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I am trying to understand why the terms major and minor, meaning greater and lesser, are applied to chords and keys. Why is a minor chord considered to be lesser and a major chord greater?

I understand how a minor chord is formed by flatting the third above the root in a triad, but what in doing so makes a greater chord become a lesser chord? What properties or sound of a minor chord make it lesser than a major chord? What reduces its named status from greater to lesser? In reverse, what makes a major chord the greater one?

Are the terms unknown arbitrary labels chosen for two chord types simply to be accepted, not thoroughly understood or, is there an exact historical account of who, when, where, and especially why, the terms major and minor were chosen to describe two chord forms?

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  • 9
    Not status, simply size.
    – phoog
    Mar 21, 2023 at 20:49
  • a fun fact often missed about scales. to get parallel minor from major key (c maj to c min) you lower the third as you said. parallel meaning they have same key/tonic. but you can get a _relative minor from major by transposing all notes down 2 scale steps (c maj to a min). utilizing this tends to make major parts higher by 2 steps. we might associate major key with higher pitch, for more than one reason.
    – Dor1000
    Mar 23, 2023 at 11:51

7 Answers 7

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Unfortunately the terms minor and major have a very different historical reason, and actually it was about being imperfect and perfect.

Franchinus Gaffurius argued in his "Theorica musicae" for dissonance and consonance by using the so called proportion theory (based on pythagorean-platonian tradition). Comparing the interval ratios of a quart octave (triad chord with proportions 4:3:2, imperfect) versus a quint octave sound (6:4:3, perfect) his conclusion was that the cleaner harmony was a result of the bigger proportions. This is actually wrong, however it shows the concept of minor in that time was about the harmonic quality of an interval step in the counterpoint: greater harmony, consonant, major, versus lesser harmony, dissonant, minor (in latin he wrote: majore quidem majoribus numeris, minore minoribus). Obviously the significance of major and minor experienced huge changes during the introduction of the well temperament tuning and the modern music theory.

Another side story is that the terms major and minor have been used in the rhythmic context of Mensural Notation, which shows that imperfection/perfection and major/minor were handled in a very similar context: Wiki Mensurations

In conclusion, the minor comes from "being lesser" but it has lost this significance.


Theorica musicae (1492) - Franchinus Gaffurius "Dispositis vero tribus chordis secundum harmonicam medietatem [...] ea tunc producetur melodia quam proprie harmoniam vocamus: Haec nempe duabus consonantiis inaequalibus constat, quae ex dissimilibus proportionibus (majore quidem majoribus numeris, minore minoribus) conducuntur".

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  • My answer has older examples where maior and minor are applied to thirds, so the proposition that the use cited here is "original" isn't sustainable. Also the proposition that the words have lost their significance of relative magnitude is questionable: If not magnitude, what do they denote? Not tonal quality, because, for example, a minor sixth can convey a major tonality (e.g. between the third and octave of a major chord) or minor (e.g. between the fifth and tenth of a minor chord). In both cases it's minor, however, because it's 8 semitones, not 9.
    – phoog
    Mar 29, 2023 at 7:34
  • @phoog I am not arguing about the technical major minor, but about the semiotics in the past. Significance and symbols do change over time. That there are examples that are older and referring to tertia minor/major is undeniable.
    – Jürgen
    Mar 29, 2023 at 7:47
  • Then how do you suppose that the "actual" historical reason for the terms is about being perfect or imperfect?
    – phoog
    Mar 29, 2023 at 7:58
  • I found this quote from the BBC, "Within the scale he established a hierarchy, in which some notes are more important than others." "He," is Pythagoras.
    – ejbpesca
    May 15, 2023 at 12:56
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The interval, that is the distance, from the root note in a minor or major scale to the third note is called a third. The interval called a third is either small or big which is called minor or major. Thus a major interval is bigger than a minor interval.

Major and minor chords consist of 2 thirds on top of each other. It is the first third that determines whether the chord is a minor chord or a major chord.

A minor chord consists of a minor third and on top on that a major third.

A major chord consists of a major third and on top on that a minor third.

