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What's the Difference Between Minor and Major Chords?

Listen to minor and major chords and how they set the mood for a song.

You probably have a vague memory of your elementary school music class. Maybe you remember being taught that major chords = happy and minor chords = sad. On an emotional level, that’s true. That’s because major chords tend to sound brighter and minor chords sound darker.

And if we were 9 years old, that explanation would be good enough. But now, we’re going to dive a little deeper and get a more detailed, slightly more technical explanation to help learn to identify and play major and minor chords.


Embedded content: https://youtu.be/oZswGpF1H6A


What Makes a Song Minor or Major?

The difference between a major and minor chord comes down to one, simple change: the 3rd in a scale.

• A major chord contains the 1st, 3rd, and 5th degree of the major scale. • A minor chord contains the 1st, flattened 3rd, and 5th degree of the major scale of that note.

You can apply this formula to figure out the notes in any major or minor scale.

Music is all about patterns. Once you know those “rules” and patterns, you can figure out pretty much anything on your own. And with practice, it’ll become second nature to transition between major and minor chords and learn the correct positioning for many of these chords.

Constructing Major and Minor Chords & Scales

Let’s try visualizing how a minor or major scale is constructed. This way, we can take a better look at the difference between a major scale and chord and a minor chord and scale.

A scale is made up of 7 notes: the Root, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th.

For example, an A Major Scale would include these notes: A—B—C#—D—E—F#—G#.

If you grab your guitar or bass and play this scale, it’ll sound cheerful and welcoming.

Now, to turn this major scale into a minor scale, focus in on that 3rd note. In this case, take the C#, and drop it 1 full note down. This would become the A Natural Minor Scale and would be made up of these notes: A—B—C—D—E—F—G.

Play this run of notes and it sounds darker and heavier.

Wait, Why Did Three Notes Change?

Good catch! As you continue to learn, you’ll see how all these small changes create different scales. But when it comes to determining major or minor chords, stay focused on the 3rd.

That’s it. One little switch on that second note has the power to make you feel hope or dread.


Embedded content: https://youtu.be/KCrrl06wPkg



Songs with Major and Minor Chords

Now that we have the theory behind major and minor chords, let’s see how they feel and sound under our fingers. Here are a few songs that use both major and minor chords in their composition. Some of the way these chords are used together will surprise you. Listen to these songs and see how major and minor chords, when used in the same song, can create interesting soundscapes and different moods.

Now that we have the theory behind major and minor chords, let’s see how they feel and sound under our fingers. Here are a few songs that use both major and minor chords in their composition. Some of the way these chords are used together will surprise you. Listen to these songs and see how major and minor chords, when used in the same song, can create interesting soundscapes and different moods.

“Shout” - The Isley Brothers

This 1959 tune combines R&B, gospel, pop, and blues to create a unique, raucous classic. Despite the deluge of positive energy that radiates from this song, you’re going to find a minor chord. In fact, half of this song contains a minor chord. ”Shout” by The Isley Brothers contains only two chords: Am and C. Once you have memorized the chords proper placement for these chords, start playing around with making that A major and the C minor and see how that inversion changes the sound and tone of the song.

Learn how to play "Shout" here.

“Celebration” - Kool and the Gang

Just because a song uses minor chords doesn’t mean it has to be dark and brooding. This good-time staple uses: Cm7, Dbmaj7, Bbm7, Ab/C, F7, E9sus4, Gb/Bb, and Db/A chords. “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang combines fusion, and funk, with the band’s established disco foundation for a massive hit that will be heard at weddings and sporting events until the end of time.

Learn how to play "Celebration" here.

“Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” - B.J. Thomas

This classic country rock song is all about heartbreak, so you’d think it would be filled with minor chords. Spoiler alert: there’s only one. On “Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song,” you can almost hear B.J. trying to lift himself out of his heartbreak by using all these major chords: D, G, A7, Dmaj7, D7, Em, F#7, B7 and E7. Maybe this duel between the sadness of our protagonist and the positivity of the chords is what helped make this song take home the 1976 Grammy Award for Best Country Song, awarded to its songwriters, Larry Butler and Chips Moman.

Learn to play "Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song" here.

“Where Is My Mind” - Pixies

Here’s a heady (no pun intended … okay, maybe slightly intended), groovy rocker that switches between major and minor chords (C, Am, E, F, Fm, and G), to set up a specific mood. Despite a pretty consistent drum beat and chord progression, you’re never totally at ease, thanks to Frank Black’s vocal attack and the song’s eerie backing vocals. “Where Is My Mind” also gives you an opportunity to hear how switching between major and minor chords affects the song—with the F and Fm right next to each other. When playing, think about how the vibe of the song change if they just hung on either the major or minor version of that F chord. Give it a try for yourself!

“California Girls” - The Beach Boys

It’s the Beach Boys! How can you not think of sun, surf, and smiles? And yet, when you dive into this all-time classic, you’ll see it’s almost 50% minor chords: A, G, D, E, Bm, F, Am, and Gm. You can also hear a key element to the Beach Boys success on “California Girls”: Brian Wilson’s otherworldly musical vision and Mike Love’s focus on commercial viability. What you get is a deceptively complex song with enough memorable hooks to still be relevant decades later.

These are just a few examples of how choosing major and minor chords can create a mood, both expected and unexpected. And remember, if you’re curious about why a song is making you feel happy or sad, the key could be that third note.