Chord Theory: Minor Chords

This week, we’ll continue our study of chord theory with an explanation of minor chords. This article assumes that you’ve read the articles below, so read them if you haven’t already.

One Step at a Time
Intervals: your tape measure for music
Chord Theory: Triads
Chord Theory: Power Chords
Chord Theory: Major Chords

Ready? Great! Let’s learn about minor chords. Minor chords have a somber sound compared to the happier-sounding major chords. Despite their distinctly different sounds, major and minor chords are only different by one note. I prefer to think of minor chords as altered major chords and that’s how we’ll learn about minor chords today.

First, let’s review the recipe for a major chord: major third + minor third. If we were to use this recipe to create an E major chord, it would look like this:

Starting on root E, we find that the third is G♯ and the fifth is B for an E major chord. I’m going to use my knowledge of the fretboard to create an easily-fingered E major chord in open position. All I have to do is find all of the Es, G♯s and Bs on the nut and first three frets:

Alright, now we’ve established what an E-major chord looks like. Now let’s look at an E minor chord. The recipe for a minor chord is:

Root + minor third interval = Third
Third + major third interval = Fifth

In short, the interval recipe for a minor chord is minor third + major third. Notice that this recipe is the opposite of a major chord. Let’s use the minor chord’s minor third + major third recipe to create an E minor chord.

At this point, I want to point out a couple of things. First, notice that the fifth is B for both the E major chord and the E minor chord. Why? The reason is simple math: 4 +3 = 7, just the same as 3 + 4 = 7. The minor chord recipe uses the same two intervals as the major chord recipe but in the opposite order.

So, remember this: major and minor chords of the same root note will share the same note on the fifth of the triad. That means that the only note that is changing between a major and minor chord of the same root is the third. That is the second observation: major and minor chords of that same root are different by one note. Flatten the third of a major chord to get a minor chord. As the illustration above indicates, the third of the E major chord is being flattened by a half-step to create the E minor chord.

Our triad for an E minor chord is root E, third G and fifth B. I’m going to use my an E major chord to help me find the fingering for the E minor chord. All I need to do is find the third of the major chord (G♯) and flatten it by a half-step:

The third of a chord acts like a toggle switch. If the third is a half-step closer to the fifth, the triad is major. If the third is a half-step closer to the root, the triad is minor.

Our E minor chord looks like this:

To sum up, here are the things to remember about minor chords:

  • A minor chord has a minor third + major third interval recipe.
  • The fifth of a minor chord is the same as the fifth of a major chord of the same root.
  • The only difference between a major and a minor chord of the same root is the third. The third determines the major or minor tonality of the chord.
  • A minor chord can be created by starting with a major chord and flattening its third by a half-step.

Next: diminished chords.

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