I read somewhere recently that Beethoven considered the minor and major keys to be "one and the same"

The quote i reference was not referring to the relative minor (ie. Am in key of C), but was referring to the parallel minor (Cm in key of C).

Could anyone elucidate further on what, if anything, the original author meant by this?



Here is the original source, it's at 10:37: https://youtube.com/clip/Ugkx5etB0VIZa5NHXxqxgp9N4ul74H7fF3Bm

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    “I read somewhere recently…” If you can provide a quote why not provide the source as well? Oct 21, 2022 at 8:31
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    Not only Beethoven. I think a lot of musos consider the same. I did when writing stuff 50 yrs ago, not even understanding the 'theory' behind it.
    – Tim
    Oct 21, 2022 at 9:51
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    I doubt this claim when Wikipedia maintains an article on Beethoven and C minor and does not do the same for Beethoven and C major.
    – Dekkadeci
    Oct 21, 2022 at 12:55
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    Could you please add more about the context, or identify or help us find the source? I could imagine someone meaning something by this phrase—maybe about modal mixture—but it would just be an unfounded guess without more explanation. Oct 21, 2022 at 12:58
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    Remembering a quote without remembering who it is attributed to is a common occurence for me! - Here it is at 10:37 - youtube.com/clip/Ugkx5etB0VIZa5NHXxqxgp9N4ul74H7fF3Bm Oct 21, 2022 at 13:39

2 Answers 2


I think the key to understanding the idea is to separate the concepts of tonal and modal in regard to scale degrees and functional harmony versus modal color.

In a nutshell, the tonal scale degrees are ^1, ^4, and ^5, and the modal scale degrees are ^3 and ^6. ^1, ^4, and ^5 provide the roots for the all important tonic, subdominant, and dominant chords, while ^3 and ^6 provide the thirds for the tonic and subdominant chords. ^3 and ^6 can be either major or minor and so define the mode of a key.

To some extent you could say scale degrees ^2 and ^7 have mixed roles, but in regard to functional harmony the raised ^7 degree, the leading tone, is critical to dominant chords and it's "function" is to define the tonic in both major and minor keys.

Another way to say this is: the scale degrees ^1, ^4, ^5, and leading tone ^7 do not vary between the major and minor forms of a key. The functional aspect of harmony doesn't change between major and minor forms of a key: ^5 goes to ^1, leading tone ^7 goes to ^1, and ^4 goes to ^3. That's the essence of functional tonic/dominant harmony. The variable major or minor aspect of ^3 and ^6 only provides "color", determines the mode, for a key.

A common convention in harmonic analysis is to use upper case Roman numerals for major chord quality and lower case for minor quality, like I for a major triad and i for a minor triad. But there is also a convention that does not distinguish major/minor quality and only give upper case Roman numerals to indicate chord roots. By that second convention IV V I only means "subdominant, dominant, tonic triads with no regard to modal quality.

So, we can define harmonic function without knowing the details of mode. You can think of that as either modal ambivalence or as accepting a much more "colorful" harmonic style. I suppose if you push that idea far enough you could say there really aren't separate major and minor tonalities but simply a single tonality. There is no name for it, except perhaps "tonal harmony."

  • I like this answer. Shouldn't (4th para.) ^5 stay as ^5 though? +1.
    – Tim
    Oct 22, 2022 at 11:57
  • Yes, for upper voices, I meant in the bass. Oct 24, 2022 at 17:07

This is a really basic answer, but it is one example I can think of where I have seen this. The source you provide doesn't seem to give a lot of detail about what he means as "identical", but I would say that strictly speaking only identical things are identical. One way you can treat the parallel major and minor keys similar, though, is its relationship to the dominant chord. This is something I have noticed in some of Bach's and Ponce's music.

One thing you could do to give a song a strong sense of thematicism, while getting a novel sound is repeat an idea you already did in the major key in the parallel minor later in the song. It is very easy to modulate to the parallel minor because it has the same dominant chord.

The simplest example I can think of that I have seen in Ponce's music is this: "my musical idea is that the bass line is going to walk up the scale. I will harmonize then with the tonic and dominant chords where possible, and then I will repeat this same idea later using a similar melody in the parallel minor. "

Can't find a perfect example in the same song, but here is one. In the Allemande of Ponce's suite in Am he uses the pattern I show below in A minor. Then in the next song, the Sarabande from that suite, he uses that pattern in A major. I tried to offset and stretch the scores so you can see the patterns line up.

My Simplified Example simplified example

Example from Ponce Suite in La Minuer Ponce example

  • "One way you can treat the parallel major and minor keys similar, though, is it's relationship to the dominant chord". I think you are correct here. In tonic-dominant harmony, a C harmonic minor scale will work perfectly well on the G7. That is currently my line of thinking? Oct 21, 2022 at 19:37

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