20. Chords of the Minor Scale

Natural Minor Scale Chords 

In this chapter we are going to learn which chords can be formed using only the pitches of the minor scale. Starting with an “A natural minor” scale, and building a chord on each pitch of the scale, we end up with the following chord qualities: 

It is important to note that each of the chords above is formed using only pitches from the A natural minor scale (no other pitches are used in the chords other than A, B, C, D, E, F, and G). 

As you can see from the preceding diagram, there are a total of three major chords, three minor chords, and one diminished chord. They will always appear in the order above no matter the scale. For example, the chords built on a “A natural minor” scale will have the same order as the chords built on “D natural minor” scale (m – dim – M – m – m – M – M). 

Furthermore, the natural minor scale has the same number of major, minor, and diminished chords as the major scale; only they are in a different order. Here are the chords built on the C major scale. 

Harmonic Minor Scale Chords 

We know that the harmonic minor scale is formed by raising the 7th pitch of the natural minor scale one half step. The pitches of the “A harmonic minor” scale are therefore A, B, C, D, E, F, and G sharp. If we build a chord on each of these pitches, we got the following chord qualities:

As you can see in the preceding diagram, there are a total of two major chords, two minor chords, two diminished chords, and one augmented chord. They will always appear in the order above no matter the scale. For example, the chords built on an “A harmonic minor” scale will have the same order as the chords built on an “E harmonic minor” scale (m – dim – aug – m – M – M –dim). The reason some of the chords in the preceding diagram contain a “G sharp” is because all of the chords are formed using only the pitches of the “A harmonic minor” scale (which includes a “G sharp”). By using the harmonic minor scale rather than the natural minor scale, composers and songwriters can have a different set of chords to work with when writing music. 

21. Degrees of the Scale

Naming with Roman Numerals 

So far, we have named the pitches of the scale and the chords built upon them using letter names. In this chapter we are going to learn how to name the pitches of the scale and the chords built upon them using Roman numerals. Naming with Roman numerals is actually the preferred method of naming.  

In case you are not familiar with Roman numerals, here are the first seven Roman numerals and their modern equivalents. 

(1) 

II (1+1=2) 

III (1+1+1=3) 

IV (1 taken from 5 = 4) 

(5) 

VI (5+1=6) 

VII (5+1+1=7) 

In the following diagram, the Roman numerals are placed under each degree of the scale. (“Degree” is another word for “pitches” of the scale, or “steps” of the scale). 

It is very important to understand that Roman numerals are not specific to a certain pitch, but rather they are specific to the degrees of the scale. Let’s explain what is meant by this. In the preceding diagram, “C” is the 1st pitch of the C major scale, and so it is named using the Roman numeral “I”. In the following diagram, “C” is the 4th pitch of the G major scale, and so it is named using the Roman numeral “IV”.  

As mentioned above, Roman numerals are not only used to name each pitch of the scale, but also the chords built upon them. Major chords are indicated with an uppercase Roman numeral while minor, diminished, and augmented chords are indicated with a lowercase Roman numeral. 

Just as Roman numerals are not quite specific to certain pitches, they are not specific to certain chords. Rather, they are specific to the degrees of the scale. For example, in the preceding diagram, the “A minor” chord is the 6th chord of the scale, and so it is named using the Roman numeral “vi”. In the following diagram, the “A minor” chord is the 2nd chord of the scale, and so it is named using the Roman numeral “ii”. 

Calling chords by their letter names is very useful in identifying them, but calling chords by their Roman numeral has an even greater benefit, it tells us about a chord’s positional relationship to the other chords in the scale. The relationship between chords is an important aspect of music. 

Note: Although only major scales were used in the diagrams for this chapter, the degrees of the minor scale can be named using Roman numerals.

22.Primary Chords

Chord Relationships 

In the previous chapter we know how the pitches of the scale and the chords built upon them can be named with Roman numerals. In this chapter we are going to take a closer look at the “I”, “IV”, and “V” chords. We call these three chords primary chords.  

