Just as we found there are seven diatonic chords in the major scale, there are also 7 diatonic chords in the minor scale. In fact, they are the same seven chords only numbered differently. So, you don't realize it yet, but you've already learned them. What you have to do now is learn to think of them in a new context.
First, let's review the major scale diatonic chords and how major and minor scales are related. Then, we'll go through the minor scale diatonic chords one-by-one just as we did the major scale diatonic chords. And, there are a few other special topics regarding minor keys which we'll look at.
Review: Diatonic Chords
Diatonic means coming from, or made up of, the notes of a major (or natural minor) scale. So, if someone said a bassline or melody was purely “diatonic,” they're saying it is made up of only notes in the major (or minor) scale.
Similarly, when we use the term “diatonic chords,” we mean chords whose notes all come from the scale.
Let's say we're using the key of C major (C, D, E, F, G, A, and B). The C major triad contains the notes C, E, and G. Therefore, it is diatonic to the key of C major—all 3 notes exist in the C major scale. A C minor triad, however, would not fit. The notes of Cm are C E♭ G. There is no E♭ in the key of C major and thus it is not diatonic to the key of C major.
Remember, we can build a chord off of each of the seven notes of the major scale with each chord using the notes of the scale. These are the diatonic chords of the major scale.
If these major scale diatonic chords are unfamiliar to you, I strongly suggest you go back in the course and work on them until you have them down well. Otherwise you'll be lost and wasting your time here. These concepts are deeply connected.
Review: Relative Major and Minor
In case you don't remember, every major scale has a relative minor scale and vice versa. Relative scales share the same set of notes.
For example, C major (C, D, E, F, G, A, B) and A minor (A, B, C, D, E, F, G) contain the same 7 notes. The difference is the tonic (first note of the scale) is C for the major scale and A for the minor scale. To give you another example, G major (G, A, B, C, D, E, F#) and E minor (E, F#, G, A, B, C, D) are relative major and minor scales. Again, they both share the same seven notes only beginning and ending on different notes.
You will always find the root of the relative minor scale is the 6th note of the major scale. For example, the note A is the sixth of C major.
Similarly, the note E is the sixth of G major. It is the same for all major scales.
Going in the other direction, the third note of the minor scale is the root of the relative major scale. For example, the note C is the third note of the A minor scale.
Similarly, the note G is the third note of the E minor scale. Again, this relationship is the same for all major/minor keys.
If the major scale and minor scale contain the same notes, what would that mean for the diatonic chords of the major scale versus the diatonic chords of the minor scale? It means they're the same!
The only thing which changes between the major diatonic chords and the minor diatonic chords are the chord numbers—they shift over. For instance, in the key of C major, C was I ('one'). In A minor, Am is i (minor 'one'), and that would make C a III chord (A(i), B(ii°), C(III)). So, the numbers have simply shifted over by two places. The type of chord—the chord quality (major, minor, diminished, etc.)—does not change.
In the following table you can see how in C major and its relative minor key A minor, the chords are the same.
You should be excited now! This means there is much less for you to learn here than you likely expected. Take a moment to celebrate! OK, celebration time is over.
Adjusting the Minor Scale Diatonic Chord Numbers
Now that you have a introductory understanding of how the major and minor scale chords are the same, we have to make an easy adjustment.
Do you remember what notes are different between a major scale and a minor scale? For example, what's the difference between C major and C minor? In the minor scale, the 3rd, 6th, and 7th notes are each a half-step lower, or “flatted.”
Why am I bringing this up? It's common to number the diatonic chords of the minor scale calling its III chord a ♭III chord, its VI chord a ♭VI, and its VII a ♭VII chord. It's all in relation to the major scale.
A common wrong assumption students make is thinking these flat Roman numeral chords must have roots having flat note names. This is false. A flat before the Roman numeral does not mean the chord's root necessarily contains a flat. For instance, the ♭III chord in A minor is C. Why? Because in the key of A major the iii chord is C#m. The note C is a lowered, or flatted, C#. So, the flat of the ♭III, ♭VI, ♭VII refer to their relation to the major scale, not the note names.
Most of this lesson was a review with a glimpse of the coming minor scale diatonic chord lessons.
At the end of this lesson it's important for you to be comfortable with the following:
- Major scale diatonic chords (review)
- Relative major and minor scales (review)
- Knowing the major and minor diatonic chords are the same only numbered differently.
A lot of learning the minor scale chords is simply reorienting your understanding of the major scale chords. That part will be fairly easy. There are, however, a few important things common to minor scale harmony you might not expect.
In the coming lessons on minor scale chords, we'll look at new shapes for the minor scale chords on the fretboard, some important special situations you'll encounter in minor keys, and some common minor key chord progressions.