Before we get into major and minor keys, let's quickly review what a key is:
What is a key?
A key is essentially a group of notes that are used in a song.
Every key includes every letter of the music alphabet (A, B, C, D, E, F, and G), but certain notes may be sharp or flat.
For example: In the key of G, the notes are: G A B C D E and F#. So if you're playing a song where all the notes are natural except an F#, you might be playing in the key of G.
Most songs will use only the notes within the key, but of course there are always exceptions!
Half steps and whole steps in the scale
The scale is all of the notes in the key laid out in order, starting with the root note of the key. So in the key of C, the scale would start on C and end on C: C D E F G A B C.
The easiest way to understand the difference between the major and minor keys is to look at the differences in the scales.
In music, notes next to each other can either be half steps or whole steps. A half step is when the two keys on the piano or two frets on the guitar are right next to each other. A whole step moves up two keys or two frets.
(On the keyboard, don't forget the black keys count, too! So two white keys that look like they're next to each other may actually have a black key in between!)
Both the major and minor scales use pattern of whole steps and half steps.
For a major scale, start on the root note and follow this pattern: whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step.
For a minor scale, start on the root note and follow this pattern: whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step.
Now if you were to play the major and minor scales starting on the same note, you would notice three notes end up being different: the 3rd, the 6th, and the 7th.
Variations of the minor key
Just to make things more complicated, the minor scale is rarely played in its natural form. There are actually two variations of the minor scale which change the 6th and 7th notes of the scale.
Without getting into to much detail, the main thing you need to know is this: The 7th note of the minor scale is almost always raised a half step (making it the same as the 7th note of the major scale.) The 6th note of the minor scale is sometimes raised, too.
So what does this mean for minor keys?
When you're playing in a minor key, chords that involve the 7th note of the scale will often be different.
If you want to hear an example of this, play this chord progression in A minor:
- Am Dm Am Em Am
And then play this chord progression:
- Am Dm Am E Am
Do you hear how the E chord leads more strongly back to the Am chord? That's because the note G (the 7th note of the scale in A minor) is raised to a G#, creating a slightly stronger resolution.
Long story short, there are a lot of chord variations you can play around with in a minor key. But if you're feeling overwhelmed, all you really need to know is this: take the minor v chord (the 5th chord in the key) and change it to a major V chord. BAM.
How major and minor keys are related
There are two types of relations major and minor keys can have: parallel and relative.
Parallel minors/majors are keys that start on the same note. So G minor is the parallel minor to G major. Make sense?
Relative minors/majors are keys that use the same key signature (aka the same notes are sharp or flat). So for every major key, there is actually a minor key that uses the exact same notes. To find that relative minor, go to the 6th note of the scale. That's your relative minor key.
So if you're looking for the relative minor of G major, the 6th note of the C scale is E. So E minor is the relative minor. That means both G major and E minor use the exact same set of notes (all natural keys except for F#).
How do you tell if a song is in a major or minor key?
Some people will tell you to listen for how "sad" or "happy" a song sounds to tell if it's in a major or minor key. While that's a good rule of thumb, it's not always the best way to tell.
Just because a song uses a lot of minor chords doesn't mean it's in a minor key.
Here are two strategies to tell if you're playing in a minor or major key:
- Look for the note the melody is centered around. The starting and ending note of melodies and phrases will be a huge clue to what key you're playing in.
- If you suspect you're in a minor key, listen for the raised 7th scale degree. If you hear the raised 7th scale degree, or you notice that the minor v chord is changed to a major V chord, then you're probably in the minor key.
So go play around with major and minor keys - Take one of the songs your playing and see if you can find the relative minor and the parallel minor. You could even try changing a song to a minor key and see if you like it better!