'Our two ancient tonalities from one group of pitches ~

~ creates the balance of emotions to tell our stories ...'

~ MAJOR ~

~ major 3rd 6th 7th ~

~ MINOR ~

~ minor 3rd 6th 7th ~

C natural major ~ Ionian mode

3 ~ 2 black key pattern relative key centers of identical pitches

A natural minor ~ Aeolian mode

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1
1
1/2
1
1
1/2
1
C
D
E
F
G
A
B
C

what's not to love ... :)

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1
1/2
1
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1/2
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1
A
B
C
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G
A

In a nutshell. Our tasking in the following discussions is to simply learn to recognize the essential sound difference between anthing we designate as major or minor; so scales, arpeggios, chords, intervals and tonalities etc. Understand the theory that creates the major or minor difference and then begin to explore how we can create a compositional balance with melodies, arpeggios, chords etc., when generated diatonically from our core group of pitches; the relative major / minor scale. For from this one group's potentials we create the vast majority of the Americana musics we love.

Americana musics

Overview: Now that we have created a basis of our musical pitch resource including its origins and perfect looping closure, let's pause a bit and sure up the theory and sounds of major and minor, our two primary musical colors. For from this point forward in our theory discussions throughout, nearly everything discussed will be defined as either being major or minor.

Generally speaking, it's not that hard to learn to hear the difference between major and minor, for we've been hearing these two sounds in music all of our lives. It's more like recognizing a familiar friend we've known all along. And while it might take a few tries, it'll surely happen with persistence. Once we can hear and understand the pitch theory of this difference, we'll probably know it forever and tons of other cool and potentially essential ideas will not only fall into place, but probably stay put too, as our intellectual foundation solidifies itself around these two core musical colors.

So give it a try. For the emerging theorist, can you distinguish between our major and minor triads sounds by ear? Click on the following icons and see if you can. Example 1.

#1
#2
#3
#4

Answers. Hold up to mirror :) ronim / rojam / rojam / ronim.

Well how did you do? Get a few? Get them all? Miss them all? Miss them all but in reverse? Try them again? Keep trying and by the close of this discussion I predict you'll be on the road to major / minor aural perfection!

 

We theorists often strive to be able to hear and understand the underlying theory of the pitches involved in the music we are listening to. As players, knowing what we are hearing plays a rather large role in jamming and in improvising musical lines. Gradually we'll gain the ability to better understand the different combinations and configurations of similar elements provided by equal temper tuning as we morph through our musical styles. Surely where there's a will there's a way.

This idea of reconfiguring the exact same musical elements into different musical styles lives right at the core Essentials philosophy of becoming a modern guitarist. Distinguishing between major and minor is simply a giant first step in our continuing evolutions.

The following discussions. In the discussions that follow, we'll use a melody from the late 16 century to provide us with a lovely and timeless song to examine the balancing of the major and minor tonal colors within one song. Actually, it'll be minor first then into major as the tune unfolds.

Every picture tells a story. We can think of these major and minor colors as creating the two core emotional environments that we so often balance in creating our compositions. Thus, we can draw a comparison to the yin / yang, the ever expanding and contracting energies of our local universe. Perhaps you've seen this symbol representation of the duality? If not then chalk up yet another first here at Essentials! I wonder how far back in our earthly people history this symbol goes?

wiki ~ "Every Picture Tells A Story"
wiki ~ yin / yang
yin / yang
major / minor

Into the wayback machine. This next musical idea goes wayback to the later 1500's to locate probably what was the top 40 hit of late16th century London. Luckily for us "Greensleeves" has not only survived but has thrived, especially during the winter holidays, and still today is an inspirational and joyous song to so many of us.

About "Greensleeves." As musicians we can dig a most poignant melody line to interpret. As theorists we marvel at the balance of two distinct melodic phrases that aurally bring to life the passion of the words, one each in of our yin/yang ~ major/minor pairing. Know this tune? Oh, not yet? Surely a good time to learn another classic line. Cool with the metrics of 3/4 time and how it all works? Which of the two phrases is toned towards minor? Major? Example 1.

