D Minor History Lesson: The “Dark Knight” Key
The key of D minor has long been associated with a kind of womanly melancholy, a rich, “Lady’s Got the Blues” kind of sadness, and a sense of impending death.
In the classical world it was one of Scarlatti’s favourite minor keys, and J.S. Bach wrote his entire The Art of the Fugue in this key. Mozart needed D minor to create the poignancy we hear in his Requiem. And Beethoven’s unforgettable Symphony No. 9 used D minor to create a path of gloom leading up to the triumph of joy (the joyous part, by the way, being helped along by switching the key to D major).
Hans Zimmer has been accused of stubbornly holding on to the key of D minor in many of his compositions, notably for the films Pirates of the Caribbean, Gladiator, and The Dark Knight.
And who can forget Nigel Tufnel’s musical trilogy in D minor?
“It’s part of a trilogy, a musical trilogy I’m working on in D minor, which is the saddest of all keys, I find. People weep instantly when they hear it, and I don’t know why.” (Nigel Tufnel in Spinal Tap)
The key of D minor is the relative minor of the key of F major. Why? Because both have the same key signature— one flat (Bb). A minor key is always three half-tones lower than its relative major. Once you know that, you can figure out the relative minor of any major key.
Find out more about minor scales and how they work
The D Minor Chord Position on the Guitar: Not So Hard, Really
The key of D minor and the guitar chords required of it are relatively easy to play, so it’s worth your while to learn to play them well. Using our free Uberchord app can help you move from just alright to smokin’.
The basic D minor chord shape can be moved up and down the neck of the guitar— if your right hand only strikes the three highest strings. Moved up one fret, D minor becomes D# minor. Moved up two frets it becomes E minor, etc. This way you can add variety to your sound by using different chord shapes to play the same chord.
It’s part of the beautiful logic of music theory that chords and keys can be so easily transposed. You can use this knowledge, and your budding knowledge of music theory, to figure out new chord positions on your own. G major chord? Move up the basic F major chord position two frets. Want your D major to sound a little higher? Play the basic B chord position at the fifth fret. Don’t know how to play an F# major? Just move the F major chord up one fret. This knowledge is especially useful when you want to improvise guitar solos up the the neck of the guitar.
Theory and Practice: The Pattern of the D Minor Scale Explained
If you’re a newcomer to this site, take a moment now to look at the differences between a major scale and a minor scale.
Unlike major keys, the tones in a minor key arrive in this sequence:
whole tone, half tone, whole tone, whole tone, half-tone, whole tone, whole tone
The second and the fifth places in the scale are each one half tone above their preceding notes, and all the other notes are whole tones above their preceding notes. All natural minor keys follow this pattern.
In the scale of D minor the notes are D, E, F, G, A, Bb, and C.
Below is the D minor scale, with D at its root and another D, an octave higher, at its peak.
Try sounding it out on your guitar by playing it according to this tablature:
(Memorise the notes on your guitar’s fretboard so that playing scales— and later improvising— will come a lot more easily. Get started on memorising the notes by reading this.)
Harmonic and Melodic Minors
Last week we introduced a new musical concept in minor keys: harmonic minor keys, which are like the natural minors (the minor keys we’ve been studying so far) except for one tiny difference: the seventh note is raised a half tone. In the key of D minor, this would raise the C to a C#.
This week we’re going to introduce you to melodic minor keys. A melodic minor scale raises the sixth and seventh notes of the scale but only when ascending. When descending, the melodic minor scale is exactly the same as the natural minor scale. You can see the differences below.
Chords in the Key of D Minor
It’s important to understand that not only are the sequences of tones different in minor keys, the chord patterns differ also, and the chords don’t follow the same pattern as the tones. In minor keys the chord sequence is as follows:
1st chord: minor
2nd chord: diminished
3rd chord: major
4th chord: minor
5th chord: minor
6th chord: major
7th chord: major
The D minor chord, which forms the root of the D minor scale, is made up of the notes D, F, and A— the first, third, and fifth notes of the key of D minor. On the guitar, using the D minor chord shape shown in the diagram, these notes arrive in this order: mute, mute, D, A, D, F.
