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When would you say a piece, or a movement in a symphony, is in A minor versus C major? They both use the same notes on the scale... what would indicate that the piece is in A minor?

Let's take an example. The 2nd movement of Beethoven's 7th symphony. The principal key is A minor. But what distinguishes the key from C major in this movement? (Obviously, the mood is more appropriate to a minor key, but I'm sure there is a better answer.)

  • 2
    When you say "the mood is more appropriate to a minor key" you have it backwards. It is by virtue of being in a minor key that creates that mood. – Caleb Hines Dec 24 '14 at 17:45
  • Couldn't it also be in D dorian, E phrygian, F lydian, G mixolydian, or B locrian? – Ethan Richardson Aug 10 at 20:23

10 Answers 10

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The last chord harmony of most pieces give a feeling of ending. (It would, wouldn't it - otherwise the piece goes on, potentially).With no key signature, shown, a piece could be in C major or A minor. This last chord gives a big clue as to which key the writer thinks it's in. The presence of G#, showing usually a V-I cadence is also a good clue, except that it is used in C major, to modulate to the relative minor. Maybe if it happens a lot, there is more chance of the tune actually being in A minor. Trouble is, that G# may show melodic or harmonic minor tendency, but wouldn't be there if the tune is written using A natural minor notes.

Another pointer is where the tune tends to gravitate to, especially at cadence points. If it feels like it's coming to rest on more Cs, or more As, there's the answer.

A nice example of this dilemma is 'Fly Me To The Moon'. Starts on Am, but ends on C.

Bottom line is probably - 'Does it really matter?'

  • That's why I added the caveat "usually". I could have gone into modulation as a form of large scale dissonance and resolution as well, but not all tunes modulate. Tonal hierarchy, however, applies even to modality. All modes have a final tone, and they have a dominant ("tenor" in Gregorian terminology) which is generally (but not always) a fifth above the final. There was a limit to how far I think we could get across those concepts. – user16935 Dec 24 '14 at 10:08
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    +1 for "does it really matter." Taking a long piece using only the natural notes, you could probably find bits in A minor, C major and various other modes. The only time it matters is when you want to number the notes and chords, then you really have to decide what mode you're in. For example, shall we refer to E as the 3rd of C major or the 5th of A minor? Or even the tonic of the Phrygian? – Level River St Dec 24 '14 at 11:07
  • @steve verrill - you're absolutely spot on. Pieces can fluctuate a lot sometimes, and even the key signature may not give accurate enough clues. Right now I'm in a Christmas mode... – Tim Dec 24 '14 at 12:53
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    @Tim I would say it definitely matters. The key defines the tonic, dominant, and subdominant. Take for example the lone G3 note in the theme from Choral Symphony (piano transcription). Why does it have the power to bring everything to a pause? Perhaps because it's the dominant of the scale. – ktm5124 Dec 25 '14 at 6:58
  • Also just wanted to add that if you can discern the piece's form, you can use the structure to help you determine appropriate key areas. A movement of a symphony may be in a Sonata-Allegro form, so you could compare the Exposition and the Recapitulation. Also, keep in mind the period when it was written - composers from different periods treated harmony differently. For Tim, it matters so far as how well in conveys whatever the composer wishes to convey; a subtle shift in tone color perhaps. It is helpful for movements within a symphony as it conveys a close without sounding too final. – jjmusicnotes Dec 26 '14 at 21:23
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A is tonicised (the term we use) rather than C. That means that the tonic chord, the one that defines the key and resolves all harmonic motion, is confirmed by various means as A minor. Tonality is defined by a hierarchy of interval relationships, the strongest being the relationships of a fifth and a fourth. In the key of C, that would be G and F respectively, which is why you see chord progressions like C Maj - F Maj - G Maj - C Maj all the time. The equivalent progression in A minor would be A min - D min - E Maj - A min. I'll get to why E Maj in a bit.

Now those relationships aren't symmetrical: rising a fifth (or falling a fourth), for various reasons both physical and cultural, creates a greater strain than falling a fifth. (TL;DR is that in the harmonic interval of a fifth, the upper note and its harmonics reinforce the harmonics of the lower note, thus moving from one chord to the one a fifth above is changing the effective fundamental, whereas moving to the chord a fifth below supplies a fundamental that encompasses both chords.)

The net effect is that the fourth degree of the key (F Maj in the key of C Major, for example) is, in effect, a point of relaxation in a chord progression in that key (because moving from the tonic to the fourth degree is an easy downward motion of a fifth), whereas a movement to the fifth degree (G Maj in the key of C) sets up an opposition to the tonic, and falling from the fifth degree to the tonic resolves that opposition. That's why progressions like C - F - G - C are so common. In this case, C is being balanced by F and G, and the final motion G to C is a resolving one which confirms C as the tonic.

Melodic intervals aren't symmetrical in strength either. The strongest intervals melodically are seconds, and the very strongest motion is by a minor second upwards. In both C major and the natural scale of A minor, the minor seconds are found between E and F, and B and C. In C Major, when you move from a G Maj chord to a C Maj chord, you have not only got a strong root movement (establishing a fundamental of C), you've got the B in the chord of G (the third of the chord) pushing into the note of C in the tonic chord as well.