Well? Which phrase is which? Those in the know will know that the first phrase is in the minor tonality. The second phrase, starting at measure 10, is in the major tonality with the sounding of the D major chord. The music then cycles downward diatonically before closing in measure 16 back in E minor. Google up 60's guitarist Wes Montgomery / Greensleeves / to hear the 16th century melodic magic of Greensleeves come right back to life a couple of hundred years later.

17 bars? Why is this arrangement 17 bars? Isn't just about everything a four bar phrase? It sure is. Not much that isn't once we get into the folk styles and grow it all up from there. Turns out the measure numbers in the chart are goofed up because of the pickup measure. Anacrusis is the legit term and it is very common.

That the melody starts on the tonic pitch, E of E minor, on the 'and of three' of the pickup measure. This gives the line its magic of forward motion. Without the pickup measure, the four / four bar phrases rules the day even when that day was 400 years or so ago.

Melody and chords of "Greensleeves." Let's look at the first couple of bars of the tune and see what we have there. One sharp in the key signature puts us in E minor / G major. Example 2.

With the eighth note pickup of our root pitch E, we leap a minor third to the pitch G, as the lead voice of an E minor triad. Our phrase continues toward the second full measure where on beat one we find the D major triad. So in just two measures we get both the major and minor tonalities. Is this uncommon? Nope, just simple diatonic chord progressions.

In all of our music, it is what it is. That whatever musical components we need to get our ideas across is fine. Some chord / melody arrangements use a chord voicing for every melody note. Some pepper in the changes as in the above arrangement. It's all good.

Analyze the pitches. So let's look at the E minor chord first and see what makes it tick. The following chart starts with the 12 pitches of the chromatic scale. Then from this group of 12 we extract the seven pitches we need to make up the E natural minor scale. These of course are the core pitches used to compose Greensleeves. We then locate the pitches of the three pitch E minor diatonic triad. Example 2a.

chromatic scale
E
F
F#
G
G#
A
A#
B
C
C#
D
D#
E
natural minor scale degrees
1
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2
3
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4
5
6
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7
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8
E natural minor pitches
E
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F#
G
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A
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B
C
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D
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E
E minor triad
E
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G
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.
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B
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Triads. Triads live at the core of all we do as American musicians. As its name implies, triads are simply three pitches that form a super solid building block for music. We hear them a lot in creating melodies. We stack the three pitches one atop another and sound them together make our chords.

triad melodies
chords

Root and fifth. The root and the fifth of the triad, which in this case are the pitches E and B, are always the same regardless of whether the chord is major or minor. So that leaves the third of the scale or chord, in this case the pitch G, to determine the major or minor quality of our triads. So we need to determine the quality of the third. Is it a major third or minor third? Well, let's let our ears decide. Example 2b.

Easy do? So which is which then mon ami? Looks like the third in the second bar is a wee bit bigger than the first, what with the # / sharp raising the G up a half step to G#. Does this wee bit 'majorize' the interval by raising it a half step? It sure does. And the chords in the third and fourth bars?

Turns out the sounds of measures one and three are minor thirds and the pitches / chords in two and four are major. Is that what you came up with? Cool. It's all very straightforward for sure but a crucial bit of information that will influence lots if not all of our musical decisions.

Here are two essential open chords expanding a bit on the above chord voicings. These shapes are very common in lots of the American sounds; folk, blues / rockabilly and beyond. Singer / songwriter Johnny Cash loved these chords, open, tuned down a step or with a capo. The open E major chord below included creates Mr. Cash's classic "I hear the train a comin ..." sound. Example 2c.

Look familiar? Cool. If not then maybe get'em right now. These two voicings are oftentimes among the first chords we learn when first starting out with the guitar. We can fit them into lots of styles. There are a couple of easy hammer-on's between the two, especially when hammer-on / adding the major third from the minor. A very common blues lick.

