Minor keys and their scales Part 1

Now that the subject of major keys and their scales has been covered, we can look at minor keys, how they relate to and differ from major keys, and  the structure of their scales.

Before we look at the structure of minor keys and their scales, it is vital that we hear how they differ in sound. Major keys are thought of as having a happy sound while minor keys sound sad. Although this is a very simplistic and subjective description, it’s a good start. The following two sound bites are the tonic¹ triads² of C major and C minor. The C major triad sounds brighter (“happy”), while the c minor triad sounds darker (“sad”).



The crucial note in these triads is the only one that changes and in doing so dramatically alters the sound of the triad. It is the middle note – the third step of the scale, also referred to as the mediant. In a major triad the mediant is an interval of a major third up from the tonic, and in the minor triad it is a minor third up. While this is not the only note that changes when we compare a major and minor scale with the same keynote, it is the first note to define whether the scale is major or minor.

¹ Tonic: the technical name for the first step of a scale, also known as the keynote
² Triad: a chord stacked in thirds (a tonic triad is made up of the first, the third and the fifth steps of a major or minor scale

Types of minor scales

Apart from the obvious difference in sound, minor keys differ from major keys in that they are more complex, and have three types of scales for each key as opposed to just one major scale for each key. The names of the scale types are natural minor, harmonic minor and melodic minor. All three of these scale types have an unmistakably minor sound, but each follows a different sequence of intervals. What they all share in common is the first five notes of the scale with that crucial minor third interval between the keynote and the mediant.

Natural minor scales

Using the key of a minor, which has no sharps or flats in its key signature, we’ll look at and listen to the natural minor scale first. The sequence of intervals is as follows:

Step 1 – 2 (a – b): whole tone

Step 2 – 3 (b – c): semitone

Step 3 – 4 (c – d): whole tone

Step 4 – 5 (d – e): whole tone

Step 5 – 6 (e – f) semitone

Step 6 – 7 (f – g) whole tone

Step 7 – 8 (g – a) whole tone

The natural minor scale is the oldest of our three minor scale types and is also referred to as the aeolian mode. The name is taken from the music theory of Ancient Greece, and was applied to this particular scale by the Swiss music theorist, Heinrich Glarean in the mid sixteenth century. A natural minor can also be thought of as the scale of C major started on the sixth step instead of the first. On the piano keyboard it uses only white notes, and looks like this:

It is worth mentioning at this point that every major scale has a related minor key which shares its key signature The relative minor keynote is always located an interval of a minor third down from the keynote of the major key (in other words, the sixth step of the major scale). Based on this and the fact that they share the same notes, it is easy to see that C major and A minor are related. Let us now observe and listen to the scale of a natural minor on the cello.

Major keys and their scales

I posted a similar article on keys in music some time ago, but since it is now buried under about two years’ worth of posts and several of my students have been in need of a study guide for major scales and keys with more focus on how they apply to the cello, here’s a new and improved version

Firstly, let’s define three important terms which often get confused and are therefore important to be distinguished from each other before exploring how they are related.

  1. Key: a family of notes which belong together and have a distinctive sound or “colour”. A key can be major or minor and is represented by a key signature (see definition 2). Every key has 7 individual notes which are represented in the scale (see definition 3) of the key.
  2. Key signature: a representation of the accidentals found in a key. These are shown at the start of each stave just after the clef and just before the time signature* and greatly reduce the number of accidentals that have to be shown in the main body of the score**. The order of accidentals in a key signature does not always follow the order in which they appear in the scale. Instead, they follow the order in which they appear from one scale to the next.
  3. Scale: a representation of the notes belonging to a key in ascending and/or descending order starting and ending on the key note (i.e. the letter name of the scale). A scale of one octave covers eight steps but since the first and eighth steps are the same note, there are only seven individual notes as mentioned in definition 1. There are 3 main types of scales: major (which represent major keys), harmonic minor and melodic minor (which represent minor keys). Each type follows a specific order of intervals***

* Times signatures, unlike clefs and key signatures, are only shown at the start of the first stave and do not appear again unless there is a change of time signature in the music

** Score: a written or notated representation of music

*** Interval: the pitch distance between 2 consecutive notes (e.g. C – D = a whole tone or major second; C – D-flat = a half tone or minor second)

The structure of Major Scales

All major scales – no matter what note they begin on – follow the same structure. They are made up of a sequence of whole tones and semitones as follows:

Step 1 – 2: whole tone

Step 2 – 3: whole tone

Step 3 – 4: semitone

Step 4 – 5: whole tone

Step 5 – 6: whole tone

Step 6 – 7: whole tone

Step 7 – 8: semitone

If we observe how the scale of C major is played on the piano, and then on the cello, we can actually see the difference between the whole tones and semitones. Let’s look at C major on the piano first:

The red notes indicate the notes played in the scale. Notice that no black notes are played (C major has no sharps or flats), and the whole tones are always between the white notes which have a black note between them. The semitones are between the white notes which do not have a black note between them.

