What is a Minor Key? Unlocking Musical Emotions in Production

Discover the power of minor keys in your music. Explore emotional depth, enhance your audio engineering skills, and redefine your home studio production.

Ever wondered why some songs tug at your heartstrings more than others? Why do some melodies evoke mystery, dread, tension, and even hope? It’s the power of minor keys! While major scales set the stage for joy and brightness, minor keys are the mastermind behind the music that’s more emotional and evocative. Yes, you read it right! From the somber symphonies to the jubilant grooves of Santana’s “Oye Como Va,” minor keys are everywhere, shaping your musical experience in ways you might not have imagined!

What is a minor key? It’s a specific collection of notes that gives music its emotional undertone. Each minor key consists of seven notes that shape the mood of a composition, distinguishing it from its upbeat major counterparts

What is a minor key?

At the heart of it, a minor key is defined by a specific arrangement of notes. There are 12 minor keys in total, each composed of seven distinct notes. The unique quality of a minor key comes from the pitch difference between these notes. When played in ascending order, these notes form a scale that delivers that distinctive wistful and somber sound.

Image of a flat minor key signature. Source: pexels
Image of a flat minor key signature. Source: pexels

Take the example of C major and C minor natural scales. The C major scale has a bright and upbeat character, while the C minor scale takes on a more melancholy tone. Now, have you ever wondered why these two scales, despite having the same root note, evoke different emotions? It all comes down to the spacing between the notes, known as tones and semitones.

My favorite MIDI keyboard (at the moment):

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3

What is a minor key? Unlocking musical emotions in production | 717qmgla7zl. Ac sl1500 | audio apartment
My favorite MIDI keyboard (at the moment):

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3

I’m loving the AKAI MPK Mini MK3 for its compact design and the range of controls. It’s one of my essential tools. The velocity-sensitive keys and MPC-style pads are great for making beats, while the thumbstick and knobs give me precise control.

What are tones and semitones?

In Western music, the smallest interval is a semitone, which is the interval between two adjacent notes, say C and C♯. A whole tone, or simply a tone, comprises two semitones. For instance, C and D are separated by tone. If we compare the major and minor scales, we’ll notice that the sequence of tones and semitones differs, giving each scale its unique sound.

For major scales, the sequence is T-T-ST-T-T-T-ST, while for minor scales, it’s T-ST-T-T-ST-T-T. The third note in the scale, which is different in major and minor scales, plays a significant role in defining the mood of the scale.

How can you find a minor key from a major key?

If you’ve already dabbled with major keys, finding minor keys is going to be a breeze. The concept of relative keys connects major and minor keys, making it simple to convert from one to the other. Each major key has a relative minor, sharing the same key signature. The relative minor is found on the sixth scale degree of a major key, or three semitones down from its corresponding major key.

Knowing how to switch from a major to a relative minor key will allow you to manipulate the mood and vibe with just a few tweaks.

Imagine you’re playing on your keyboard in a home recording studio or producing music digitally, and you want to change the mood of your composition. Knowing how to switch from a major to a relative minor key will allow you to manipulate the mood and vibe with just a few tweaks.

For instance, the relative minor of C major is A minor. Try to find the relative minor of F♯ major. It’s fun, isn’t it? And remember, the more you practice this, the easier it’ll be for you to create and interpret music in your recording sessions!

How do minor keys interact with the circle of fifths?

The Circle of Fifths can be a reliable guide in finding all the notes within a certain minor key without having to count semitones and tones. On the circle, the outer ring represents major keys, the inner circle shows their relative minors, and the key signatures for each major-minor pair are shown adjacent to them.

Image of a person writing on sheet music pexels
Image of a person writing on sheet music pexels

For instance, if you’re composing a hauntingly beautiful melody in your home studio and want to figure out the pitches in C♯ minor, the Circle of Fifths will come to your rescue. It shows that C♯ minor has four accidentals: F♯, C♯, G♯, and D♯. So, the pitches for this key are C♯, D♯, E, F♯, G♯, A, and B. Handy, right?

