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.

Teaching Music: Calling versus Business

Today did not start well. I hadn’t even taken my first sip of tea before I noticed an unread text message on my phone from one of my new students. I knew what it was going to be about. Nonetheless, I opened it and was faced with a lengthy excuse for why she would not be able to make her lesson scheduled for 10 am. I felt the temperature of my blood threatening to reach boiling point, and decided not to reply until I had finished my first cup of tea. This was in the hope that I would feel less inclined to send a message that would make a sailor blush. There are further reasons for why I should react quite so explosively to a cancelled lesson, but they are not important or ultimately what this post is about.

You see, this particular irritation has happened in the middle of what I can only describe as a major reassessment of my role as a teacher and the business I am running. It highlights issues that private teachers (not only in the field of music) face the world over. This is only one of the many issues we wrestle with in our day-to-day professional lives. Other transgressions sure to raise my blood pressure include late or missed payments, failure to practise, and constantly changing what should be a regular lesson time. Some of these problems create financial discomfort, while others are frustrating to my pedagogical sensibilities. In other words, some students can be bad for business while others can be bad for our professional progress. Here I should point out that such students are always in the minority. The majority of people who make the investment in private lessons for themselves or their children do so out of a genuine desire to learn, or to enrich the educational and personal development of their children.

However, it only takes a few time-wasters to cause a disproportionate amount of frustration and stress. At the earlier stage of one’s career, the notion of terminating lessons is unthinkable unless it’s the student doing the terminating, and that’s never easy to accept. This was certainly my perspective when I was building my practice and really needed more students, not fewer. But thinking back, there was never a “problem” student who didn’t end up quitting their lessons within one year of starting. I might have saved myself a good deal of that frustration and stress if I had shown them the door as soon as I realised that they weren’t going to be long-term prospects. One of the reasons I never did (apart from the obvious fear of reducing my earnings) was the voice of my idealistic inner teacher, which told me I could inspire them to become committed cello students with persistence and the exploration of every possible avenue. I am pleased to say that I haven’t lost that nagging voice. I believe it is a very important aspect of what makes me a good teacher. Everyone who embarks on the journey of learning to play an instrument experiences periods of self doubt and despondency. At times like these they need a teacher who recognises what they’re experiencing and refuses to let their self doubt win. Fifteen years after giving my very first cello lesson I have learned to determine when to embrace the idealistic inner teacher voice and when to listen to my business head, which has taken some time to find its voice.

When I began teaching professionally my philosophy was that anyone – no matter what age, background or experience – could learn to play the cello if they really wanted to. Fifteen years later my philosophy remains the same, but I have learned that a person who decides to take cello lessons isn’t always a person who really wants to play the cello. I used to think that only young children who were forced into music lessons fell into that category. I have since learned that the most enthusiastic adult beginners can lose interest very quickly, and the most unwilling young beginners can turn into passionate players. You can never really tell from first impressions.

What I have also come to realise in my gradual epiphany, is that I am running a business which makes up a significant percentage of my overall income as a musician. That may sound like a feeble epiphany, since any freelance activity in which money is charged for a professional service is a business. But we musicians are not known for having business heads. We work in a nebulous, subjective and ever-changing industry which is notoriously difficult to succeed in. Qualifications, while often required depending on which avenue we choose, do not make us musicians in the way that they make doctors, accountants or lawyers. So we enter our field with gnawing doubt and uncertainty, never convinced we’re good enough to do what we do and always convinced that we shouldn’t charge too much for fear of being arrogant or simply being laughed out of the room. It takes a while to shake those feelings and some never do. But the sooner you realise that your students (the bad apples aside) keep coming back to their lessons because they have confidence in what you do, the better. When you realise that, you’ll realise that there is nothing wrong with telling people you’re good at what you do, and nothing wrong with expecting a certain level of commitment and respect from your students. If they have no respect for your business and the value of what you are doing for them, it is unlikely that they will have any respect for your expertise. Would a lawyer or an accountant take on such a client?

You might be wondering about the content of my reply to the hungover student. I told her to get well soon, and that I looked forward to hearing back from her on Wednesday. Does that negate everything I have just written? No. There has to be a certain amount of leeway. She has two strikes, but she has also shown real enthusiasm. She has only just begun and she knows exactly what my expectations are because I have explained them and given them to her (and every other student I teach) in writing. I still see in her the potential that I see in all of my new students. Should she strike again, she’ll have to find another teacher, and perhaps she’ll treat that teacher with a little more respect when she realises that we’re not mugs who were born yesterday. And she may turn out to be a very capable amateur musician under my guidance. I hope it’s the latter, but I’ve made peace with the fact that not every student who comes through my door will turn into a joyful story to add to my memoires.

© D C Cello Studio

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