Minor Chords Provide Major Benefits!August 15, 2008 6:00 am Songwriting
Beginning songwriters sometimes get stuck in the “3-chord stage.” Once you find out that you can write a normal-sounding song using just A, D, and E (or perhaps C, F, and G), it’s tempting to just write lots of choruses and verses using just those three major chords, in familiar sequences like A-A-D-A or A-D-A-E. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Plenty of great songs have just three chords.
What I want to suggest here is a way to move beyond the 3-chord stage by using appropriate minor chords in your songs. Ah, you might say, and exactly which minor chords are “appropriate” for my song? I’m glad you asked!
Can’t Choose Your Relatives
Musical theory reveals that for each major chord, there is specific minor chord, called the “relative minor,” that is related to it musically. The relative minor chord of C major, for example, is Am. This means that any C major chord in your song is a candidate to be replaced by an Am chord. (You will only know which one is better by trying it both ways.)
There is a chart at the end of this article that lists all of the relative major and relative minor pairs, although you can work it out for yourself by remembering that the relative minor is on the sixth step of the root chord’s major scale. The major scale for C is C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, in which you see that A is the sixth step. Voila! Am is indeed the relative minor of C major.
Replacing major chords with their relative minors here and there in your chord patterns will make them much more interesting. Minor chords have a “sad” sort of feeling to them, which provides a pleasing contrast to the cheery-sounding major chords. And, patterns using minor chords can support really great melodies and are specifically great to solo over on keyboard or guitar!
Give It A Try
Let’s try the substitution approach on the pair of chord sequences I mentioned at the beginning of this article, starting with A-A-D-A. This notation refers to a 4-measure line in the song, each measure having 4 (or possibly 3) beats. A sequence like this might be repeated several times or alternated with some other 4-measure sequence to form a verse.
The relative minor of A major is F#m, and the relative minor of D major is Bm. Using selective minor-chord substitution within this simple sequence can yield a surprising number of interesting twists! You can end up with lines such as:
and so on, and so on, etc. Similarly, the rather fancier sequence A-D-A-E might be transformed into lines like:
(I wasn’t quite bold enough to subsitute a line-ending C#m for its relative major E in these patterns, but doing so could form a great transition to a following line starting with an A chord.)
If you just play through some of these patterns a few times to see what I’m talking about, you’ll probably write at least one new song in the process! Somehow having those minor chords in there, even just a few, really makes things snap tunewise. One specific pattern you might consider is to use lots of minor chords in the verses but then have the chorus use only major chords, setting up a nice contrast between the two song segments.
Here’s the Chord List I Promised
This list gives the relative minor chord for each major chord. List entries are in the form Major Chord: Relative Minor. Note that I use # for some “black key” chords and b (i.e. a flat sign) for others to accommodate the “common names” for some of the chords, meaning “the names I know them by.”