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I've been jumping into music theory myself and I've been stumbling on creating certain melodies and such. I've played guitar all my teenage life and not once have I ever sat down and said I'm going to play in a certain key and write a song off of it. I just played chords till they sounded good together. Now that I've started to play piano I want to make a song/melody within a certain key.

Maybe I'm just confusing myself or just haven't learned scales and chord progressions further. But my question is if I play in D minor, will those chords (triads) be in minor as well? Like I should be playing Dm and not D?

It might be obvious but I don't know why I'm hung on this. Thanks!

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If you're really interested in learning theory, which is a fun and useful thing if you want to really know what you're doing, I'd recommend taking at least a Piano 101 course. The piano is called "The composer's instrument" because all the scales are easier to visualize. I've played guitar for many (many) years, and can relate everything I hear and play to the underlying theory. It allows me to pick out scales based on chords very easily, and find my way though styles of music by knowing what the chord choices could/should be. If you know theory, jazz, chord voicings and turnarounds are easy. –  the Tin Man Dec 5 '12 at 19:07

5 Answers 5

When you play in D minor, the scale -- that is your "palette" of notes -- is: D, E, F, G, A, B♭, and C

You'll find it's not possible to play a D major chord using those notes. D major contains an F♯.

The simplest way to find the chord you want is to identify its root note, then play a triad starting on that note, using only the notes in the scale.

So

  • if the accompanying bass note in your head is D, play D, F, A -- that's a D minor.
  • if the accompanying bass note in your head is C, play C, E, G -- that's a C major.

If you've been writing music with no background in theory, it's possible you've broken this rule, and it still sounds good. That's fine. They're not "rules", they're conventions, and they're conventions that are broken from time to time. So if the "maths" says you should play a minor, but a major sounds right to you, by all means stick with the major.


Footnote: That's a the "natural minor" scale. There is also the "harmonic minor" in which the 7th is sharpened - so C♯ here - and the "melodic minor" in which the 7th is sometimes sharpened, and sometimes not, largely at the composer's whim. And there are other scales which are considered minor because the 3rd is 3 semitones from the root, but are less common in Western music. But understand how things work with the "natural" scale before worrying about these. The important thing is that generally a scale is restricted to 7 notes from the 12 available, and if you play triads from that palette of 7, you'll find that a mixture of major and minor chords "automatically" happen.

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It's not quite that simple. It depends on if it's a D-minor dorian, D-minor phrygian, or D-minor aeolian. The dorian mode would be based on the C scale, which doesn't have a B♭, only B. –  the Tin Man Dec 5 '12 at 19:00
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Nothing's ever that simple. But a question that's evidently from a beginner, requires a beginner level answer. –  slim Dec 6 '12 at 9:54
    
Even a beginner should have a C# in their palette of D minor notes -- to allow for A major, the dominant of D minor! –  terpsichore Feb 17 '13 at 4:24
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Ok, two comments mean I have to add a footnote. But again, look at the question: when Dennis asked, he didn't understand how a piece in D minor might contain an F major chord -- dominants are something to learn about another day. –  slim Feb 17 '13 at 15:46

As a guitarist, you're probably used to playing a couple of 'minor' notes against major chords, e.g. in a bar of D major (D F# A) we often use D, F, A and C natural to give a 'bluesy' feel to the solo.Think D pentatonic minor - it's used lots and lots ! The blues just bends or breaks conventional rules. Just consider the 'Hendrix' chord, which effectively plays a major and minor chord at the same time - D F# A C E# - I've called it E# rather than F (minor third) as it's D7#9. So the answer is yes, it's o.k.-the sound you make should be more important than its correctness in official music rules terms!

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When you play in a minor key, you usually are playing in a major key, but using one of the minor chords as a tonal center. And no, you don't just play minor chords, you end up creating chord progressions that are similar to the types of progressions you make in a major key and are often the same chords. The difference is whether or not you "focus" on that minor chord and "resolve to" that minor chord.

I mean you can basically continue doing what you're doing, playing by ear and figuring out which chords in the major key lead to that minor chord. Or you can pick up a book on harmony or take a college course in harmony, which will open it up for you and provide you with a better understanding of what's going on.

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It's a great question that reveals the ambiguity of a word like "key."

A simple - but slightly vague - answer is that minor keys do involve major chords as well as minor chords. In fact, the most important chord that really makes D minor (aside from D minor, of course!) is major: A major is the "dominant" chord of D minor.

If you understand what that means, then you're on your way to understanding how the tonic-dominant relationship makes music really be "in" a key; it helps to understand not just scales, but harmony, which does't mean just "chords."

Suggestion: listen to music in minor keys to help enrich your hearing. You will find major chords as well as minor chords.

Eleanor Rigby is a great example of a minor key song with some major key-ish notes and chords:

(Technical aside: it actually lacks a strong dominant chord!)

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To make it simple answer we make equation key = scale and minor = natural minor.

So if You want to have song build solely from the chords in minor key (let stick to the D minor) then:

  1. Your scale will be: D E F G A Bb C
  2. Basic triad chords made up of scale notes will be: Dm Em F Gm Am Bb C

To make it more complex using this chords, you can end up with major sounding tune as the same notes are in F major scale (with the same chords) i.e. play F, Bb and C = major tune

So generally not only notes and chords determine tonality, but also which chord with relation to others you choose - but for this You better give yourself some lessons on harmony. In this case learning scales and chords build from them should be your starting point.

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