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Beyond major and minor: A composer’s understanding of chords and scales

​Major and minor. Together these form a basic polarity in Western music. Major scales and chords are usually characterized as "happy," while minor ones are saddled with the label "sad." After composing, improvising, arranging, and teaching for more than forty years with these musical materials, I have come to a different way of understanding them. When I share this with others, the usual response is, "I wish I had been taught chords and scales this way!"

Chords: Laying the groundwork

​Chords are the raw materials of harmony, while scales are the playgrounds of melody. Before going further, let's lay some groundwork.

Imagine you are asked to accompany someone singing a song that begins with a G-major chord and then moves to A minor. To make a simple and satisfying accompaniment, play the root of each chord in the bass with your left hand, and play the full chord with your right hand near middle C. Chords sound especially resonant and clear when played in that range of the piano.

​Before going any further, there is one other basic chord we must account for: the dominant 7th chord, or simply the "7th chord" for short. A seventh creates tension when added to a major chord because it "argues" with the third, making the entire chord restless. An easy way to create this common chord in an accompaniment position is to first think of the right hand's major triad, and then move the root of the chord DOWN a WHOLE STEP to play the seventh. You are now playing the seventh instead of the root with your thumb.

Beyond happy and sad

​While we often say that minor is "sad" and major is "happy," this way of thinking is too crude to be useful to composers. Here's why: Play the following measure fast, loud, and with lots of energy. Since it moves in such an energetic way, how can we characterize the chord as sad? How about full of purpose, not intimidated by obstacles, and driven to succeed in a troubled world?

And now, play this similar musical idea very slowly. Who could call this music "happy" with a straight face? The mood emitted by any chord depends upon many factors, including the pulse of the music (the heartbeat, the tempo), the dissonance, the dynamics, and the rhythms. It is not wise or even fair to characterize the complex nature of major and minor chords with just two rather crude emotional terms.

Adding a second to a major chord

​Suppose you feel the G-major chord is not "bright" or "sweet" enough to set the mood you want. What can you do? Rather than moving your right thumb down a whole step to a play a seventh, move it UP a WHOLE STEP to play the note a major second above the root. Now you are playing what is called a G(add2) chord. The addition of a second to a major chord intensifies its flavor, making it even more "majory"—sweeter and brighter.

Adding a second to a minor chord

What if you want to make the A-minor chord more "minory"? How can you make it darker? More sour or bitter? Oddly enough, add a second! The second is a "flavor enhancer" that makes major chords more "majory" and minor chords more "minory." In this case, the second "argues" with the third to generate intensity. To play Am(add2) in accompaniment position, do what you did with the major chord: move your right thumb UP a WHOLE STEP to play the second instead of the root.

Adding a seventh to a minor chord

​Sometimes a minor chord sounds too stark or wintery. Is there a way to warm it up and soften its edges? How can you make a minor chord more "majory"? Add a seventh. You can do this in the same way you added a seventh to the G-major chord on the previous page: move your right thumb DOWN a WHOLE STEP to play the seventh instead of the root. Notice that the top three notes of the Am7 chord (G, C, and E) are the notes of a C-major chord. That's why this A-minor chord now sounds more "majory"—softer, sweeter.

Adding a major seventh to a major chord

​Suppose you want the G-major chord to sound less bright and pure. How do you make it more "minory"? Well, in this case, you move your right thumb DOWN a HALF STEP to play the note that is a major seventh above the root. (In all other situations we have moved the thumb a WHOLE STEP away from the root.) Notice that the top three notes of this chord (F-sharp, B, and D) make a B minor chord (that's why this chord sounds "minory") while the G in the bass clearly makes it a G chord. The clash between the F-sharp and the G generates dissonance. Oddly, by adding the interval of a major seventh to a major chord, we make a major chord sound more "minory"

​The composer's chord palette

​Now, instead of two chords (major and minor), we have a "palette" of six chords we can "paint" with at any time. There are many other options (for example, adding sixths), but this is a fine start.

​    Remember that the added second is an amplifier, making a chord more of itself and intensifying its character. Adding the appropriate seventh turns a chord into more of its opposite and diversifies its character.

​Scales: Laying the groundwork

​Most of our music is made out of major scales and minor scales. Let's move beyond this simple polarity to a deliciously complex world where other exotic scales live, some of which were once far more popular than the major scale. Fortunately, these neglected scales have made a comeback in modern times. Let's explore the "modes," a word fittingly similar to the word "moods."

Here are the six modes on white keys. The bass note—the tone sounding in the bass—changes the mood of the tones sounding above it. As you may know, the Ionian mode is now called a major scale, while the Aeolian mode is now called "minor" or "natural minor." We will not consider the mode built on B (Locrian), since it is rarely heard from.

​Many people have a hard time remembering those strange Greek names, or understanding how they are related to one another, or how to play them easily in other keys. Here's a way of thinking about them that has proven very helpful, especially for anyone interested in composing and improvising.

The major family of modes

​When you raise the fourth note of any major scale a half step, you instantly create a Lydian mode, a brighter shade of major. I often compare Lydian to the season of spring. Note how the C Lydian scale has the same sequence of half steps and whole steps as the F Lydian scale shown previously.

​What if you want to create a darker shade of major? Lower the seventh tone of any major (Ionian) scale a half step to create a Mixolydian mode. I sometimes compare this mode to late summer and Ionian to early summer. Note how this C Mixolydian scale is like G Mixolydian shown previously.

​These three modes (Lydian, Ionian, and Mixolydian) all have a major third, so a major chord can be constructed by playing the first, third, and fifth notes of the scale.

​I call these modes members of the Major Family of Modes. In this family, there are three different shades of major: Lydian is a brighter bright, Ionian is bright, while Mixolydian is a darker bright. When I am in a buoyant, light mood, my hands gravitate toward A Lydian or A-flat Lydian (my favorite keys). At other times, a major scale just won't do, and I improvise in Mixolydian.

The minor family of modes

​The other three modes (Dorian, Aeolian, and Phrygian) all have a minor third, so the first, third, and fifth notes together make a minor triad. I call these modes members of the Minor Family of Modes.

Is there a brighter shade of a minor (Aeolian) scale? Yes, we can make it more "majory" by raising the sixth note of the scale a half step to make a Dorian mode. To me, Dorian is often the mode (mood) of autumn. Note how the A Dorian mode has the same sequence of half and whole steps as D Dorian shown previously.

​What if we want to make the minor scale (Aeolian) even darker, more "minory"? In this case, lower the second note a half step to make a Phrygian mode. To me, Phrygian often sounds frigid. I hear it as the mode of winter. Besides seasons, you can think of these modes in terms of colors, spices, emotions, textures, smells, or whatever!

​Now we have a Minor Family of Modes having three different shades: Dorian (brighter dark), Aeolian (dark), and Phrygian (darker dark).

The composer's scale palette

​When these two families of modes are put together, we have a palette of six different scales to "paint" with. Just as we did with chords, we started with major and minor, but ended up with six options. Remember: if you know your major and natural minor scales, then a mode is always just a half step away!

I hope you enjoy creating melodies with this broad palette of scales and also accompaniments with the equally broad palette of chords. I also hope you never again feel confined within a narrow major-minor world because there is a rainbow of colors and hues waiting for you!

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