We are aware that the major scale or key is the sort of datum point for a lot of theory. But why the word major? That very same word is used to describe intervals, but there's no correlation. Or is there? Major there means larger (minor meaning smaller in comparison), but a major scale is no bigger or smaller than a minor scale.

  • In a major key / scale the triad 135 of the root chord I is a major chord because of a major 3rd and a perfect 5th. The same with the minor keys and scales (minor third and perfect fifth.) This difference of the basic third gives the two qualities the typical melodic and harmonic character. – Albrecht Hügli Jul 6 at 11:51
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    “...a major scale is no bigger than a minor scale”, I like that comment, but half of the intervals between the root note and the other scale degrees are larger (bigger) than in a minor scale...unless you measure DOWN from the root. In that case the minor scale is bigger. – John Belzaguy Jul 6 at 15:52
  • @JohnBelzaguy - just for the heck of it...R>2 same. R>3 bigger in maj. R>4 same. R>5 same. R>6 same. R>7 same. I've cheekily used melodic minor, but there you go..! – Tim Jul 6 at 16:15
  • You, cheeky? What a surprise! – John Belzaguy Jul 6 at 16:26
  • Why are you called Tim? – Asteroids With Wings Jul 7 at 19:50

The tonic, supertonic, subdominant and dominant tones are the same in both major and minor. Both will use a leading tone. So, those four tones don't distinguish major versus minor scales.

The sixth and seventh scales degrees vary in minor so there is some overlap with major. You could say the whole upper tetrachord is not a definitive way to distinguish major and minor, because of the variable tones in minor.

That leaves only the mediant as the one truly distinctive tone to define major and minor scales. The quality of that third - the third of the mediant - is what gives the names to the major and minor scales.

This is my personal take on the quote @AlbrechtHugli gave from Bach: ...tertiam majorem (doremi) and tertiam minorem (remifa)... Bach only gave the beginning third to distinguish the scales, because that's all that's needed to get to the definitive mediant.

but a major scale is no bigger or smaller than a minor scale.

True, but it's about the size of their mediant thirds.

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  • So, as Brian and I suspect, the defining factor is only that mediant. Although according to the Bach quote, major is doremi, and minor is way more Dorian (remifa) in flavour, if that makes sense. Which it doesn't to me. As in major is major - and there's ony the one, whereas minor seems to be a movable feast. And - in minor, there isn't a guaranteed leading tone. – Tim Jul 6 at 18:08
  • In the major/minor system, minor key will have a leading tone somewhere as the norm. Dorian for minor in Bach's time I think reflects that dorian and phrygian were the minor flavor Church modes. There wasn't an aeolian mode. Harmony in the major/minor system is about tonic/dominant. The lowered supertonic in phygian exludes that mode as the basis for minor key. You can compare dorian versus aeolian as the basis for minor key, but that just repeats the whole thing about the variable upper tetrachord. – Michael Curtis Jul 6 at 18:36
  • It isn't that minor key is more dorian, but simply dorian was the one minor church mode fitting the new major/minor system of tonic/dominant harmony. In practice it is just reflected in the key signature. Accidentals used in the music shows the harmony is minor key, not modal. – Michael Curtis Jul 6 at 18:36
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    @Tim historically, the minor mode arose from the Dorian. There were effectively four modes (Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian). Aeolian and Ionian were invented after the fact -- after those four modes had begun to evolve, through chromatic alteration, into the major and minor modes of the common practice period. Phrygian became quite rare because of its minor supertonic, which makes authentic cadences impossible, so Dorian is the primary source for the minor mode. – phoog Jul 6 at 19:37
  • @phoog - you're halfway to an answer with your comments. Enlighten us! – Tim Jul 7 at 10:57

That very same word is used to describe intervals, but there's no correlation. Or is there?

There is. Or so I always thought.

The mediant (3rd note in a scale) is a major third above the tonic (1st note) in a major scale and a minor third above in a minor scale.

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  • So the naming all hinges upon the mediant of a scale? – Tim Jul 6 at 13:59
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    IIRC people (jazz? I don't know who) sometimes classify modes or any arbitrary scale based on the third, or based on whatever chord lies on the root. – awe lotta Jul 6 at 21:34
  • Because this is what truly counts: what is the tonic chord. – user1079505 Jul 8 at 1:09

The three primary chords (tonic, dominant, subdominant) I IV V in a major scale are major chords = major (big) triads. ("big" referring to the lower third do-mi, fa-la, so-ti, these main triads are built by a major (lower third) and a minor third (upper third) and with other words by a major third and a perfect fifth ( measured from the root tone!)

Analogously the triads of the i iv v degrees of the minor scales (and minor modes) are built of a minor (small) third and a perfect fifth - unless we have a harmonic scale (or a rising melodic minor scale) where the triad is a dominant chord.

So the correlation is between the basic third of the primary (main) triad of the tonic of the modes respectively scales (major and minor as interval) and chords or triads of the related scales and keys (major and minor as "TONGESCHLECHT" = QUALITY).

Bach didn't name in the title page of the WTC the keys as major or minor!

He wrote tertiam majorem (doremi) and tertiam minorem (remifa), contrasting the Ionian and Dorian mode and not Aeolian as relative key.

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  • Slight inaccuracies about the triads in minor keys - and modes. Consider the notes from melodic and harmonic minors - their v is V. And minor modes - Dorian has IV, Phrygian has vo, so only Aeolian fits. – Tim Jul 6 at 13:56
  • Yes, I had the major dominant of chromatic and melodic minor in mind. To your second point: In respect to the modes I emphasized the correlation with the tonic ... while IV V is only major in the major scales (and not modes). I think to specify all the irregularities would lead too far for a short answer. The hint to the defining third 1-3 will be sufficient to the question, which I find a good point for students that don’t interrogate the etymology and meaning of major and minor. – Albrecht Hügli Jul 6 at 16:15
  • 'Chromatic minor' - that's a new one for me. Maybe 'harmonic minor'? – Tim Jul 6 at 16:17
  • Yes, you’re right. That’s the summer heat. I’ve edited the answer. – Albrecht Hügli Jul 6 at 16:28
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    Major and minor mean bigger and smaller, not big and small. – phoog Jul 6 at 19:38

I was immediately drawn to similar comparisons from latin, stars & star systems are referred to as major & minor, tarot cards have a major & minor arcana… & thought there might be some commonality as to why the parallels were drawn, that some things are considered greater or lesser than others…

I found this on etymology online - emphasis mine

major (adj.)
c. 1300, majour, "greater, more important or effective, leading, principal," from Latin maior (earlier *magios), irregular comparative of magnus "large, great" (from PIE root *meg- "great"). From 1590s as "greater in quantity, number, or extent." Used in music (of modes, scales, or chords) since 1690s, on notion of an interval a half-tone "greater" than the minor; of modern modes, "characterized by the use of major tonality throughout,"

So there you go. That's how it's derived, it is as anticipated, "greater than" & "lesser than"

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    1690s seems rather too late. Perhaps that is the date when it first appeared in English, but I imagine it was used far earlier in Latin, which was the language of music theorists from the middle ages. – phoog Jul 6 at 20:06

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