Why does this chord sound so different from the D major chord? The only difference is in the first string: The D major’s F# becomes D minor’s F (because that’s what D minor’s key signature dictates), and that’s all it takes to turn a sunny D major chord into a sombre D minor.
(The best musical education includes music theory. Learning music theory will make you a better musician and let you hold your head up when other musicians throw complicated terms around. Our blog has a helpful set of music theory articles to get you going in the right direction.)
Chords in the Key of D Minor
If you were to use every chord in the key of D minor, these would be the chords you’d use:
D minor, E diminished, F major, G minor, A minor, Bb major, and C major
The D, G, and A chords are minor because in the natural minor scale (unlike the major scale) the chords at the first, fourth, and fifth positions of the key are minor.
The E is a diminished chord because in the key of D minor it sits in second place, and in minor keys second place chords are diminished.
As in the major keys, the fifth chord— A minor in this case— can also be played as an Am7. Because it sits at fifth place, it has the privilege of being the chord announcing the ending of the chord progression, if not the end of the song itself, and is generally followed by the root chord (D minor).
Adding the seventh note of the key of A minor (G) to the A minor chord, creating an Am7, makes the A minor chord sound like it’s moving the action ahead, pushing on to the root chord (D minor) that usually comes next in the chord progression.
(The seventh note in a scale is called a leading tone because of the way it leads us to the tonic, or root note of the scale, so it’s a great note to add to a fifth chord to “push the action forward.” If you want to better understand 7th chords and how to use them, check out this article on our blog. And if you want to know more about chord progressions, read this article series.)
Chord Progressions in D Minor
Develop your musical skills by playing around with the progressions below, habituating your ear to the ways in which these chords, depending on their order and context, create the sounds of beginning, rising, falling, and ending.
To repeat, here are the chords in the key of D minor: D minor, E diminished, F major, G minor, A minor, Bb major, and C major. But throwing them together in any old order won’t sound like music. Why? Because chords need to come in an order that’s pleasing to the ear.
This is why we have chord progressions.
As you play these chord progressions and get used to their sound, you’ll probably recognise them and be reminded of particular songs.
By far the most common chord progression for folk, classical, jazz standards, country, and pop songs is loosely based on this progression: I, IV, V, I (that is, on the first, fourth, and fifth chords in each key, major or minor). In the key of D minor this becomes D minor, G minor, and A minor (or Am7). Try playing these chords in this order:
D minor—G minor—A minor (Am7)—D minor.
Repeat this progression a few times. Do you hear how even in this short progression the music has a clear beginning, middle, and end, especially if you use Am7?
Now try playing through the following progressions, listening for the musical “messages” they might carry. Note which progressions sound finished and which ones leave you “hanging,” especially if they end with Am7. How long you play each chord is entirely your choice. (Minor chords are typed with an “m,” diminished with a “dim,” and all other chords are major.)
- Dm – Am(Am7) – Bb – Gm
- Dm – Bb — Gm – Am(Am7)
- Dm – Am(Am7) – Bb – F – Gm – Dm – Gm – Am(Am7)
- Dm – Dm – Dm – Dm – Gm – Gm – Dm – Dm – Am(Am7) – Am(Am7) – Dm – Dm
- Edim – Gm – Am(Am7)
- Dm – Gm – Am(Am7) – Gm
- Am(Am7) – Gm – Dm
- Bb – Gm – Dm – Am(Am7)
- Bb – Am(Am7) – Bb – Am(Am7)
Just A Few Great Songs in the Key of D Minor
The key of D minor is most often used for gloomy pieces, but within that category it has a remarkably broad range of expression.
Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing In The Name Of”
Santana’s “Black Magic Woman”.
It can condemn emotional abuse, like Katy Perry’s “Part of Me.”
It can be the unfathomable sense of regret that follows the end of a destructive relationship, as in Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball”
or Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love”
Think of D minor as that sensitive woman you know who feels deeply, gets depressed a lot, and always has deep wisdom to share.
Rita Steblin (1996) A History of Key Characteristics in the Eighteenth and Early
Nineteenth Centuries, University of Rochester Press, p. 123
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