How can you build minor scales?

Building minor scales doesn’t have to be intimidating, and knowing how to do it can unlock a whole new realm of creativity in your music production.

To build minor scales, we first need to recognize that there are three types of 7-note minor scales, each having its unique sound. But what they all share is the same tone-semitone pattern between the first five notes: T-ST-T-T. This pattern doesn’t change whether it’s an accidental-free A minor or the seven-sharp A♯ minor.

Here are some “do’s and don’ts” when building minor scales:

Do remember the tone-semitone patternDon’t forget to check the Circle of Fifths for key signatures
Do practice building scales oftenDon’t mix up the pattern of tones and semitones
Do understand the difference between natural, harmonic, and melodic minor scalesDon’t ignore the unique sound each type of minor scale brings
Do’s and don’ts when building minor scales

How do you build chords in minor keys?

Alright, we’ve conquered scales and the Circle of Fifths, so let’s move on to building chords in minor keys. Creating chords in minor keys can add depth and emotion to your music, whether you’re strumming an acoustic guitar or crafting a digital soundscape in your home studio.

Building chords in minor keys is like putting together pieces of a puzzle. Each note of the minor scale can become the root note of a chord. Starting from the root note, you skip a note, take the next one, skip another note, and take the next. This way, you’d end up with a three-note chord, also known as a triad.

For example, let’s create a triad starting from A in an A minor scale:

  1. A (the root note)
  2. Skip B, take C
  3. Skip D, take E

So, our A minor triad is A-C-E. It’s that simple! Now, let’s put on our Avenger’s hat (I mean, who doesn’t love superheroes?) and assemble all the chords in the A minor key:

  1. A minor: A-C-E
  2. B diminished: B-D-F
  3. C major: C-E-G
  4. D minor: D-F-A
  5. E minor: E-G-B
  6. F major: F-A-C
  7. G major: G-B-D

Now that you’ve assembled your team of chords, you’re ready to take on any musical challenge!

If you want even more great tips and information, check out the video below.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Before we wrap up, here are some questions I’ve often heard about this topic. Hopefully, these will cover any lingering curiosities you may have!

Can I use both major and minor keys in the same song?

Absolutely! In fact, it’s quite common in music for songs to shift between major and minor keys. This technique can add depth and variety to your composition, often resulting in a more interesting musical piece.

Does using a minor key make my song sound sad?

While minor keys are often associated with a more melancholic or somber tone, the emotion a song conveys isn’t dictated solely by its key. Elements like tempo, rhythm, and lyrics play a significant role in shaping the overall mood of a song too.

Are minor keys harder to play or compose in than major keys?

Not necessarily. It might initially seem more challenging due to the perceived complexity, but with a bit of practice, you’ll find composing in minor keys can be as straightforward as in major keys. In the end, it’s all about getting familiar with the different patterns and structures.


And that’s the end of our symphony, or should I say, blog post! Remember, a minor setback is a major comeback, so don’t be afraid to explore minor keys in your music journey. I read and reply to every comment, so if there’s anything else you’re curious about, feel free to ask away in the comments section. If you found this composition – I mean article – helpful, why not share it with a friend? Check out the rest of my blog for more melodious tips and tricks on music production. Thanks for reading, and keep those keys singing, no matter whether they’re major or minor!

Key takeaways

This article conducted an orchestral tour of minor keys in music production. Here are some key takeaways:

  • Minor keys often convey deep, emotional themes and add variety to your music.
  • Around half of the popular songs in the past decade used minor keys.
  • Minor keys can be used alongside major keys in the same song to add depth.
  • The emotion a song conveys isn’t solely dictated by its key.
  • With practice, composing in minor keys can be as straightforward as in major keys.

Helpful resources

Image Andrew Ash
Written by Andrew Ash, Staff Writer

Hey there! My name is Andrew, and I'm relatively new to music production, but I've been learning a ton, and documenting my journey along the way. That's why I started this blog. If you want to improve your home studio setup and learn more along with me, this is the place for you!

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Edited by Nick Eggert, Staff Editor

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