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The easy guide to music theory: understanding minor scales

Major and minor scales are music’s Yin and Yang. Major scales convey a happy, cheerful mood, while minor scales are naturally darker and more sombre in character. These two opposites provide broad, contrasting brushstrokes with which composers can paint their tunes with the desired mood.

We're going to take you on a trip to the darker side, exploring how to construct and use the most fundamental type of minor scale - the natural minor scale - and its more inscrutable cousin, the harmonic minor scale. The third variation, the melodic minor scale, we'll cover at a later date.

There are two main methods for forming minor scales: the ‘definitive’ method and the ‘derivative’ method. The definitive method gives us a simple formula based on the pattern of intervals between the notes in the scale: T-S-T-T-S-T-T (where T is a whole tone and S is a semitone). Once you know the pattern, you can apply it to any note to construct a minor scale with that note as the root (or tonic). It’s the same method as that used for working out major scales, just with different intervals.

The derivative method, meanwhile, is a way of converting any major scale into its minor equivalent simply by moving particular notes to different pitches. Once you’ve got the natural minor scale under your belt, the harmonic minor scale is only ever a step away.

Check out the video above to see and hear what the minor scale is all about.