Beginner’s Guide To Music Theory Part 9: Chord Progressions in Minor Keys

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 21.02.20

Chord Progressions in Minor Keys

Welcome back! If this is your first visit and you’ve missed our previous lessons, we recommend getting familiar with the material before jumping into chord progressions:

  1. The Major Scale
  2. Intervals
  3. Chords
  4. The Circle of Fifths (A Guide to Learning Accidentals & Key Signatures)
  5. Music Modes
  6. Chord Inversions
  7. Chord Progressions #1
  8. Chord Progressions #2

All examples in the previous issue have concerned major keys. In this article we examine minor keys and take a step forward in creating interesting progressions.

We will begin as we always do: collecting the notes of different important chords and seeing how their voices move when changing from one chord to another. As the parallel chord to C major, E minor provides a fantastic starting place as it contains no accidentals.

Tonic, Subdominant and Dominant functions in Minor

Our tonic is A minor with the notes A, C and E.
The subdominant is again the 4th degree chord. If only using the notes of A minor this will be D minor containing D, F and A. Let us analyze how the voices move from A minor to D minor:

Amin Dmin Amin voices

A stays
E moves up a half tone to F
C moves up a whole tone to D

The Dominant chord in Minor keys

We have discussed how the dominant function is the 5th degree of the scale. In A minor for example, this would be E minor.

However, we NEVER use E minor but E major or E7 instead. Why? Because the E major third is G# (instead of the note G in E minor) which beautifully leads up chromatically to the tonic root of A (minor). Sometimes this chord is referred to as the 5th degree of the A harmonic minor scale (A B C D E F G#).

Listen to the progression A minor – E7 – A minor and it is immediately clear why we use E7 instead of E minor. Please keep in mind though: using A minor with E minor can sound very nice too! E minor just does not comply with all aspects of the dominant function – one of them being the leading tone moving into the tonic root.

So the voices in A minor – E7 move like this:

So the voices in A minor – E7 – Aminor move like this:

Chord-progressions-in-Minor-Keys

E stays
C moves down a half tone to B
A moves down a half tone to G#

Now we make the E a 7th chord (E7). On top of the triad (E, G# and B) we add another note; a D – the third of B.Chord-progressions-in-Minor-Keys

E stays
C splits: it moves up a whole tone to D and down a half tone to B
A moves down a half tone to G#

The parallel chord to the minor Subdominant

This chord deserves some extra attention. The Subdominant in A minor is D minor. The (lower) parallel of D minor is B diminished. By adding a third on top to create a 7th chord, we get what we call ‘half diminished’.

Its notes are: B, D, F and A, with a minor third between B and D and another minor third between D and F – which is what defines it as ‘diminished’. A major third between F and A would make it ‘half diminished’. It often replaces D minor and thus occupies the subdominant function. This is especially common in jazzy progressions and leads to the famous II-V-I formula, the 2nd degree replacing the 5th degree.

Have a quick look at the main functions in minor (A minor in this example):

Chord-progressions-in-Minor-Keys

Here is an example in TAB notation; Tonic – Subdominant – Tonic in the key of E minor:

Another one: Tonic – Dominant – Tonic in A minor (in treble clef notation)

Combining formulas

In this series we have come across common ‘formulas’; progressions of two to four chords that have grown ubiquitous in western music. Since they are so familiar, they can be combined in many ways. You can combine all chords from A minor with those of C major. You can also change between major and minor of the same tonic. For instance – use chords from C minor in a C major environment, or the other way around. A few examples:

C – Bmin7(b5) – E7 – Amin – F – G7 – C

This progression integrates a complete II-V-I in A minor into a C major key
C – G7 – Ab – Bb – C

Ab and Bb form the 6th and 7th degree of C minor respectively, but are used here in a C major key
Amin – E7 – Dmin – G7 – C – E7 – Amin

Within A minor, we have the II – V – I formula in C major

Here is another famous example straight from our UBERCHORD app. It is in A minor (again!) and moves through G, D and C major as well:

We hope we have given you a brief glimpse into the functionality and application of minor chords. In the upcoming issue we will be dealing with more possible variations within chord progressions. In the meantime, check out Easy Ear Training, they have a great collection of lessons on music theory and guitar.