Since the cello does not have a logical linear map of the notes like the piano keyboard has, a video is a better way to demonstrate how the scale of C major “looks” as well as sounds on the instrument. Pay attention to the semitones, which sound closer together and are physically closer together on the cello (in this scale played between the third and fourth fingers on both strings).

Key Signatures

Because the sequence of intervals must always remain the same, no two major scales will ever have an identical set of notes. All major scales except C major have one or more sharps or flats. These are shown in the key signature, which is found at the beginning of each stave. We use key signatures to show what sharps or flats will be present in the score without having to clutter the score itself with an accidental sign in front of each relevant note. For example, if a piece of music is in the key of D major, it will have an F-sharp and a C-sharp in the key signature. This means that whenever you encounter F or C in the score, you must remember that they are actually F-sharp or C-sharp. Why not just write the accidentals into the score? There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, a score with lots of accidentals in it is messy and harder to read. The more accidentals there are in the key, the messier the score would get. Secondly, it would make it much harder to recognise accidentals that don’t belong in the key. When the key signature is used, we recognise notes that don’t belong to the key straight away since they have accidentals in front of them while notes that belong to the key do not.

Key signatures never contain a combination of sharps and flats – only one or the other. With C major as a starting point, if we go a perfect fifth up (tone, tone, semitone, tone or seven semitones up), we find G. The key of G Major has one sharp in its key signature: F-sharp. From here, we go a perfect fifth up to find D. D major has two sharps: F-sharp (retained from the previous key) and C-sharp. A perfect fifth up from D takes us to A. The key of A major has three sharps: F-sharp, C-sharp and G-sharp. Are you beginning to see a pattern here? It’s called the circle of fifths. Not only do we find each new “sharp” key by going up a perfect fifth; the new sharp in each key signature is always a perfect fifth up from the previous new sharp. It is also worth noting that the new sharp in each key is always the seventh step of the scale. For “flat” keys, we return to C as our starting point and go down by a perfect fifth each time. Easy to remember: sharp=up, flat=down.

The following graphic shows keys and their key signatures, and should make sense if the above two paragraphs made sense.

Each major key has a related minor key which shares its key signature. But minor keys are a little more complex than major keys, and need to be covered in a post of their own.

Worksheets for Your Beginner Students

The following worksheets are designed to help your younger beginners associate notes belonging to the key of C major on the stave with notes on the fingerboard in first position. They combine music theory (learning to write neatly and accurately on the stave) with basic cello theory (learning the notes and fingering of first position). Each document is arranged in the order of an ascending C Major scale (2 octaves) – one page per note. By mixing up the pages you can make the worksheet more challenging. Kept in their current order they will be much easier to do, but a good way to introduce the C major scale.

These worksheets are free to download and print out, but please observe the copyright: no selling, no incorporating into other works or documents. Feedback welcome – especially from those who try them out!

© D C Cello Studio

Simple and Effective Warm-up Exercises

My regular readers may recall my previous post on warming up. Whether you’ve read it or not, I’ll not be repeating myself, except to remind you of the importance of warming up before you launch into your practice session. It makes no difference what level of playing you’ve achieved – warming up is about being kind to your body and ensuring healthy playing habits. The following exercises were devised for some of my students whose practising habits needed improvement. The students in question are at very different stages in their technical development, but the exercises have made a noticeable difference to all of them. For anyone who is either unconvinced of the importance of warming up, or uncertain of how to, these exercises are for you.  What you will come to realise is that not only do they make a difference to the comfort and success of each practice session; they make a difference to your overall progress. No matter where you are in your technical and musical journey, you will always benefit from revisiting basic technical cornerstones: bow control, string crossing, left hand stability, and agility. If you’re new to doing more than a cursory scale or two to warm up, try these and keep a diary to monitor the difference they make. Not over a few days or a week, but over several months or a year.

At least two of the following warm-ups (one for left hand, one for bow) should be done at the start of every practice session. Rotate them to ensure that all are covered.

1.  Open String Bowing

Set the metronome to 100. On each string play the following:

i.    4 bows with 8 ticks per bow

ii.    4 bows with 12 ticks per bow

iii.    4 bows with 9 ticks per bow

iv.    4 bows with 6 ticks per bow

Points to remember:

  • Bow hold: always check before you start. Relaxed, soft hand; no pressing with the thumb; use the WHOLE arm from shoulder blade to fingertip.
  • On the string: 90˚ angle between the string and the bow AT ALL TIMES; always halfway between the bridge and the fingerboard.
  • Don’t change the speed or weight while bowing – keep the sound as EVEN as possible.
  • Do you like the sound? If not, why not? Always aim to make the very best sound you can.