This basic shape, of which we have a minor and major version as shown just above, handily transforms into a barre chord, those movable chunks of harmony beloved by the 70's cats and onward of the blues / rock / Southern and folk rock / West Coast jamm et al. Doesn't the barre finger take the place of the capo in moving things around? Sure does.

Quick review. So in our three note chords, which we also call triads, the root and fifth of either the major and minor triads are always the same. It is the third of the chord, and its interval distance measured from the root pitch, which determines the major or minor sonority of the chord. This is a set in stone rule for major and minor triads. It has been this way kind of forever. Once the equal temper tuning came into vogue, we then could project this basic theory from each of the 12 pitches of the chromatic scale on one instrument. The piano? Yep.

Once the equal temper tuning came into vogue, we then could project this basic theory perfectly (?) from each of the 12 pitches of the chromatic scale on one instrument. The piano? Yep the piano but that was in 1700. Before that? Ah yes before that some cats had the 'rule of 18' to guide their building to create tune-able chords in multiple keys in one instrument. The lute? Perhaps :)

equal temper tuning
the piano
rule of 18
the lute

But I digress, yet again ... forgive me but as theorists we can clear up a ton of the evolution of all our musics by having a basic knowledge of the way we've tuned the pitches as the last 30 millenia or so have passed. Any major tuning issues in today's Americana musics? Well ... there is the 'blues rub' yes?

blues rub

So is it the third scale degree which determines the major or minor quality of scales and arpeggios too? Is it the 'third of anything' musical that determines major or minor? "Tis is indeed and this never ever ever varies :)

The flip side. Can we reverse this process and make a major chord minor by lowering its third by half step? Let's examine the D major chord from the above idea, hear its sound, examine its pitches and flip it from major to minor. Here again is the first phrase of Greensleeves.

The D major chord is in the third measure. I went ahead and added a 'courtesy' accidental to the music in notating the chord. Of course this accidental lives in the key signature and thus will apply to all F's in the music but just to be thorough and superclear for this example, it's shown on the chord too. Example 3.

Analyze the pitches. Let's recreate the same diatonic pitch / chord spelling process as above but now looking at the D major triad. Again the following chart starts with the 12 pitches of the chromatic scale but this time using the pitch D for our starting point. Then from this group of 12 we extract the seven pitches we need to make up the D major scale. We then locate the three pitches D major triad, root, three and five. Example 3a.

chromatic scale
D
D#
E
F
F#
G
G#
A
A#
B
C
C#
D
major scale degrees
1
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2
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4
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5
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D major scale pitches
D
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E
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G
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A
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B
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C#
D
D major triad
D
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F#
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A
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Easy enough huh? We see again that by simply skipping every other note of the stepwise major scale the triad pitches emerges. Is this how arpeggios come to life? Simply by skipping every other pitch of the scale? Tis' indeed the process. Any scale evolves into its arpeggio through this process.

So if raising the third of the minor triad by half step makes it major, then lowering the major third by half step must make it minor? Absolutely and forevermore. Here are the pitches. Example 3b.

major scale degrees
1
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2
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3
4
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5
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6
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7
8
D major scale pitches
D
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E
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F#
G
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A
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B
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C#
D
D major triad
D
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F#
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A
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D minor triad
D
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F
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A
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Root and fifth. Again we see how the root and the fifth of the chord are the constants in our triads. The third is the decider of major or minor. Did you notice that the F natural of the D minor triad is not part of the D major scale? Cool. If we found one of these F natural in the music we'd call this a non-diatonic pitch.

In pure theory thinking, we'd have borrowed this pitch from another key to make the chord. And depending on the musical style, this borrowing or negotiating of the pitches is what we do all the time. In this next example, hear the sound of the above major / minor transition from D major to D minor, using common open chord guitar voicings. Example 3c.

