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A beginner's questions - regarding the major and minor scales. Consider the C major and C minor scales for example.

  1. What's the significance of major and minor scales, when both sounds almost same?
  2. Is it possible to differentiate major and minor scales just by ears?


"significance" in question 1 means, is there any notable change in a song if I change it from C to Cm scale?

Edit 2 (23-Mar-2014):

After a search I came across this video showing the theoretical difference between Majors and Minors -

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An interesting exercise might be to listen to Blues, where the scale changes from major to minor and in between often. – filzilla Mar 21 '14 at 21:40
If C major and C minor sound the same to you, you really aren't paying attention. – keshlam Mar 22 '14 at 0:09
^ I created an account just to upvote this. – Aaron Hall Mar 22 '14 at 2:51
@keshlam I can only notify one user per comment, please read my comment above. – 11684 Mar 22 '14 at 12:00
@David true. Indian classical music has 72 different scales, still keeping the same 12 semitones. Here's the list – Vishnu Haridas Mar 23 '14 at 7:47

3 Answers 3

up vote 16 down vote accepted

There are big differences between those two scales.

The C major scale consists of the following notes:

C D E F G A B 

The C minor scale consists of the following notes:

C D Eb F G Ab Bb 

3 of the 7 notes of the scale are different so it is not a small difference.

It sounds to me like you need to take ear training classes.

Ear training can make you able to differentiate many different aspects of music including what scale is being used, what type of chord is being played, and what the overall progression is of a piece of music.

If ear training classes are out of the question, I recommend trying the trial version of EarMaster. I've used it for ear training and I really liked it.

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Yes! As a beginner I am not able to differentiate C and Cm scales by ear. I should take ear training, and thanks for the link! :-) – Vishnu Haridas Mar 22 '14 at 6:10

I'm not sure what you mean, but I would say that depends of context.

The major scale and minor scale are modes of the diatonic scale - Ionian and Aeolian, respectively. In a sense they're exact the same scale, but starting from a different note. They sound exactly the same.

If you pick C major and its relative minor (A minor) and play them in a way you could not tell which note is the root, you couldn't tell the difference because they're the same scale.

But if you play both scales "as is", like in an exercise, then they're quite different scales, as Dom pointed out. They have a different "feel" and they relate to different chords.

Also, C and Cm are obviously different scales because they have different notes.

I'm not sure what you mean with significance in your first question, but that seems to be a good question. I believe Allan Holdsworth would say there's no significance at all (between a major and minor scale that are relative to each other) if you're talking about improvisation, for example.

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"significance" in question 1 means, is there any notable change in a song if I change it from C to Cm scale – Vishnu Haridas Mar 22 '14 at 6:27
yes, a lot of significance – zok Mar 22 '14 at 14:54

I'm not sure if I understand your question right - my answer would be no, for the following reason.

A major scale has intervals: whole-whole-whole-half-whole-whole-half

A minor* scale has intervals: whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half

By simply starting on a note in the middle of the major scale, you can play the minor scale. The reason you can tell the difference in a song is because of context; for instance, many songs begin with a particular chord, deviate from it to increase tension, and return to it; that chord can be more easily recognized as minor or major.

*one type of minor scale

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It's not about different modes in the same key, rather about parallel keys, since C major and C minor scales are mentioned as an example. Then it is a quite significant difference. – Meaningful Username Mar 22 '14 at 0:28
OK meaningful username, I challenge you to tell the OP which scale is it when a soloist is fluffing around in modes and then stick to your guns about it "not being about modes" - this is an educational site and the top voted answer here is useless because its obvious that C major and C minor sound different. Their Ionian keys are a major third apart – Robbie Averill Mar 22 '14 at 3:23
Does that mean that we cannot identify the M/m scales without knowing the Chords of that song? – Vishnu Haridas Mar 22 '14 at 6:21
It's easy to tell C major from C minor, but I don't think that's what OP was asking. Vishnu, if you heard all of the notes in a scale in arbitrary order, you would not be able to tell whether it was a major scale or a minor scale. By playing familiar sequences - starting and ending on the base note, for instance - you can make it clear whether you're in one scale or another, without necessarily playing whole chords. – John P Mar 23 '14 at 1:06

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