I. Fundamentals

Minor Scales, Scale Degrees, and Key Signatures

Chelsey Hamm and Bryn Hughes

Key Takeaways

  • A minor third note is always a half-step lower than the third note of the major scale with the same name.
  • The form of the minor scale consists of an ordered collection of half- and whole-steps with the ascending succession W-H-W-W-H-W-W.
  • The form of the minor scale consists of an ordered collection of half- and whole-steps in the ascending succession W-H-W-W-H-3Hs-H.
  • The form of the minor scale consists of an ordered collection of half- and whole-steps in the ascending succession W-H-W-W-W-W-H and the descending succession W-W-H-W-W-H-W.
  • in minor are the same as those in major. There are a few new syllables in minor including me ([latex]\downarrow\hat3)[/latex], le ([latex]\downarrow\hat6)[/latex]), and te ([latex]\downarrow\hat7)[/latex]).
  • Each note of a minor scale is also named with . These are largely the same in minor as they are in major, except for the subtonic (te or [latex]\downarrow\hat7)[/latex].
  • Major and minor keys share two different relationships. The is when a major and minor key share a tonic note, while the is when a major and minor key share a key signature.
  • Each major has a corresponding relative minor key signature, whose tonic is three half-steps below the relative major’s tonic. The order of sharps and flats in major and minor key signatures are the same.

Chapter Playlist

The Minor Scale

A minor third note is always a half-step lower than the third note of the major scale with the same name (e.g. B major and B minor). Many musicians hear minor works as sounding more “sad” than major works, which they often hear as “happier.”

There are three different types of minor scales: , , and . These three types of minor scales should be thought of like flavors of ice cream; ice cream is still ice cream regardless of whether it is chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, etc. Likewise, a work is simply “minor” or “in minor;” musicians do not consider music to be “in” a specific type of minor scale (i.e. natural, harmonic, or melodic). Instead, these are useful categories primarily for instrumental performers. Learning to play the different types of minor scales on instruments allows performers to become familiar with the minor patterns most commonly used in Western classical music. Minor scales are named for their first note, which is also their last note—just like major scales. Be sure to include any accidentals that apply to this note in its name.

Natural Minor

The form of the minor scale consists of an ordered collection of half- and whole-steps with the ascending succession W-H-W-W-H-W-W, as shown in Example 1:

Example 1. A G natural minor scale.

In Example 1, square brackets and Ws represent whole-steps, while angled brackets and Hs represent half-steps. Be sure to listen to this example carefully, and notice that the half- and whole-step pattern of the natural minor form of the minor scale is the same ascending and descending.

Harmonic Minor

The form of the minor scale consists of an ordered collection of half- and whole-steps in the ascending succession W-H-W-W-H-3Hs-H, as shown in Example 2:

Example 2. A G harmonic minor scale.

In Example 2 the curved bracket represents a distance of three half-steps (this could also be thought of as a whole-step plus a half-step). Be sure to listen to this example carefully, and notice that the half- and whole-step pattern of the harmonic minor form of the minor scale is the same ascending and descending.

Melodic Minor

The form of the minor scale consists of an ordered collection of half- and whole-steps in the ascending succession W-H-W-W-W-W-H and the descending succession W-W-H-W-W-H-W, as shown in Example 3:

Example 3. A G melodic minor scale.

Be sure to listen to Example 3 carefully, and notice that the half- and whole-step pattern of the melodic minor form of the minor scale is not the same ascending and descending. In its descending form, the melodic form of the minor scale is the same as the natural form of the minor scale. However, when descending the melodic form of the minor scale is unique.

Example 4 shows four versions of a C scale—major, natural minor, harmonic minor, and melodic minor:

Example 4. A major, natural minor, harmonic minor, and melodic minor scale, all starting on C.

Scale degrees (discussed below) are identified in this example. You should listen to this example carefully, noting the aural differences between each scale.

Minor Scale Degrees, Solfège, and Scale-degree Names

Minor , and  are similar to, but not exactly the same as their major scale counterparts. Example 5 shows the scale degrees and solfège for a natural minor scale:

A D natural minor scale is shown in treble clef with solfege and scale degrees
Example 5. A D natural minor scale.

The top line of text contains ASPN, while the next line contains scale degrees. Note that the scale degrees between major and minor do not change.

The bottom line contains solfège. In natural minor, mi ([latex]\hat{3}[/latex]) becomes me ([latex]\downarrow\hat3)[/latex] (pronounced may), la ([latex]\hat{6}[/latex]) becomes           le ([latex]\downarrow\hat6)[/latex] (pronounced lay), and ti ([latex]\hat{7}[/latex]) becomes te ([latex]\downarrow\hat7)[/latex] (pronounced tay). If you sing or play through the above example, you’ll notice that the ending lacks the same sense of closure you heard in the major scale. This closure is created in the major scale, in part, by the ascending semitone between ti ([latex]\hat{7}[/latex]) and do ([latex]\hat{1}[/latex]).

