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Chord Progressions - Minor progressions - introduction

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Previous page: Chord Progressions - Minor progressions Next page: Chord Progressions - Walk, Don't Run to Spain For a Meeting with Mark Knopfler and friends

Major harmony is firm and solid, with many clearly defined harmonic structures. Not so with minor. Minor is less stable, both melodic and harmonic. The first five overtones of a note will give you the notes of a major pentatonic scale. The note that identify the minor, the minor third is not among those notes. This means that the minor scale is not in harmony with the natural overtones of the root note, This creates more unsettled and unclear, but at the same time often more interesting harmony. The firmness of major harmony will in a way lock you in. It is easier to escape from the basic structure of minor, which also often makes it easier to improvise over minor chords.

Just a few words about blues: The blues-scale is a minor scale, but it is usually played over major chords. Since we often use 7th (or 9th etc.) chords in blues, it does not have the same firm harmonic structure as songs based in the diatonic chords of a harmonized major scale. In a standard major harmonic structure, both the I and IV chords should have been maj7 chords, if they are extended to four note harmonies. But in blues we use 7th chords, which will take us more in the mixolydian direction. But mixolydian is still a major scale with a major third, while the minor pentatonic and the blues scale both have minor thirds and are minor scales. The tension between the major harmony and minor melody is one of the musical aspects of blues that makes it so interesting.

Harmonic minor - a major step for a stronger ending

We have touched some minor scale and minor harmony in the Relative Minor lesson. But this was all based on the natural minor scale. As said in the xxx lesson, the minor 7th chord does not give a clear lead back to the root. The notes of the 7th chord that gives this leading effects, are tritone interval between the 4 and the 7 of the scale (F and B in the key of C major), which is resolved when the leaning note 4 goes to major 3 (F to E in C-major), and the leading note 7 goes to the root (B to C in C-major). The 4 and the 7 of the scale is the 7 and the 3 of the chord - it should no be easy. The figure might illustrate the relation between the scale notes and the chord notes.

The minor 7th chord has a minor third, and the interval between the third and the seventh is a perfect fifth. This is a nice and harmonic interval - the most harmonic of them all - and it does not create any tension. This means that the minor 7th chord gives you nothing to dissolve.

By lifting the 7th of a natural minor chord, we get a major 7th instead of the minor 7th in the scale, which gives a stronger leading note. This also will change the V-chord to a major chord. (the 7th of the scale is the 3rd of the V chord, and when we lift the 7th of the scale from a minor 7th to a major 7th, then the third in the V chord is changed from a minor 3rd to a major 3rd. The we get both the lead note and the tritone between the major 3rd and the 7th.

By changing the V chord from minor to major, we get at stronger ending, and a clearer statement of the key, with the V7-i change. To facilitate that, we change the 7th note of the scale, and that gives us the harmonic minor scale.

Still the V7-i (major to minor) change is not as strong a statement as the V7-I (major to major). The reason is that we still do not have the leaning note in the change V7-i. The 4 to min3 is a whole step, while the 4 to maj3 is a half step. In earlier years, composers would always end their compositions on a major chord, even if the tune was in a minor key, to get that stronger ending. If the tune was in D-minor, they would end on a D-major chord. But today, one will also use the minor chord as the final chord.

Melodic minor

Also in the melody, one will often want the strong leading note when going to the root. That means that one will have the leading notes when the melody goes up to. But when we are lifting the 7th from minor to major, then we get an interval of one and a half note (a minor third) between the minor 6th (6b) of a natural minor scale, and this does not work very well melodically. To compensate for that, one will also lift the minor 6th to a major sixth, thus creating a whole step from the 5th to the major 6th, and a whole step from the major 6th to the major 7th.

Harmonically, we will keep the minor 6th. If we change the minor 6th to a major 6th in the harmony, then we will change the fourth chord from minor to major, and we usually don't want that to happen. So in the harmonic minor, we keep the minor 6th.

When the melody goes down from the root, we do not need the strong leading note. On the contrary, the leading note is leading up, and we better avoid that when going down. So when the melody goes down, we keep the minor 7th of the natural minor. And with the minor 7th, we do not get the problem with the large interval between the 6th and the 7th. So we also keep the minor 6th. This gives us a melodic minor scale which has a major 6th and major 7th when the played upward, and minor 6th and minor 7th (natural minor) when played downward. This might seem very confusing, and it is. Minor is not as clear as major, which is also reflected in the harmony.

The minor version of the "Three Chord Wonder" will either be i-iv-v7 or i-iv-V7, and you should now understand the different harmonic function of the v7 and the V7 chord in this context. In A-minor the chords will be Am - Dm - Em7 or Am - Dm - E7

In a minor chord progression, we will often add parallel major chord and V chord of the same major scale. In a minor scale context, this will be the IIIb and VIIb chords. (One might argue that the flats (b) should be omitted. The III chord is the chord built on the third of the scale. But I prefer the IIIb to indicate that it is built on the minor third.)

If we are in the key of d-minor, it will be F (IIIb) and C (VIIb). In A-minor it will be C and G.

Drop the iv chord, and you have the chords of the la folia theme, which is covered in another lesson.

If you then add the IV chord of the relative major scale, which will be the IVb chord of the minor scale, it begins to become interesting. Once again, forget the iv chord, and you have the progression I often call Spanish, a progression you can hear in Dire Strait's "Sultan of Swing". The progression is covered in another lesson.

If you drop the V7 as well, you end of with the progression of "All Along The Watchtower" (written by Bob Dylan and made really famous by Jimi Hendrix), and Eric Clapton's "Layla" (chorus). This progression is covered in yet another lesson.

The ascending melodic minor have a major sixth while the natural minor has a minor sixth( the same as descending melodic minor and harmonic minor). None of the chords mentioned so far has the major sixth in them. The iv chord has a minor 6th, and half tone from the minor to the majors creates a strong dissonance.

The song For Your Love recorded by Eric Clapton with The Blues Breakers (John Mayall) has a progression with the IV-chord. It goes Em - G - A - Am, which means that it changes from IV to iv.

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