2.  Left Hand Pizzicato

Set the metronome to 120. On each string, pluck with the left hand fingers one finger at a time, one metronome tick per pluck in the following orders:

 i.       1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th

ii.       4th 3rd, 2nd, 1st

 iii.       1st, 3rd, 2nd, 4th

 iv.       4th, 2nd, 3rd, 1st

Points to remember:

  • Keep the left hand in exactly the same position you would if you were playing in first position – fingers curved and spaced away from each other; thumb RELAXED and only touching the neck.
  • Keep the thumb touching the neck when the finger pulls away from the string – the left hand must remain stable and in the same place throughout the exercise.
  • Keep the sound of each pizzicato even and clean; avoid bumping next-door strings.
  • Keep the tempo very stable. If 120  is too fast, try at a slower speed and gradually work your way up to 120.

3.  String Crossing (separate bows)

© DC Cello Studio

© DC Cello Studio

Points to remember:

  • All points from “Open String Bowing”
  • Use the whole bow for minims.
  • Use half the bow for crotchets. Practise the crotchet exercise in the LOWE HALF of the bow and the UPPER HALF of the bow.
  • Use around a quarter of the bow for the quavers and play towards the MIDDLE of the bow.
  • Adjust the bow when crossing strings so that you always maintain a 90˚ angle.
  • Turn your whole upper body around from the hips to get to the A string. DON’T lift the right shoulder.

4.  Finger Press-ups

i.  Sit at a table or desk with a good cello posture

ii.  Place your left hand flat on the table directly in front of you with your fingers a small distance apart from each other (just like they would be in first position on the cello), keeping your arm heavy and completely relaxed

iii. Very slowly begin curving your fingers so the fleshy tips are on the table

iv. Keeping your shoulder relaxed and down and your fingers curved with the tips on the table, slowly lift your hand and arm so that you can feel the weight of your arm being transferred into the fleshy tips of your first, second, third and fourth fingers. Your thumb should be relaxed and gently touching the table.

v. Transfer the weight of your arm from one finger to the next beginning with the first finger and finishing with the fourth finger.

vi. Relax and flatten the hand again

vii. Repeat the exercise several times; imagining the cello string being trapped underneath the fingers each time the arm is raised.

Points to remember:

  • Maintain a true cello posture throughout the exercise: sit tall, keep your head on top of your body, and keep shoulders completely relaxed.
  • Left hand fingers must remain curved and FIRM but NOT STIFF – imagine holding a raw egg in your hand.
  • Keep your feet flat on the floor underneath your knees. Do not pull your heels off the floor, or your feet underneath the chair.

5.  String Crossing (with slurs)

© DC Cello Studio

© DC Cello Studio

© DC Cello Studio

Points to remember:

  • All points from “Open String Bowing” and “String Crossing (separate bows)”
  • Slurs must be LEGATO and CLEAN (i.e. very smooth string crossing with no scratches or “holes” in the sound)

6.  Left Hand Agility

© DC Cello Studio

 Points to remember:

  • Curved fingers falling down from the top knuckle
  • Thumb: relaxed, touching the neck, NO PRESSING
  • Straight line from hand to elbow – no bend in the wrist
  • Stable unmoving hand – only the fingers should move
  • Keep fingers OVER THE STRING at all times – no curling under the hand
  • Repeat these exercises on the D, G and C strings

© D C Cello Studio

Restart Cello: a New Cello Method by Deryn Cullen

I’m very excited to announce that a new cello album and method which I was approached to write and arrange last year is now in print and will be released on 31 March 2012.

The book is called Restart Cello, and is part of an instrumental series created by Wise Publications (part of the Music Sales Group) aimed at adults returning to their chosen instrument after a break of several years. As a teacher who has always welcomed and enjoyed teaching adult learners, I am passionate about developing teaching methods that are better suited to older novice and intermediate players, since most methods at this level are traditionally aimed at children.

As it is, there is somewhat of a shortage of cello methods better suited to older players. Those who took lessons during their childhood are always faced with an additional challenge: they know what they were previously capable of and often feel frustrated with no longer being able to play to the same standard. The Restart method takes into account that those using it are not complete beginners. They will almost certainly progress more rapidly than most beginners, and need to feel that they are making music from as early on as possible. Essentially, the book is a compilation of twelve specially selected and arranged pieces ordered from easiest to most challenging. Each piece is preceded by notes and exercises that carefully take into account the aspects of technique that need to be revisited when returning to the cello after a long break. To further enhance the music-making experience, there is an accompanying CD with beautiful renditions of each piece and accompaniments for the student to play along with. The chosen pieces cover a variety of styles and genres, which I hope players will find fun and enriching!

Restart Cello - Deryn Cullen

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© D C Cello Studio 2012