Standard 3: The Minor Scale

Our objectives:

  • Create and analyze the minor 3rd interval
  • Find the relative minor for a given major scale (and the relative major for a given minor scale)
  • Write a natural minor scale starting on a given note
  • Write and identify minor key signatures

3.1 The Natural Minor Scale / Aeolian Mode

Remember how we derived the major scale? It consisted of two identical tetrachords (W-W-H) connected together by an additional Whole step.

Another scale with which you are likely very familiar is the minor scale. There are several different types of minor scales, but all of them include a special characteristic: the third note of the scale, when compared to the major scale, sounds a bit lower.

Here's the C major scale: (Press the "play" button on the upper-left hand corner to hear what it sounds like.)

And here's the c minor scale:

The above minor scale is the most frequently used form of the minor scale from the Common Practice period, and is also known as the aeolian mode or the natural minor scale. We will refer to this scale with either of these names.

3.2 The Minor 3rd

Before we look at scales, let's add one more interval to our discussion. Recall that we have already talked about the minor 2nd (one half step) and the major 2nd (two half steps). To help us find the notes of the minor scale, we'll also need to know how to find a minor 3rd. To find a minor 3rd above a given note:

  1. Start with the given note on the piano keyboard, and write down the note name (e.g. C).
  2. Using the musical alphabet, write down the letter name that is a third above the original note, counting the original as "1". (e.g. C - D - E)
  3. Go to the piano keyboard. Find the original note, and raise the pitch by three half steps.
  4. Describe this new pitch by using the letter name that is a third above the original note, using accidentals as necessary (e.g. E-flat).

Take a look at this exercise. Find the minor 3rd above the given note.

3.3 Relative Major, Relative Minor

Take a look at the key signature for the c minor scale above. It consists of 3 flats, and you'll notice that it is also the key signature for E-flat major. Since both C minor and E-flat major share the same key signature, they both use the same notes. We call these two scales "relatives" of each other:

  • c minor is the relative minor of E-flat major
  • E-flat major is the relative major of c minor

What is the relationship between these relatives? Notice that the tonic of a natural minor scale will always be a minor 3rd below the tonic of its relative major. We can use this information to find the notes of a minor scale by first finding its relative major. To do this:

  1. Write down the tonic of the minor scale that you would like to write. (e.g. "C" if you're looking the notes for c minor.)
  2. Find the minor 3rd above this note. This is the tonic of the relative major. (e.g. E-flat)
  3. Write out the notes of this major scale (e.g. E-flat) by using the interval pattern W-W-H-W-W-W-H.
  4. Re-write the notes of the scale by starting with the 6th scale degree (C) and ending with the 5th (also C). You have just written a natural minor scale!

By following the steps above, you'll see that the the natural minor scale consists of seven whole (W) and half (H) steps in the following succession: W - H - W - W - H - W - W.