Understanding Minor Chords

If you’re writing a piece of music that is filled with melancholy, then the minor chord is a main contender in any chord progression.

Along with the major chord, minor chords are also amongst the most popular chords used in modern Western music.

In today’s post we’ll be looking at the minor chord and…

  • What they are
  • How you build them
  • Their relationship to scales
  • And how you can use them in your song

Let’s get started.

What is a minor chord?

Minor chords are stereotypically known as the sad and depressing chords in music. They are used to portray emotions that provoke sadness and negativity. However, depending on the song’s production and lyrics, can be used to craft the complete opposite.

Let’s listen to a row of minor chords – B minor, C minor, D minor and E minor.

If you’re like me, I’m currently on the sofa wondering where I went wrong in life.

How do you build a minor chord?

A minor chord is built using a minor triad which consists of 3 notes, and is built by stacking a minor 3rd (3 semitones from the root) and a perfect 5th (7 semitones from the root) giving you the chord formula: R – b3 – 5. It is also known as stacking a minor and major 3rd.

How do you build a minor chordPin

For example if A is our root note, C is our minor 3rd which is 3 semitones away from A (3), and E is our perfect 5th which is 4 semitones away from C, and 7 semitones away from A (5).

A minor is: A C E.

The only difference between a major and minor chord is the middle note, the 3rd note. The 3rd note in a minor chord is one semitone lower.

Minor chords and scales

In a minor scale the 1st, 4th and 5th chords from the scale are minor chords, and the 3rd, 6th and 7th are major chords and the 2nd chord is diminished. Let’s look at the scale of A minor as our example:

  1. A minor
  2. B diminished
  3. C major
  4. D minor
  5. E minor
  6. F major
  7. G major

The relative major key to A minor is C major, which means they contain the notes, therefore the same chords however in a different order. C major which is the 3rd chord in the minor scale, now becomes the 1st, D minor becomes the 2nd chord and so on. Let’s continue with C major as our example:

  1. C major
  2. D minor
  3. E minor
  4. F major
  5. G major
  6. A minor
  7. B diminished

How to use minor chords

Minor chords are easy to use and implement into any songs, whether it’s a love story gone wrong, or a panic attack whilst walking to the shops, a minor chord will always be your friend and express how you feel.

However, are there any other uses for the minor chord? How can we make them better or more relevant and interesting to the story we’re telling?

1. To dampen a cheerful chord progression

Not every happy story is completely happy, there are usually obstacles along the way, and a few hurdles to tackle. This is where the minor chords shine, they add a slight sadness or struggle to a supposedly happy journey.

The 1564 chord progression is an example of this, in a major key the 6th chord is a minor, for example:

  • C major (1) -> G major (5) -> A minor (6) -> F major (4)

This is a common chord progression because it has the perfect amount of tension and release. However, common chord progressions are overused and predictable, therefore, consider adding in a different minor chord to replace the 6th chord, and even change its position. Here are two examples using the key of C major, and adding in the E minor chord:

  • C major (1) -> E minor (3) -> F major (4) -> G major (5) – 1345

  • C major (1) -> G major (5) -> F major (4) -> E minor (3) – 1543

2. Transition to other chords in the same key

All chords have common elements, and some only differ by a single note. Take A major and A minor as an example, the only difference is the middle note – C# in A major and C in A minor.

These single notes can change the impact of the chord progression and also increase the drama behind the transition back to the minor chord.

Another example is the diminished chord, which is essentially a minor chord with a flat 5th note. Playing the diminished chord of the same key, then transitioning back to the minor chord feels like a resolution, though still sad.

Let’s listen to both of these transitions:

  • A major -> A minor (C# -> C)

  • A diminished -> A minor (Eb -> E)

3. Expand on the minor chord

If you’ve decided to compose in a minor scale, the most stable note will be the key, for example in the scale of A minor, the A minor chord would give stability and resolution.

Let’s continue with the A minor scale – A B C D E F G, the A minor chord has the most stability in the scale. We can expand on the A minor chord by creating a 6th, 7th or 9th:

  • A minor seventh – A C E G
  • A minor ninth – A C E G B
  • A minor sixth – A C E F#

Note that the F# in the A minor 6th chord falls outside the A minor scale, however, this doesn’t mean you can’t use it!

If we add one or two of these chords to a 1645 chord progression we could have this:

  • A minor 7 -> F major -> D minor 6 -> E major

4. Try using inverted chords

An inverted chord is where the root note is no longer the lowest note in the chord, for example A minor A C E, A is the lowest note. However, we could also have C or E as the lowest note, this means we would be inverting the chord.

Inverting a chord creates more tension, and decreases stability, so it can be a fun addition to a song.

Here’s an example using 1645 chord progression, both F major and D minor have been inverted:

  • Am (ACE) -> F/A (ACF) -> Dm/A (ADF) -> E minor (EGB)

As you can see by using inversions we can also get the same lowest note to match throughout each chord – in the example it is the note A.

It’s over to you

Even though minor chords are basic and commonly used, you can still find unique ways for them to stand out in a song and increase its impact on the listener.

Next time you want to include a minor chord, consider one of these four uses to make your minor chords more interesting.