What Are the Differences Between Major and Minor Scales

Major and Minor Emotions of Happy and Sad

When I listen to “don’t worry, be happy” by Bobby McFerrin I can’t help but smile as I hear his expert whistling and light hearted “doot, doots.” When I listen to “Hello” by Adele I can’t help but feel the anguish of missing someone you love as she belts “Hello from the other side.” 

But what makes some songs cheerful, and others tearful? Arguably, the scale a song uses determines the emotional texture more than any other aspect. While there are many types of scales, in this article describes the differences between major and minor scales. It covers major vs minor scale construction (theory), hearing the difference between them (auditory), and the scientific basis for emotional associations of each.

For a short answer to the question: the difference between major and minor scales is the 3rd, 6th and 7th notes which are often a half step lower in a minor scale compared to a major scale. Another big difference is that minor scales tend to evoke negative emotions while major scales tend to evoke positive emotions.

Constructing Major vs Minor Scales (Theory)

Major Scale Formula

This should be review, but a half step is the distance from one key to the very next. So from D to D♯ is a half step. A whole step is the distance from one key to a key two half steps higher or lower. So from D to E is a whole step because it skips D♯.

Whole Step and Half Step Explained

Now consider a C major scale, which is all the “natural” notes or C D E F G A B C. Consider where the whole steps and half steps land. It creates the formula for a major scale which is “W W H W W W H”

C Major and Scale Formula

Now you can take any starting note on the piano and construct the corresponding major scale. 

Minor Scale Formula

For each major scale there is a corresponding minor scale that uses the same notes known as its relative minor scale. The starting note of a relative minor scale is 3 half steps lower than the major scale. So the relative minor scale of C Major is A minor and the notes are A B C D E F G A.

Now we can make a formula for the minor scale.

A Minor Scale and Formula

So now you have the ability to take any starting note and make a major or minor scale. In the long run intermediate and advanced musicians will know all 12 major and 12 minor scales on their instrument.

For comparison, here are the two major and minor scale formulas. 

Major vs Minor Scale Formulas

Notice that the same sequence of whole and half notes are used, but with a different starting point. In other words, if you took the final red “W H” of the major scale formula (below) and placed it at the beginning you would have the minor scale formula.

Major vs Minor Formula Similarities

But we aren’t yet done describing the difference between the major and minor scales. The formula above just describes a scale known as the natural minor scale. Let’s dive into all the minor scale terminology, this includes relative minor, parallel minor, natural minor, harmonic minor and melodic minor. 

All Types of Minor Scales

Relative Minor Scale

We already learned about relative minor scales which start 3 half steps below its relative major scaleso C minor is the relative minor scale of E♭ major. The E♭ major scale includes the notes E♭ F G A♭ B♭ C D E♭, so the C minor scale is C D E♭ F G A♭ B♭ C. 

Parallel Minor Scale

The minor scale that starts on the same note as a major scale is known as its parallel minor scale; so the parallel minor scale of C major is C minor. 

Natural Minor Scale

There are three types of minor scales left, the natural, harmonic, and melodic minor scales. Terminology can get confusing at this point, so understand that:

  • Any C minor scale (natural, harmonic, or melodic) is a relative minor scale of E♭ major
  • Any C minor scale (natural, harmonic, or melodic) is a parallel minor scale of C major

So far we have only worked with natural minor scales; they always follow the “W H W W H W W” formula. 

There is another way to discover the natural minor scale. Start by numbering the notes in a major scale 1 – 7, where 1 corresponds to the first note of the scale, 2 to the second etc; these numbers are known as the scale degree.

C Major Scale with Scale Degrees

One way to arrive at the natural minor scale is to lower the 3rd, 6th, and 7th scale degrees. As expected the result is a scale that follows the W H W W H W W Minor formula that we already learned.

C Natural Minor with Scale Degrees

While this scale does create a minor, or melancholy and sad tonality, the flattened seventh scale degree causes some issues. 

In a major scale the 7th scale degree (B) is a half step away from the 1st scale degree (C). Half steps are more tense than whole steps. So when the 7th (B) of a major scale moves to the 1st (C) it creates a strong sense of resolution. By using a ♭7 that sense of resolution decreases, and with it the music is less grounded to the first scale degree. 

Harmonic Minor Scale

The solution is to create a minor scale with a natural 7th scale degree. This is the Harmonic Minor Scale shown below. 

Harmonic Minor with Scale Degrees

So why not just use the harmonic minor scale all the time? Several reasons:

  1. Some chords available in natural minor are not available in harmonic minor.
  2. There is an awkward leap of three half steps between A♭ and B.

Melodic Minor Scale

To combat the second issue, composers sometimes turn the ♭6 back into a natural 6 and we have the melodic minor scale.

C Melodic Minor with Scale Degrees

In the end, these three minor scales are used in minor keyed songs/pieces fluidly depending on the mood the composer is trying to invoke. Note that all have a ♭3, the most important note in creating a minor tonality.

These comments are based on this Michael News excellent youtube video on minor scales. At 1:56 seconds he discusses the need for more scales than just the natural minor scale; he provides auditory examples that are helpful in improving understanding.

Major vs. Minor Auditory Examples

Typically you can tell a piece primarily uses a major scale if it makes you feel happy, and primarily uses a minor scale if it makes you feel sad.

Pharrel Williams’s “Happy” is the perfect example of a song in a major key. (He actually uses a major scale with a ♭7)

Adele’s “Fire to the Rain” is the perfect example of a sad song written in a minor key.

The Major = Happy, Minor = Sad isn’t always a good way to distinguish since there is an immense range of emotions music conveys. I find the following pieces more difficult to place; do you think they are predominantly major or minor?

The Wailin’ Jennys’ rendition of “Parting glass” is slow, with tight harmonies, and poetic lyrics about parting from earth. It pulls on the heart, with a deep, somber sound. Yet it is written in a major key (although it ends on a minor chord).

To me the start of Saint-Saën’s Aquarium from “Carnival of the Animals” is eerie but also sounds exciting, kinda like the start of a Pixar movie. This one is written in a minor key, but has surprising major chords interspersed throughout which I think adds the excitement and ambiguity. 

Scientific Basis For Major and Minor

Some individuals of the Mafa population of north western Africa are unfamiliar with western music. However, in one study, they were able to recognize western music as happy, sad, or scarry/fearful. This suggests that aspects of our music innately invoke certain emotions. So why is major so associated with positive emotions and minor associated with negative emotions. Here are some theories:

  • Cultural conditioning. Pieces used at celebrations, like the happy birthday song, are written in major keys. While songs used at sad events, like funerals are often written in minor keys.
  • Alignment with notes in the harmonic series. Every time you play a note on the piano, pitches resonate above it. These pitches are known as the harmonic series. The notes of a major chord all come from within the first and loudest pitches of the harmonic series. The notes of a minor chord don’t, but contain similar harmonic ratios. Some argue that because of this it creates a “not quite right” sound similar to the “not quite right-ness” of cubism. Not sure if I buy the idea, but here is the full text.
A Cubism Painting of an Anxious Woman
Cubism often creates disorienting and distorted images that look “not quite right”.

Conclusion

Understanding the difference between major and minor scales is the first step towards understanding the concepts of major and minor and the role they play in the musical affect of a piece. Now, you should understand not only the difference between major and minor, but also the different types minor scales, and a scientific basis for the connection between major as happy, and minor as sad.

The next step in you musically journey could be:

  • Learning all 24 major and minor scales
  • Improvising over major and minor scales (single or two hands)
  • Learning major and minor arpeggios and chords

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