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    A better way of thinking about it, or at least the more historically prevalent way, is that a major chord comprises a major third and a perfect fifth, while a minor chord has a minor chord and a perfect fifth. This eliminates the need to explain why the bottom third gives its name to the chord instead of the top third.
    – phoog
    Mar 21, 2023 at 21:41
  • 5
    To add on to this point, this also explains "augmented" and "diminished" triads pretty nicely. Again, nothing to do with status, but the intervals between the chords just become wider or smaller - in an augmented triad you raise the fifth of the major chord, and in a diminished triad you lower the fifth of a minor key. Mar 21, 2023 at 21:53
  • @NorthLæraðr exactly, and it also helps explain seventh chords.
    – phoog
    Mar 22, 2023 at 5:08
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    @Tim that doesn't explain why a chord containing two different types of thirds is named after the bottom one (nor does it explain why a chord containing two of the same type of third is named after neither of them). If you think of a triad as containing a third and a fifth then the names make sense.
    – phoog
    Mar 22, 2023 at 9:17
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It isn't. The minor third between ^1 and ^3 of a minor scale is smaller than the major third of a major scale. That is the only way in which a minor key is 'less' than a major one. There is no further inference of inferiority. It's about math, not status.

Having said that, there IS, in Common Practice styles at any rate, a feeling that a piece is not truly complete if it ends on a minor chord. Hence, on a small scale, the 'Tierce de Picardy' and, on a larger scale, the Finale of Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony in E minor (which ends in E major). To this extent, the minor key could be seen as inferior.

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Major and minor, with reference to intervals, is quite specific. And it refers to 2nds, 3rds, 6ths and 7ths. The others are called 'perfect', and not particularly related to this question.

Each of 2nds, 3rds, 6ths and 7ths, therefore, have a major and minor label attached to them. The major always being a semitone larger than the minor. Not really connected with the scale or key they may belong to. Although on first view, that may seem to be the case.

So, regarding 3rds - C>E is a major 3rd,(4 semitones), while C>E♭ (3 semitones) is a minor 3rd. In key C, that 3rd is the defining factor as to whether the chord is major or minor. So, if that interval is M3, it is part of a major chord, whereas if it's m3, it's part of a minor chord.

The terms major and minor here, then are not synonymous with more or less important, but rather containing a larger or smaller interval.

It may be argued that a triad actually contains two 3rds - one major, one minor. But using the root or tonic as the base, it's easy to understand how each gets its name. That apart - in reality, a triad actually contains a 3rd and a 5th, which obviates the confusion!

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  • "In key C, that 3rd is the defining factor as to whether the chord is major or minor": it also determines whether the key is major or minor.
    – phoog
    Mar 22, 2023 at 9:19
  • @phoog - that's true, maybe I should include it in the answer, although OP specifically asked about chords. (I deleted my other comment).
    – Tim
    Mar 22, 2023 at 9:34
  • The question title mentions key.
    – phoog
    Mar 28, 2023 at 23:22
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Are the terms unknown arbitrary labels chosen for two chord types simply to be accepted, not thoroughly understood or, is there an exact historical account of who, when, where, and especially why, the terms major and minor were chosen to describe two chord forms?

The chords are named after their thirds. Major and minor are Latin for "bigger" and "smaller," and the major third is bigger than the minor third because it spans four semitones (originally understood as two whole tones) while the minor third spans only three (originally conceived as one whole tone plus one semitone). This understanding was in place at least by the 1480s, before "chord" was established as a theoretical construct. For example, John Hothby, who died in 1487, wrote in de arte contrapuncti

Disonantia tertia est duarum specierum, scilicet maioris et minoris. Disonantia tertia maior est formata duabus tonis, et tunc talis tertia vocatur ditona, sicut patet per exemplum. Disonantia tertia minor est formata uno tono et uno semitono, et tunc vocatur talis tertia semiditona, sicut patet per exemplum.

This means

The dissonance of the third is of two types, namely bigger and smaller. The bigger dissonance of the third is formed of two tones, then such a third is called a ditone, as may be seen from the example [which is unfortunately not reproduced in the linked page]. The smaller dissonance of the third is formed from a tone and a semitone, then such a tone is called a semiditone, as may be seen from the example.