Hearing these major / minor sounds? While seemingly a simple distinction, not only is it tricky at first but as you progress, you'll discover ways to add additional colors, disguise the transitions between the two and improvise using one over the other and vice versa. We simply must have this starting point.

About style. In all of our American musical sounds and styles; from old time children's songs to the modern to be created tomorrow, these two musical 'sound colors' of major and minor form the essential basis of our music. Of course there is music that is not major / minor based, but we almost never hear it on the radio, in clubs or even the concert halls. If we do, we are usually forewarned somewhere in the advertising of the event that some sort of new 'avant garde' music will be performed and thus expressly not to be missed.

modern

And of course when we hear these new sounds, the 12 tone concept of tone rows for example, slipped in between major / minor tonality based music in a conventional concert or gig program, it sounds cool, refreshing and interesting to many curious listeners. But as a staple for the majority, who also want to dance on their feet or with just tapping toes and fingers, or even just a bit of gyroscoping around in their heads, the major / minor compositional pairing is just way too deep in our collective American psyche to shake.

12 tone music
gig

Of course, being wildly successful in actually getting folks up to dance for the last couple of thousand years kind of seals the deal for our major / minor system. And for a good part of our Americana musical journey, dancing really is at the core of it all n'est-ce pas? So all in all, the vast majority of our American melodies and harmony, in all styles combined, come from the spiritually uplifting and often overly joyous major / relative minor grouping of pitches. Theoretical coolness prevails in that each of these core colors are intertwined with one another. Like our double helix DNA? Maybe.

Americana
DNA

The family relatives of major and minor. Using the piano keyboard as our default, arguably the best physical representative of our system of music theory, its tuning and capabilities, we can easily coax forth both the relative C diatonic major and the A natural minor groups of pitches from the exact same keys. Example 4.

As time permits. As time and considerations permit, do locate these pitches at a keyboard and explore. We can clearly see the black key grouping pattern of two then three, which repeats over the range of the instrument, giving us yet another clue to the perfect closure of our equal temper tuning and all of the musical and theoretical magic contained within.

These pitches in action. In the following idea, we use the same pitches from the last idea to create two melodies. While not labeled in the music, can you hear which is major and which is minor? I included a hint in the music. Example 4a.

Hear the difference in the character of the two lines? How can the same pitches create both major and minor? Well, just as with the triads, it has to do with the interval distances between root and scale degrees. Examine the pitches. Example 4b.

scale degrees
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
relative major scale intervals
root
major 2nd
major 3rd
perfect 4th
perfect fifth
major 6th
major 7th
perfect octave
relative minor scale intervals
root
major 2nd
minor 3rd
perfect 4th
perfect fifth
minor 6th
minor 7th
perfect octave

All in the theory is in blue. Three, Six and Seven. All three are major intervals for creating the relative major and all three are minor intervals to create the minor. The remaining four intervals and pitches stay the same. This last bit of the discussion is the essential theory seam that knits together so much of the American sounds we love.

major 3rd
minor 3rd
major 6th
minor 6th
major 7th
minor 7th

Variations and non-diatonic additions? Endless, as seen in the lovely "Greensleeves" above, where three major triads descend in whole steps. For whatever the artist needs to tell their tale ... 'all is in play as they say ...' Now there's a hook for Ya :)

Can we project this theory from any of our twelve pitches? And aren't Three and Seven the intervals used to determine chord type? Yep on both accounts. That depending on the style of music we choose to create in good measure determines just how much of the resource we use. From the educational perspective and philosophy here at Essentials, knowing the scope of our resource is the catalyst to artistic evolution.

Cool? So if we can create loops from these two starting points, can we follow suit with the remaining five pitches too? Well of course we can, we do it all here. Do we have names for these seven groups from within this relative major / minor set of pitches? Of course we do, we have a name for everything theory here. Are we creating the modes here Jacmuse? Yep, these loops within a loop are the modes, those most ancient of all the ancient musical elements we might ever hope to obtain.

