I've been playing around with arpeggios, adding an approach note for each degree of the arpeggio.

In the first two-bar phrase below, I approach each note of the C Major arpeggio from the note one semitone below. And in the second two-bar phrase I approach each note of the B Major arpeggio from the note one semitone above. So in both cases the arpeggio I'm decorating is Major. And both two-bar phrases contain the same pitches.

But the first two-bar phrase has an overall Major feel, whilst the second two-bar phrase sounds Minor.

What's going on here? I can't put my finger on it.

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5 Answers 5


In addition to the rhythmic selection of important notes that the other answers point out, there is another effect at work: The pairs of notes that are one minor second apart act like approach notes + resolutions.

Our ear is used/designed (I don't really know which) to interpret the first note of many/most minor seconds as an approach note. The approach note is attributed some amount of tension, and a desire to resolve. The second note is interpreted as the resolution of the approach note, and as such as the note with the real harmonic significance.

By turning the chromatic pairs around, you make the approach note and the resolving note switch roles, shifting the experienced harmonic down by a half-step. This has the effect of changing the experienced scale because your ear tries to fit the approach notes into the scale as well. Now, approach notes below important notes like the tonic, have a major feel to them (the half steps in the mayor scale are below the tonic and the fourth), while notes leading down are more associated with a minor feel.

This effect is relatively independent to the rhythmic effect, which I believe plays an important role as well, and it works in the same direction in the example you've given. If you shift the downbeat in your example by an eights, the two effects will partially cancel each other, leading to a motive that cannot really decide whether it's major or minor.

  • The leading note in major and minor works the same. That's why the melodic and harmonic have the leading note. Missing from the natural minor, but changed in the other two just so it an work as a leading note.
    – Tim
    Jul 6, 2020 at 6:34
  • @Tim Maybe I didn't use the correct word. My meaning is any note that leads over to the next note, be it up or down. In Jazz/Blues, many such leading notes don't even belong to the scale of the piece, they may appear pretty much above/below any step on the scale. Jul 6, 2020 at 7:36
  • 1
    Approach note is the term you need. Yes, we use them all the time in jazz, and blues. And in the OP's example, that's what's used. The point being, they do emphasise where they're going, and need to be in particular places in the music - as indicated in my answer.
    – Tim
    Jul 6, 2020 at 8:58
  • @Tim Thank you. I've updated the wording of my answer now. Jul 6, 2020 at 9:38

One on one. Tonic on first beat of a bar. Other main notes from tonic triad also on the main beats of each bar. Key C major.

For the second example, the anacrucis is inconsequential (sorry!), again, main notes on main beats. On the dominant. Key E minor.

It's very possible to use exactly the same notes to produce different key feelings. Modes do it all the time! It's down to the emphasised notes on the emphasised parts of the bars.

  • I agree with your Em analysis for the second phrase. However, you could shift the rhythm so each phrase starts on the bar line rather than a quaver before it and the harmonic impression would be the same. So I don't agree with your final sentence because you get the same harmonic impression irrespective of the rhythmic emphasis. Jul 5, 2020 at 19:15
  • Moving the rhythm you could do all sorts. It is what it is. As such, the last sentence stands. You don't!
    – Tim
    Jul 5, 2020 at 20:14
  • The harmony is the thing, not the rhythm. It's not down to the emphasised notes on the emphasised parts of the bars. Jul 5, 2020 at 20:45
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    @Brian THOMAS, have you tried shifting the rhythm as Tim suggests and playing it? Bc that might not be the entirety of the effect you see here, but it's definitely a big part of it; as Tim says, that's how modes work. Jul 6, 2020 at 2:42

The first example sounds major because this is on beat the C- Major chord (cegcgec) up and down. The other notes (off-beat) are passing tones (chromatic approaches to the tones of the C major triade.

The second example is in e minor (harmonic) and like Tim says the the tones of the dominant B (on beat) and the other notes (of-beat) are chromatic approaches downwards (a semitone above the notes of the triad b d# f# b).


Notes with a stronger rhythmic placement affect the harmonic feeling more strongly than notes placed elsewhere, and since the time signature is 3/4, most people would play it giving slightly more weight to the odd 1/8 notes of every bar. Looking at the on-beat notes, we get a C major triad C - E - G on the first line, and a B major triad on the second line.


The rest of the in-between notes take me somewhere E minorish. E harmonic minor feeling. I wouldn't say that either line sounds particularly "major" - it's some stuff in E minor, waiting to resolve to an E minor tonic chord. The same feeling is already happening on the first line, the second line just takes it to the dominant chord. The chord outlined on the first line is a C major in an E minor context, and the chord outlined on the second line is a B major in an E minor context.

If we change the time signature, the emphasized notes are different: variation of example

What do you think of that - do you get exactly the same or different feelings as with the original example?


I disagree with the other answers. To me the second phrase definitely sounds like B is the tonic, not E; and while it doesn't sound like a standard major scale, it doesn't sound minor either. It's reminiscent of flamenco music to me, with its tonic chord major but a II-flat chord forming part of the harmony.

I would call this an arpeggiated version of a phrygian cadence that is resolving from C major to B major. (Some might call it a iv7 chord in first inversion going to the V chord of E harmonic minor, but to me that fails to reflect the very real B-centeredness of this particular phrase.)

  • You say Flamenco, could be double harmonic scale, possibly? Jul 6, 2020 at 16:26
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    Possibly—without seeing the A or A# we can't distinguish double harmonic from Phrygian dominant. Nice observation Jul 6, 2020 at 17:23
  • Phrygian and flamenco style are just a V chord living in denial and playing hard to get. Let the poor B go and give it the Em it wants. :) Jul 7, 2020 at 17:07

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