How to know if song is minor

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by tim99, Aug 22, 2003.

  1. tim99

    tim99 Supporting Member

    Jan 28, 2003
    I have learned lots of chord theory and understand major diatonic harmony, the I ii iii IV V vi stuff, and while a song is playing I am able to get all the notes of the song under my fingers by ear, but...

    I do not know how to determine if the song is major or minor.

    Ok, if you play a major C or minor A scale, the notes are the same. If you play a major pentatonic C scale or a minor pentatonic A scale the notes are the same.

    Taking my example of major C, I would expect to see CM, Dm, FM, G7, and Am chords in a basic major key song. What chords would I expect to see in a A minor key song? And how would I tell if a song is major or minor?


  2. moley


    Sep 5, 2002
    Hampshire, UK
    I think it's really a matter of what feels/sounds like the root - what feels like the home key, if you know what I mean? Don't just look at which chords it uses, but look at which one it seems to root itself on, if that makes any sense.

    Sometimes it is ambigous. In some cases it's difficult to say whether a song is in C Major or A Minor.

    However one good clue about it being in A Minor is the presence of an E7 chord. That's not diatonic to C Major, but it is the dominant chord in A Minor, and resolves very strongly to A Minor.

    But don't assume that because it has an E7 chord that it must be in A Minor. A song in C could use E7 to modulate to A Minor, but you'd still say the song is in C.
  3. tim99

    tim99 Supporting Member

    Jan 28, 2003
    Hmmmm...No. I listen for the what the bass is playing. Even if I get a feeling of what the most "compeling" bass note is, I do not know if it is minor. The song It's Been Awhile by Staind, has the bass notes G#-B-A#-C#. But I have no idea if those chords are major or minor, have no idea what the key of the song is, and no idea if it is major or minor. And I do not want to pick up my guitar to figure out what the chords are.

    What do I need to learn to be able to figure out the key and the major/minorness? I would like to be able to do this on my bass by playing the bass notes and hearing the major/minorness of the chords. My ear training software has major and minor testing that I have been working with and I am not too good at. I think that if I get good at hearing major and minor and dominant chords, and you guys tell me the theory, I am on my way.

    This E7 rasies a good question maybe I should have asked.

    C major = CM7, Dm7, Em7, FM7, Gdom7, Am7, Bm7b5

    A minor = ?

    What are the Diatonic Harmony chords for a minor key?

    But of course the problem with this is that in lots of pop/rock/praise music I play, there are no dominant chords. I usually look for two major chords that are one note away and figure that they are the IV and V, and then look to see if the chord that should be the I is major.

  4. chardin


    Sep 18, 2000
    I'll take a stab at this. I'm sure someone else is better at it than I am. As a matter of fact, Jazzbo is! Check this out: Introduction to Scale and Chord Theory

    I don't think Jazzbo goes specifically into minor chords. As you know, the notes of the A minor scale are A B C D E F G. Take them 3 at a time:

    A C E => Am
    B D F => Bmb5
    C E G => C
    D F A => Dm
    E G B => Em
    F A C => F
    G B D => G

    Or 4 at a time:

    A C E G => Am7
    B D F A => Bm7b5
    C E G B => Cmaj7
    D F A C => Dm7
    E G B D => Em7
    F A C E => Fmaj7
    G B D F => G7

    As far as what chords to expect in an Am song, the i, iv, and v are a good starting point so you would have Am, Dm, Em. This would be similar to C F G in C major.

    Record yourself or get a friend to play these 3 minor chords on guitar or piano while you play some bass lines. Listen for the flatted third. Have your friend switch between major and minor chord progressions and get familiar with the sound.

    I hope this helps.

    Edit: Added 4 note chords.
  5. OldDawg


    Jul 4, 2003
    Los Angeles, CA
    Okay using the chords is a good indication of major or minor key, but how do you determine with melody alone?
  6. moley


    Sep 5, 2002
    Hampshire, UK
    That doesn't necessarily work, especially with rock music (unless it's a very simple 3 chord thing). The chord on the flat 7th is used a lot in rock (e.g. if you're in A, a G chord) - so you could well be in a situation where you have two major chords a tone apart, and the higher one is actually the root.
  7. moley


    Sep 5, 2002
    Hampshire, UK
    Whether it uses the minor 3rd or the major 3rd. E.g. if it's in C, does the melody use E or Eb? If it's a bluesy thing, however, it may use both, or it may be in a major key, but still use the minor 3rd instead of the major 3rd.

    The melody alone may not always be sufficient to determine the tonality.
  8. jondog


    Mar 14, 2002
    NYC metro area
    Minor is the sad sounding one.

    Major sounds happier.

    If people look at you funny when you play a major 3rd, the song is probably in a minor key.

    Learn the natural, melodic, and harmonic minor scales to help your ear to recognize minor tonality. Your pentatonic scales won't help much w/ this issue.
  9. Bryan R. Tyler

    Bryan R. Tyler TalkBass: Usurping My Practice Time Since 2002 Staff Member Administrator Gold Supporting Member

    May 3, 2002
    Y'know, this theory works out for me just about every time. I can usually catch on right away just by listening to the intervals. Like if there's a minor 2nd that ends on the root (or octave of the root), then it's good indicator that it's a major, melodic minor, or harmonic minor. Likewise, if there's a major 2nd that ends on the root (or octave of the root), it's a good indicator to me that it's minor. I unfortunately don't know much theory at all, but I've trained myself over the years to be able to catch the key and whether it's major or minor pretty quickly by listening to the intervals. I'm sure there's lots of exceptions to this, but it usually works for me.

    Oh, and if you're listening to Staind or similar bands, it's a pretty safe bet to assume minor most of the time.
  10. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    I don't really know this song - but another factor may be that a lot of rock music is not really in any particular key and if you have power chords for example, they are just ambiguous in this respect - not major or minor!
  11. Howard K

    Howard K

    Feb 14, 2002
    A song is minor if the tonic chord is minor.

    Well that's how I think of it anyhow, like moley said,

    "'s really a matter of what feels/sounds like the root - what feels like the home key..."

    A perfect example is Master Blaster by Stevie Wonder. The track is strictly diatonic in Eb Major - but the tonic is the C minor - the song itself is in a minor key.
  12. Howard K

    Howard K

    Feb 14, 2002
    True, the rock songs you speak of are rarely diatonic, but I believe you can usually attribute some sort of key centre to them. The fact that the chords have neglegable harmonic function (really just a root+5th bassline!) doesnt mean there isn't a tonic, of sorts.

    Also, thinking of some of the songs my rock bands play/have played they are often riff based - the power chord is used as a single note to play a riff (again like a bass line).

    I approach these songs modally, I'll learn the riff (pentatonic minor... grreat) , figure out what scale most closely resembles the riff and go from there.
  13. moley


    Sep 5, 2002
    Hampshire, UK
    It's not entirely diatonic to Eb Major - it uses F7 and G7.

    Unless you were just talking about the bass line, which, off the top of my head, is diatonic to Eb.

    But as you say, it's very definitely in C Minor.
  14. Howard K

    Howard K

    Feb 14, 2002
    Ah, I was going from just the bassline as it happens, intersting, ta
  15. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    You can't necessarily tell the key just from a bassline - if you have a bassline based mostly on roots and fifths (as many are), then it could be either major or minor depending on what the harmony instruments add.....
  16. Howard K

    Howard K

    Feb 14, 2002
    Really? You're kidding me?! I didnt know that!

    Sorry Bruce, but that did deserve a hefty dose of good ol' British sarcasm.