The primary chords are the chords most frequently used in music. There are two reasons for this. The first is their ability to harmonize with the pitches of the scale. Using only the primary chords, a composer or songwriter is able to create harmonies that will blend with any pitch of the scale. This is because every pitch of the scale can be found in the primary chords. 

(Lowest pitch in the “I” chord, highest pitch in the “IV” chord). 

(Highest pitch in the “V” chord). 

(Middle pitch in the “I” chord). 

(Lowest pitch in the “IV” chord). 

(Highest pitch in the “I” chord, lowest pitch in the “V” chord). 

(Middle pitch in the “IV” chord). 

B (Middle pitch in the “V” chord). 

The second reason the primary chords are the chords most frequently used in music is their strong relationship to the root of the scale (or key). Let’s explain this by looking at each of the primary chords in turn. 

The “I” chord has the strongest relationship to the rest of the scale because it is built upon the root of the scale. In fact, the root of the “I” chord and the root of the scale are the same pitch.  

The “V” chord is the chord with the second strongest relationship to the root of the scale. We know that the first and fifth pitches of the scale (a 5th) have a very strong relationship to one another (I.e., a 5th is a very consonant interval). Therefore, the chords built on these pitches of the scale will also have a strong relationship to one another. 

The “IV” chord is the chord with the third strongest relationship to the root of the scale. We know that the 1st and 4th pitches of the scale (a 4th) have a strong relationship to one another (I.e., a 4th is a consonant interval). Therefore, the chords built on these pitches of the scale will also have a strong relationship to one another.  

Note: Everything regarding primary chords and chord relationships mentioned above, also applies to the primary chords in minor keys. While the primary chords of the major scale are all major chords, the primary chords of the minor scale are all minor.

23.Chord Inversions

Reordering Chord Pitches 

A chord can be reshuffled in any order. It remains the same chord but is no longer in the ‘root position’. It instead becomes a chord inversion.

In the first diagram of this chapter, the C major chord (C, E, G) is in its natural state. We call this ordering of the pitches root position. ‘C’ is called the ‘root’ of the chord, since ‘C’ is the pitch of the scale which the chord is built upon. It is also the pitch from the scale which takes its name. The second diagram shows an inversion of the C major chord. The lowest pitch, ‘C’ has been moved an octave higher so that it is now the highest pitch. We call this ordering of pitches 1st inversion. The C major chord in 1st inversion also has an inversion. 

The first diagram shows the C major chord in 1st inversion. In the second diagram, the lowest pitch, ‘E’, has been moved an octave higher so that it is now the highest pitch. We call this ordering of pitches 2nd inversion.  

Note: no other inversions are possible; moving the ‘G’ in the 2nd inversion an octave higher would results in root position once again. 

Although a major chord was used in all of the preceding examples, any quality of chord may be inverted; major, minor, augmented or diminished.

24.The Dominant Seventh Chord

Extension of the Triad 

We know that chords are made up of three distinct pitches (triads). In this chapter, we will learn about chords made up of four distinct pitches. Chords with four or more distinct pitches are called extended chords

There are a few different kinds of extended chords. The extended chord we will looking at in this chapter is the dominant seventh chord. Dominant seventh chords are formed by adding a minor 3rd to the top of a major chord in root position.  

(Chapter 24 – Audio Sample 1)

In the preceding diagram, a minor 3rd (‘D’ to ‘F’) was added to the top of a ‘G major’ chord in root position. The name “dominant seventh”, comes from the fact that the chord is built on the fifth pitch of the scale (the dominant pitch), and from the fact that the interval between the top and bottom pitches is a 7th.  

Note: the 7th in a dominant seventh chord is always a minor 7th (10 half steps).  

The dominant seventh chord is abbreviated with a superscript 7. We pronounce the chord as ‘G seven’ (G7), not ‘G seventh’. 