From another treatise of the 1400s:

De tertia maiori et minori -- De tertia cum quinta

Item due sunt tertie scilicet maior et minor. Maior autem uocatur tertia ditonalis, [...]

De tertia cum vnisono.

Item tertia minor dicitur tertia semiditonalis [...]

And here's an anonymous source that names pitches for good measure:

Duplex est tertia, scilicet major et minor. Major est ditonus qui fit ex duobus tonis. Sicut ut mi, fa la, et e converso mi ut, la fa. Tertia minor est qui fit ex uno tono et uno semitonio minore, sicut de A ad c, et de [sqb] ad d, et de d ad f, et de e ad g, et de g ad b, cantando fa supra re, vel e converso, vel sol, supra mi, vel e converso, et vocatur semiditonus.

Translated:

The third has two forms, bigger and smaller. The bigger is the ditone, which is made of two tones. Such as ut mi, fa la, and the other way around mi ut, la fa. The smaller third is the one made of a tone and a smaller semitone, such as from A to c and from B natural to d, and from d to f, and from e to g, and from g to b flat, sung as fa above re, and the other way around, and sol above mi, and the other way around, and called the semiditone.

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    Interesting to note that thirds are referred to as dissonances — a matter of historical aesthetics that comes up fairly often on this site.
    – Aaron
    Mar 29, 2023 at 6:38
  • @Aaron indeed. I'm still mulling over an answer to a question about that that as I mentioned some weeks ago.
    – phoog
    Mar 29, 2023 at 7:24
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I would say that to discern the difference in stature of the major and minor triad, we must go all the way back to the overtone series, which serreptitiously governs much of music theory. I don't interpret major is bigger and minor is smaller necessarily. Rather, major is more important and fundamental than minor.

The major triad is composed of the simplest/lowest harmonics of a given tone. For a C, the first harmonics are C, C, G, C, and E. It is the most natural extrapolation of a tone into a chord. Ignoring differences in octave, and duplicated tones, this is where the triad C-E-G comes from. It is also why it sounds so natural. This fundamental quality of the major chord is likely (I'm speculating here, not being an expert in historical practice) the reason why Renaissance and Baroque compositions tended to end on major chords even if they were predominantly in minor up until that point. The natural phenomenon of the chord's resonance simply sounded better in reverberant spaces.

The minor triad is at least several degrees removed from the overtone series. The minor third appears later/higher in the series, and so it is less a natural phenomenon and much more of an artificial creation.

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  • "I don't interpret major is bigger and minor is smaller necessarily": check your Latin-English dictionary.
    – phoog
    Mar 28, 2023 at 23:23
  • Checking three dictionaries I find the connotations of major as greater and minor as lesser in each.
    – ejbpesca
    Mar 29, 2023 at 0:35
  • I can find a great opportunity for a pun... C-E-G sounds natural, C-E♭-G sounds unnatural (because E♭ is not natural, it's flat)!
    – mathlander
    Mar 30, 2023 at 2:38
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Personally, I find a lot of guessing in the answers. No real description of the history, etomology, of the concepts.

As a contrast, in the germanic tradition (German, Swedish, ...) the concepts are hard (dur) and soft (moll).

My guess is that sometimes in the long history of music, terms where given to the concepts and simply adhered.

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  • It seems there may be no firm historical account of when, who, and why the labels major and minor were added to the lexicon of music. Greater or lesser distance from a root note to a 3rd seems a popular answer. Maybe using minor chords and keys is collectively found in less quantity in the total works of music and that was why someone used the term major and minor. It seems the moment the terms were applied, by whom, and why they were chosen may remain a mystery.
    – ejbpesca
    Mar 22, 2023 at 23:39
  • @ghellquist I agree with your conclusion, therefore I added an answer that might be satisfying
    – Jürgen
    Mar 28, 2023 at 20:47
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    @ejbpesca there is surely a treatise somewhere that was the first surviving document to use the terms major and minor; it's just a question of surveying the large but finite body of literature to identify the earliest one. Soft and hard are undeniably older, dating back about 1000 years to a time long before keys as we know them today existed.
    – phoog
    Mar 28, 2023 at 23:21

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