Example 6 shows the scale degrees and solfège for a harmonic minor scale:

A D harmonic minor scale is shown in treble clef with scale degrees and solfege labeled.
Example 6. A D harmonic minor scale.

In harmonic minor, mi ([latex]\hat{3}[/latex]) becomes me ([latex]\downarrow\hat3)[/latex] and la ([latex]\hat{6}[/latex]) becomes le ([latex]\downarrow\hat6)[/latex]. Having ti ([latex]\hat{7}[/latex]) creates a sense of closure that was absent in the natural minor scale.

Example 7 shows the scale degrees and solfège for an ascending melodic minor scale:

An ascending D melodic minor scale in treble clef with scale degrees and solfege labeled.
Example 7. An ascending D melodic minor scale.

While Example 8 shows the scale degrees and solfège for a descending melodic minor scale:

A descending D melodic minor scale in treble clef with scale degrees and solfege labeled.

Example 8. A descending D melodic minor scale.

In the ascending form of melodic minor, mi ([latex]\hat{3}[/latex]) becomes me ([latex]\downarrow\hat3)[/latex], but the rest of the solfège syllables are the same as in major. In the descending form of melodic minor, mi ([latex]\hat{3}[/latex]) becomes me ([latex]\downarrow\hat3)[/latex], la ([latex]\hat{6}[/latex]) becomes le ([latex]\downarrow\hat6)[/latex], and ti ([latex]\hat{7}[/latex]) becomes te ([latex]\downarrow\hat7)[/latex], like natural minor. You may now notice that the ascending version of melodic minor sounds very conclusive, while the descending version (which is the same as natural minor) is much less conclusive.

Each note of a minor scale is also named with . The following table summarizes the scale-degree names used in minor scales:

Scale Degree Number Solfège Scale Degree Names
[latex]\hat1[/latex] do Tonic
[latex]\hat2[/latex] re Supertonic
[latex]\downarrow\hat3[/latex] me Mediant
[latex]\hat4[/latex] fa Subdominant
[latex]\hat5[/latex] sol Dominant
[latex]\downarrow\hat6[/latex] le Submediant
[latex]\downarrow\hat7[/latex] te Subtonic
[latex]\hat7[/latex] ti Leading Tone

Example 9. Scale-degree names in minor scales.

There is only one new scale-degree name, for lowered [latex]\downarrow\hat7[/latex], which is called the subtonic. Sub- is a Latin prefix meaning “below”; the supertonic is one whole-step above the tonic, while the subtonic is one whole-step below the tonic.

Example 10 shows a B melodic minor scale, ascending and descending, with scale-degree names labeled:

A B melodic minor scale, ascending and descending in bass clef, with half- and whole-steps labeled as well as scale-degree names.
Example 10. A B melodic minor scale.

As you can see, the melodic minor scale utilizes the leading tone in its ascending form, and the subtonic in its descending form.

The following table is a helpful visual for learning about the three forms of the minor scale. The three forms are put in order of the scale degrees which are lowered (as compared to a major scale starting on the same note):

Form of Minor Scale Lowered Scale Degrees
Natural [latex]\downarrow\hat{3},\downarrow\hat{6}, \downarrow\hat{7}[/latex]
Harmonic [latex]\downarrow\hat{3},\downarrow\hat{6}[/latex]
Melodic (ascending) [latex]\downarrow\hat{3}[/latex]

Example 11. Lowered scale degrees of minor.

As you can see, natural minor scales have three lowered scale degrees, harmonic minor scales have two lowered scale degrees, and melodic minor scales have one lowered scale degrees in its ascending version. Don’t forget that in its descending version melodic minor is the same as natural minor, and has three lowered scale degrees.

The Parallel and Relative Relationships

When comparing major and minor keys, there are two relationships that are important. The is when a major key shares a tonic (do, [latex]\hat{1}[/latex]) with a minor key. For example, C major and C minor are parallel keys; so are A♭ major and A♭ minor, as are F♯ major and F♯ minor. We use the terms and to describe this relationship. For example, musicians would say that C major is the parallel major of C minor; likewise, they would say that C minor is the parallel minor of C major.

The is when a major key shares a key signature with a minor key. For example, C major has no sharps or flats in its key signature, and neither does A minor. We use the terms and to describe this relationship. Musicians would say that C major is the relative major or A minor; likewise, they would say that A minor is the relative minor of C major. The tonic of a relative minor key is always three half-steps below the tonic of its relative major. If you count three half-steps below C, the tonic of C major, you will get A, the tonic of A minor (C to B is one half-step, B to B♭ is one half-step, and B♭ to A is one half-step). C major and A minor share the relative relationship; they both have a key signature with no sharps or flats. Likewise, the tonic of a relative major key is always three half-steps above the tonic of its relative minor.

