3.11 The minor scale


Category: Harmony | Tags: Scales, Ear training: scales


In this chapter you will learn what a minor scale is. In the videos and examples you learn that the minor scale has a fixed sequence of whole and half steps. You will also learn to distinguish the difference between the minor and major scale by ear.

1. What is a minor scale?

In Chapter 1.13 The major scale, you’ve learned that a major scale is a scale with steps: whole - whole - half - whole - whole - whole - half. But you can also find pieces of music where the order is different, for example with Fur Elise by Beethoven or the Turkish March by Mozart.

If you line up the notes of these pieces you get the scale: A B C D E F G A.

When you look at the sequence of whole and half steps of this scale, it turns out that the scale A B C D E F G A is a scale with steps: whole - half - whole - whole - half - whole - whole.

A scale with this sequence of whole and half steps, is called a minor scale. This scale is also called the natural minor scale.


A minor scale
The A minor scale is a scale with steps: whole - half - whole - whole - half - whole - whole.


As with major scales, minor scales are made up of of 7 different notes, each note name occurs once, and no note name is skipped.



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Every minor scale is a scale with steps: whole - half - whole - whole - half - whole - whole.



Which scale is a minor scale?

note example

piano example

2. Major and minor scales

A major scale is a scale where the distance between the tonic and the third is a major third.
A minor scale is a scale where the distance between the tonic and the third is a minor third.

With the minor scale, you often see a lowercase letter instead of an uppercase letter, for example c minor. If it is capitalized it means major, unless it says minor, for example C minor. If there is a lower case letter then minor is always meant. I always use a capital letter with the addition of major or minor.


3. Ear training

Listen to the sound of the minor scale

cd The minor scale | Musictheory.educationThe minor scale


Do you hear that this scale sounds different from the major scale? Do you see that the half steps are in a different place than in the major scale? That in this scale, the last distance is a whole step and not a half step, as in the major scale? This is important and you will learn more about it in Chapter 3.12 The leading tone in the minor scale.



Ear Training exercise 3e: distinguishing the difference between the major and natural minor scale by ear.

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Example question

Which scale do you hear?

Choise 1: major scale

Choise 2: minor scale


Practical steps

Sing the scale being played to train your inner hearing abilties. Decide which scale is being played.

Answer: minor scale.

4. Key

Most music is written in a particular scale, for example, C major, or A minor. The scale in which a piece of music is written is called the key. For example, Mozart's famous piano sonata No.16 in C major KV 545 is in the key of C major - C major is the key of this sonata.



Besides the key of C major, there are many other keys. There are 12 different major scales, because you can make a major scale on any note and there are 12 different notes in an octave. And like major, there are 12 different minor scales. Altogether 24 different scales. All major scales together are called a mode. Minor is also a mode. A mode gives a name to a whole group of scales that are all constructed the same, such as the fixed order of whole and half steps in minor and major. There are other modes such as Dorian, Lydian, pentatonic and so on. You'll learn some new modes in Chapter 8.22 Alternative scales.



A scale in which each natural note occurs once and no note name is skipped is called a diatonic scale. Minor and major scales are diatonic scales. Diatonic derives from Greek and means "going through whole tones". By this is meant that you go from one natural note to another without skipping a natural note. For example, from C to D, or from C to B.


Scale tones

The tones that belong in a particular scale are called scale tones. In a piece of music, in addition to notes belonging to the scale, there are also notes that do not appear in the scale. You will learn more about this in Chapter 7.9 Embellishing tones: nonharmonic tones.


Diatonic semitone

A semitone that occurs in a diatonic scale is called a diatonic semitone. A diatonic semitone is a half step between two different natural notes. An example of a diatonic semitone is E - F, or F - Gb. A half step between two identical natural notes, for example F - F#, or B - Bb, is called a chromatic semitone. You'll learn about chromatics in Chapter 3.10 The chromatic scale.