The following diagram illustrates how the dominant seventh chord is built on the fifth pitch of the scale (the dominant pitch). When we name this chord by its scale degree, we call it ‘V7’ rather than ‘G7’.  

As you can see, the Roman numeral ‘V’ signifies the chord’s place in the scale. The superscript 7 signifies the interval between the top and bottom pitches. We know that the ‘V’ chord has a strong tendency to return to the ‘I’ chord. The same holds true for the ‘V7’ chord, since it is an extended version of the ‘V’ chord. (Extending the chord does not change the underlying major chord; it only adds flavor to the existing sound.) 

Dominant Seventh Inversions 

We know that for chord inversions, we found that a chord with three pitches could have three different arrangements of its pitches: root position, 1st inversion and 2nd inversion. Since dominant seventh chords have added pitch, a ‘3rd inversion’ is now possible.  

Remember: inversions are formed by moving the lowest pitch of the chord an octave higher so that it becomes the highest pitch. 

(Chapter 24 – Audio Sample 2)

The root of the dominant seventh chord is the lowest pitch when it is in root position. To determine the location of the root in the inversions, identify the interval of a 2nd.   

The root will always be the upper pitch in the 2nd. Here is a helpful way to remember which inversion is which. If the root is the ‘1st’ pitch from the top, the chord is in ‘1st’ inversion. If the root is the ‘2nd’ pitch from the top, the chord is in the ‘2nd’ inversion. If the root is the ‘3rd’ pitch from the top, the chord is in ‘3rd’ inversion. 

25.Cadences

Cadences 

In this chapter we are going to learn a specific type of chord progression called cadence. A cadence is a chord progression that expresses a sense of finality. This sense of finality can be stronger or weaker depending on certain factors. There are three types of cadences: authentic, plagal and deceptive.  

The Authentic Cadence 

An authentic cadence is movement from ‘V’ to ‘I’ (or ‘V7’ to ‘I’). This is the strongest type of cadence, since ‘V’ has the strongest tendency towards ‘I’. Authentic cadences can be further classified into perfect and Imperfect. Both are considered to be strong cadences, but the perfect is slightly stronger than the imperfect.  

A perfect authentic cadence is movement from ‘V’ to ‘I’, with two additional with two criteria that must be met. 1: Each chord must have its root as the lowest pitch, and 2: the final chord must also have its root as the highest pitch. When either of these two criteria is not met, it is considered an ‘imperfect’ authentic cadence. Here is an example of a perfect authentic cadence

(Chapter 25 – Audio Sample 1)

The preceding example is in the key of C major; where the G major chord is the ‘V’ chord (GDGB) and the C major chord (CEGC) is the ‘I’ chord. As you can see, the root of the ‘V’ chord (‘G’) is the lowest pitch in the ‘V’ chord, and the root of the ‘I’ chord (‘C’) is the lowest pitch in the ‘I’ chord.  

Here is an example of an imperfect authentic cadence

(Chapter 25 – Audio Sample 2)

The preceding example is called an ‘Imperfect authentic cadence’ and is any cadential that ends on the chord ‘V’. The progression from ‘I’ to ‘V’ is the exact reverse of the perfect cadence and is therefore has the opposite effect. If the perfect cadence is considered as a closing gesture- bringing a sense of resolution- the progression from ‘I’ to ‘V’ is an open gesture. 

The Plagal Cadence 

The plagal cadence is movement from ‘IV’ to ‘I’. It is not quite as strong as the authentic cadence.  

(Chapter 25 – Audio Sample 3)

The Deceptive Cadence 

With the authentic cadence we had movement from ‘V’ to ‘I’. The deceptive cadence is movement from ‘V’ to a chord other than ‘I’. It is called “deceptive” because the ear is expecting to hear the resolution to the ‘I’ chord, then a chord other than ‘I’ is played. These types of cadences create a sense of suspension. Here is an example of a typical deceptive cadence. 

(Chapter 25 – Audio Sample 4)