Major and Minor…Tonality… What’s The Difference… Scales and Chords

Early on in our music education we learn two very important musical terms: major and minor.  I am often asked what is the difference.  It is a tough question because there are many answers.  Many people associate descriptive words with major and minor.  Most commonly, major is happy and minor is sad.  This is basically true but doesn’t adequately describe the shades of difference between the two.

What is the difference between major and minor

The follow up question to, “What is the difference between major and minor” is, “Major and minor what?”  Generally we can have major or minor chords, major or minor keys, and major or minor scales.  Let’s look at major and minor scales first.
A scale is basically eight consecutive notes that start at a particular note, then go up or down the keyboard, until you get back to the same letter.  For example an A scale would go (ABCDEFGA). Since the musical alphabet ends at G, we go back to A and complete the scale.  The C scale would be the same thing but start at C (CDEFGABC).  What would make this scale major or minor is the distance between each note; this is where the black keys on the piano come in to play.  In general, they represent the tones between the notes with letter names (i.e. sharps and flats.)  If you were to look at a piano all the white keys would have the letter names and the black keys would have letter names plus a sharp(#) and or a flat(b).  For example if you found the “G” on the keyboard, the black key to the right of the “G” would be G sharp, and the black note to the left of the G would be G flat.  We use these notes to help make major and minor scales.  Generally speaking the distance between a white key and a black key is a half step, the distance between and white key and a white key is a whole step and the distance between and black key and a black key is also a whole step.  There are exceptions to this, but for now let’s just say mostly. Major and minor scales are made up of a series of whole steps and half steps.  This is what gives them their character and flavor.  The steps of a major scale are (whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half).  In most cases we need to use sharps and flats to help us make these steps possible.  For example, a D major scale would be (DEF#GABC#D).   A minor scale is (whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole).  So a D minor scale would be (DEFGABbCD).  There are several types of minor scales, but we’ll look at that in a later entry.
I know this can initially seem overwhelming, but remember it’s all about patterns.  If you have a keyboard or piano, try and play with the D major and minor scales written above.  Once you see the whole step/half step patterns try it on a different starting note and see if you can make a major or minor scale from there.
Next time we’ll look at minor and major chords and explore how they relate to minor and major scales.  Here is a spoiler; it’s also all about patterns!

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