That's all for this chapter folks. So all good with the fundamental theory of our major and minor colors? That it is the third degree of our scales, arpeggios and chords that determine major and minor? Although a rather simple process, it can be tricky at first and of course we really need to be able to hear the difference between these two essential colors. Yet once we lock in the sound and are able to consistently recognize major and minor in the music we dig, we've surely elevated our understanding of our musical arts in a rather big way.

wiki ~ 'th th th that's all folks ... ' :)

A good way to start is probably with the music you love best and just try to figure out how major / minor is being woven together. Metalists are challenged here because their power chords often are usually only root and fifth, no major or minor determining third. So you'll probably have to use the melody. Blues cats end up considering the blues rub, where melody and harmony don't necessarily diatonically always line up. This is mostly about a minor 3rd blue note in the melody with a major 3rd in the supporting dominant chord. Folk, pop and jazz players probably have it the easiest as their music is so often based on cyclical chord progressions of major and minor triadic based harmony.

Another way to start is by reading through the numerous melodies of songs contained within this Essentials work, which are mostly major with a few in minor. As many of these melody lines are also classic American melodies, their familiarity should help in learning to read the notation as well as in developing the ability to play and interpret melodies by ear.

Advanced theorist. Already hip to the basis of our major and minors and looking to advance from this discussion... ? Empowered by knowing of the relationship between 'relative' major and minor, perhaps go on to explore the evolution of both major and minor groupings of pitches. Explore the major and minor qualities of the diatonic modes. Explore the three basic chord types; two major and one minor, or common diatonic chord progressions in both the major and minor tonal environments and on into chord substitutions. Beyond these there is always the major Lydian and minor Dorian connection at the #15 colortone.

What's next? We've now spent the first three theory discussions with the origin of our pitches and the closed system of architecture they create. In this last discussion we've examined the basic division of major and minor sounds that form the basis of so much of the American musics we love.

Our next theory discussion builds on this foundation to examine the various groupings of these pitches from which we create our melodic ideas. Titled 'groups of pitches', this discussion will again start with our core groupings and build up from there. And of course along the way we'll examine the various styles of Americana music most often created with each group of pitches.

'They who conquer others are strong, those who conquer themselves are mighty.'

Lao Tzu

'... be mighty.'

jacmuse

Footnotes:

(1) Appel, Willie and Ralph T. Daniel. The Harvard Brief Dictionary Of Music. New York: Pocket Books, a Simon and Schuster Division of Gulf and Western, 1960

(2) Ottman, Robert. Elementary Harmony, Second Edition, p. 4-7. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

(3) Isacoff, Stuart. Temperament ... The Idea That Solved Music's Greatest Riddle, p. 210. U.S.A. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 2001

(4) To find "middle C", sit at the middle of the piano, extend your arms outward to touch the furthest keys you can, then bend from the waist and bring your nose to gently touch the keys. The closest "C" is probably "middle C."

(5) Ottman, Robert. Advanced Harmony, Theory and Practice, Second Edition, p. 272- 298. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

(6) Ottman, Robert. Elementary Harmony, Second Edition, p. 8. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

(Y) Visit YouTube to see Johnny working his magic. In most of the clips his guitar is capo'd at the first fret or he's tuned up his ax a half step to better match his voice I'd imagine. Either way the chord voicing for "Folsom Prison Blues" is the open E as in example 2c above. The character of the tune to experienced ears, especially that bass lick moving south at the end of the phrase is clearly an open E major chord. And while there are often other ways to find the same pitches on the guitar, although that is not the case here, when we hear such a character sound as "Folsom Prison Blues", we know that there is only one way to get that sound. No other E major chord rings like the open chord E major, it's just the nature of the animal.

Suggestions for songs. Man anything with the big 4 is a place to start. There's a dozen or so included in songs.

songs
folk "Greensleeves"
blues  
rock  
country  
pop  
jazz "Here's That Rainy Day"