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Piano Fact

Week 28: Play by Ear in Minor Keys

Question: Now that I’ve gone through your program How to Play Piano by Ear, I know what chords to expect in most songs — as long as the song is in a major key. Is there a different set of rules for songs in minor keys?

Answer: Predicting chord patterns in major keys is a little more reliable than in minor keys. But we can still draw some conclusions about finding chords in minor keys.

To a certain extent the chords you expect in minor keys parallel their major key counterparts. For example, as you would certainly expect to find the chords C, F, and G7 in the key of C major, you could expect to find the chords Cm, F, and G7 in the key of Cm. In some songs there may be an Fm instead of F (major). But the G chord will always be a seventh just as it is in major keys.

If the song goes beyond the three basic chords (the I, IV, and V), there are a few other chords you could expect to find with a certain amount of predictability. As in major keys, you could find the minor and seventh qualities of the II chord. In the key of C minor those chords would be D7 and Dm. In addition — and this is where minor keys are different from majors — you could expect to find the three basic chords (I, IV and V) associated with the relative major key of the minor key the song is in.

That’s a mouthful, so to explain by example the key of Cm could have the I, IV, and V chords of the key of E flat major, the relative major to the key of C minor (i.e. Eb, Ab, and Bb), and they all have the potential for being played as dominant sevenths (Eb7, Ab7, Bb7).

The way to tell for sure — use your ear.

OK, we’ve created another question. What do we mean, exactly, by relative major (or relative minor for that matter)? Perhaps that question is better left for another session. But here’s a hint. The relative minor of a major key (as well as the relative major of a minor key) use the same key signature. E-flat major is the relative major of the key of C minor, and vice versa. They both have three flats in their key signatures.

As you know we go into great detail about how to determine chord progressions in our course How to Play Piano by Ear. But minor chords are an exception to the basic rules.

In addition to what I’ve told you here, there are some specific chord patterns that are unique to minor keys, but I won’t go into them right now. Sounds like a great topic for a future One Minute Lesson.

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