Relative keys always share a common accidental in their key signature, either sharps or flats. For example, three half-steps below the tonic of D♭ major is B♭, which is enharmonic with A♯ (D♭ to C is a half-step; C to B is a half-step; and B to B♭ is a half-step). It is important to note that D♭ major shares the relative relationship with B♭ minor, but it does not share the relative relationship with A♯ minor, even though these keys are . D♭ major and B♭ minor both share a key signature of five flats; by contrast, A♯ minor has a key signature of seven sharps. A♯ minor cannot share the relative relationship with D♭ major because their key signatures are not the same.

Minor Key Signatures

Minor , like major key signatures, go after a clef but before a time signature. Each major key has a corresponding relative minor key signature; therefore, the order of the sharps and flats are the same in minor key signatures as they are in major key signatures. Likewise, the sharps and flats appear on the same lines and spaces in minor as in major. Example 12, reproduced from the previous chapter, shows the order of sharps and flats in all four clefs:

The order of the seven sharps and seven flats of key signatures are shown in treble, bass, alto, and tenor clefs.
Example 12. The order of sharps and flats in all four clefs.

As aforementioned, you can find the tonic of a minor key by subtracting three half-steps from the tonic of a major key. Example 13 shows all of the sharp minor key signatures in order:

All of the sharp key signatures are shown in order, A, E, B, F♯, C♯, G♯, D♯, and A♯ minor, in treble, bass, alto, and tenor clef
Example 13. The key signatures of A, E, B, F♯, C♯, G♯, D♯, and A♯ minor.

Example 14 depicts all of the flat minor key signatures in order:

The minor key signatures of A, D, G, C, F, D♭, E♭, and A♭ minor are shown in treble, bass, alto, and tenor clefs
Example 14. The minor key signatures of A, D, G, C, F, B♭, E♭, and A♭ minor.

Minor keys can also be imaginary (like imaginary major keys), if they contain double accidentals.

Minor Keys and the Circle of Fifths

The  can be used as a visual for minor key signatures as well as major key signatures. Each relative minor key signature is placed alongside its corresponding major key signature. EXAMPLE 15 shows the circle of fifths for minor and major key signatures:

The circle of fifths is shown, with key signatures. Major and minor keys are labeled.
Example 15. The circle of fifths for major and minor keys.

In EXAMPLE 15, major key signatures are in red and upper-case letters around the outside of the circle, while minor key signatures are in green and lower-case letters around the inside of the circle. Once again, key signatures appear in order of their number of accidentals. If you start at the top of the circle (12 o’clock) and continue clockwise key signatures add sharps, while if you start at the top of the circle and continue counterclockwise they add flats. The bottom three key signatures can be written in sharps or flats, and so are .

Major or Minor?

When you are given a piece of music to play or sing, the music will often have a key signature. This will help you to narrow down what key the work is in to two different keys: one major, and its relative minor. But how can you tell which one the work is in? Listening to and looking for the first and last notes of works, especially in the lowest and highest voices or instruments can help. These notes are often the tonic of a work, and so can help you determine whether a work is major or minor.

Example 16 shows the first three measures of a song by Louise Reichardt (1779–1826) titled “Durch die bunten Rosenhecken” (“Through the colorful rose hedges”):

 

 

The first three measures of "Durch die bunten Rosenhecken" are shown. The first note in the highest part (the voice) is circled, as well as the first note in the lowest part (the lowest note of the piano).
Example 16. The first three measures of “Durch die bunten Rosenhecken.”

This example shows a vocal line (the top staff) and a piano part (the grand staff underneath the vocal part). The key signature contains four flats, which means we can narrow down the key of this work to A♭ major or F minor. In Example 16, the first note that is circled in the highest part (the vocalist) is F. Likewise, the first note that is circled in the lowest part (the lowest note of the piano) is F. Therefore, it is likely that the key of this work is F minor, instead of A♭ major.

Online Resources
Assignments from the Internet
  1. Natural Minor Scales (.pdf)
  2. Harmonic Minor Scales (.pdf)
  3. Melodic Minor Scales (.pdf)
  4. Writing Minor Scales (.pdf, .pdf.pdf)
  5. Writing Minor Key Signatures (.pdf)
  6. Writing and Identifying Minor Key Signatures (.pdf)
  7. Parallel and Relative Minor Questions (.pdf)
  8. Scale Degree Names and Scale Degrees (.pdf)
Assignments
  1. Writing Minor Scales (.pdf, .mscx)
  2. Key Signatures: Minor (.pdf, .mscx)

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OPEN MUSIC THEORY by Chelsey Hamm and Bryn Hughes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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