Music Theory Fun, part 5: “Major” and “Minor” Differences

Now that we’ve learned about key signatures and pitches, we can start talking about “major” and “minor” keys in a little more depth.

First, let’s look at a few graphics to help you visualize the “keys” I’m talking about. (I made this based on a piano keyboard, because I am a pianist and learned music theory largely by interacting with the piano. To me, seeing the notes as clearly as a piano displays them REALLY helps with learning theory.)

pianokeys
This graphic represents a small section of a piano keyboard. Here are the notes labeled:

pianokeys_labeled
There are several things to take note of here. First, see how there’s a note labeled C on the left side of the image and another note labeled C on the right side of the image? The C on the right sounds higher than the C on the left–that’s the difference. The pitch names repeat themselves, but the notes get higher going to the right on a piano keyboard, and get lower going to the left.

Second, there are black notes fitting between some of the white notes on the keyboard, and all of them are called “something-sharp” or “something-flat.” That’s going to be important later in this post!

Lastly, each of the black notes have two pitch names instead of one. This is perfectly acceptable; for instance, you can call the note between C and D either C-sharp or D-flat. It’s really just personal preference.

(Oh, and don’t worry about the colors of each note being different–this has to do with my sound-color synesthesia. I was feeling kinda OCD about making sure the colors of each label “matched” the musical note. LOL)

So, What’s So Major about a Major Key?

Last week, we talked a good bit about key signatures, and at the end of the post, I gave you an “answer key,” of sorts, showing all the different key signatures. I also identified all of them as being “something-something major.” But you probably wondered: “What does ‘major’ mean, and why does she keep specifying it?”

When a musician says that a song is played in a “major” key, it doesn’t mean that it’s in an “important” key–it means that the scale of the key (all 8 notes played in sequence) follows this pattern:

cmajorkey
This graphic depicts the C major scale; starting on C (leftmost note), you hit C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. Looks pretty simple and straightforward, right?

Well, underpinning this simple sequence is a rule concerning how all major key scales are constructed, using intervals. Intervals are what I keep referencing when I say “whole step” or “half-step,” like so:

  • A half-step is the interval between two adjacent notes on the scale, such as the interval between C and C-sharp, or the interval between E and F.
  • A whole step is the interval between two notes with another note squished between them, such as the interval between C and D, or the interval between G-flat and A-flat.

So the interval pattern described for you in the above graphic has you make two whole steps up the scale, then a half, then three more whole steps, then another half. This is how all major key scales are determined–if their scale abides by this rule, they are major!

Minor Key Scales: Some Minor Adjustments to This System

cminorkey
Now, in terms of minor keys, the nice neat little system we saw earlier gets a little bit of a monkey wrench thrown in it. The above graphic depicts C minor, and there are a few differences when you compare it to C major:

  • Instead of hitting an E-natural (“regular E”), you hit an E-flat
  • Instead of hitting an A-natural, you hit an A-flat
  • B natural is still the seventh note, just like the C major, but for some reason, the seventh note is still considered “sharped” (never understood that, myself)

There is a very technical interval pattern for minor keys, but it’s very complicated. Basically, we musicians just remember that for every minor key’s scale, we take the major scale, flat the third and sixth note, and keep the seventh note in the same place.

Next Week: Every Key Has a Relative

Now that you know a little more about major and minor keys, we’re going to see how they’re related to each other, next week. (Thankfully, you won’t have to remember whose brother’s uncle’s cousin is related to whose! LOL!)

One thought on “Music Theory Fun, part 5: “Major” and “Minor” Differences”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.