Dm, EM, FM, G#dim. The V and vii(o) function as dominants.

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Posted (edited)

Thanks @DianeB.   I  figured I could count on you to set me straight.   Seems everything I was finding online was close - but no cigar!       Life was sure simpler when I was just playing C, D and G!😉   

Edited by William Nelson
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@William Nelson  You’re welcome, William. I confess that this was as esoteric to me as imaginary numbers until I needed it in my theory class. Our homework was to write some progressions in major and minor keys to practice the various cadences. I would draft them out first in pencil, then enter them in Finale, and hit playback. Eewww, what’s wrong, I thought, it sounds flat in places. An hour later, lightbulb: pigeonhead, you forgot to use harmonic minor. So I’d go back and sharpen all the sevenths — can’t do it in the key signature -- that’s how it works. After that, I’d write “HM: #7” in the margin where things went minor. Mistakes are good teachers.

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Mr Nelson sure asks tough but VERY good questions. My pencil erasers have become very worn just going through the "Ultimate How Music Works Quest" Quiz and worksheets.  As usual some(lots) of it is over my head but thanks for the all the info Diane, it really helps. I think you are always spot on and timely with explanations that compliment my understanding of these concepts. I'm still trying to get around in Theory-Land and "Learn all I can" 

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