Given that the minor second intervals in both C major and natural A minor are the same, the chord on the fifth degree of A minor is normally going to be a minor chord, E min, with G as its third. The melodic motion from G to A is a major second, which isn't as strong as a minor second, so it's very common to substitute G♯ instead, which makes the chord on E a major chord. (If the melodic line was rising from E to A, it's not unusual to sharp F as well.)

So, if you look at a piece in C, you'll find that the piece usually begins with a C Maj chord or G Maj chord (not always, but these are most common), and usually ends with a G Maj chord followed by C Maj final chord. In A minor, the pieces usually start with an A min chord, sometimes an E Maj, occasionally an E min, and usually end with E Maj followed by A Maj or A min. (The reason for A Maj as the very last chord of the piece is that asymmetry I mentioned earlier: a major third in a chord is a better match to the lower harmonics of the chord's root note than a minor third, and thus the chord is more stable. The term for ending a piece in the minor mode with the tonic major chord is tierce de Picardie or Picardy third.)

You'll also see a fair number of G♯s (generally pushing into a neighbouring A) as SSteve mentioned, and possibly some F♯s as well. That is melodic motion inside the piece that is helping to confirm A as the tonic.

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The tonic in C major is C major; the tonic in A minor is A minor. The key signature narrows it down to one of the two. An imperfect method to distinguish between a major key & its relative minor is to analyse the "chord" created when the main theme resolves. In the case of Beethoven's 7th, movement 2, this occurs, for example, just before the violins come in (26th measure). The "chord" created by the cellos & violas is an A minor.

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The other answers have good detail on the theory of the chords and scales, so I decided to give an example.

You mention the second movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony as an example. There are no sharps or flats in the key signature, so how would you tell whether it's in A minor or C major? Let's take a look at that, shall we? Here's the opening chord:

Opening chord from Beethoven's 7th Symphony, Mvmt II

Notice the notes that are being played (remember that the Horns transpose down a sixth, and the Clarinets transpose down a third). Horns: E; Bassoons: A,C; Clarinets: E,A; Oboes: C,E. This is a straight-up A minor chord being held for the first two measure of the piece. That's usually enough of a clue to let us strongly suspect that the piece is probably in A minor.

But we can go further. Lets look at the opening theme, which starts in the low strings (remember that the viola is written in the C-clef, so its first note is E). You can figure out the chords that each set of notes makes, but I've already written the chord name in blue under the staff each time it changes. I've also marked non-harmonic Passing tones and Neighbor tones. (In some cases this is a bit subjective, since many of them do create actual chords. For example, the first set of passing tones in the Viola creates a D7 in second inversion. For our purposes we don't care about this level of detail, though.)

Opening theme from Beethoven's 7th Symphony, Mvmt II

Ignoring the first two measure of silence (while the woodwinds are playing that opening chord) this breaks into 4 phrases of 4 bars each.

  • Phase 1: Am-E-Am. This is a classic i-V-i. Other answers already explain why the G♯ is used to make E major, so I won't dwell on that. If we were in C major at this point, we'd be focusing on the vi chord and its secondary dominant.

  • Phrase 2: Am-C/G-G-C. Now this looks like a regular I64-V-I in C major. It seems as if Beethoven is trying to confuse us here, and make us think that we are in C major. These three chords can be said to tonicize C major (they temporarily treat C as the tonic). Does that mean we're in the key of C major? Not really, because keys tend to have a longer scope than three or four bars.

  • Phrase 3: C-B-Bm-A-Am. Suddenly, we are in what seems to be a tonally-ambiguous section, as the first cellos begin a descending chromatic scale. None of these chords (B, Bm, A) occur naturally in either C major or A minor. However, an A minor tonality is still arrived at by the end of the phrase, when the C♯ descends to a C♮. (A more detailed analysis might notice that, in the B minor measure, the G# that I labeled as a passing tone in the viola creates a G#dim chord (vii dim, relative to A), which has a dominant function leading back to A.)

  • Phrase 4: Am-E-Am-E-Am. This phrase is very similar to the first. It involves alternating Am and E chords (i and V) and gives us our first true cadence in the key of A minor, which brings a sense of finality and confirms that, yes, we are indeed in the key of A minor.

As an interesting (but largely irrelevant) side note, the fact that the F is always sharped in these phrases, even when the G is not sharped (as occurs in phrase 2), leads me to think that this piece actually leans more towards A-Dorian side of the minor key, rather than A-Aeolian (either way, it's still seen as A minor).

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First of all, it probably doesn't matter much.

Then, there can be clues.

  • Last note / chord. Most pieces end on the chord of their scale. If it ends with C, it's probably C major, if it ends with A, it's probably A minor.
  • Look at the chords. If it's mostly C, F, G, it's C major. If it's mostly A, D (and sometimes E), it's probably A minor.
  • Look at other notes. For example, if B is used frequently, it might more likely be C major.
  • Simply the ratio of major chords vs. minor chords.

When a piece is C major, it's quite likely that the main chords will be C major (tunica), G major (dominant) and F major (subdominant).

When a piece is A minor, it's quite likely that the main chords will be A minor (tunica) and D minor (subdominant), sometimes also E minor (dominant).

The difference is, as you said, the mood, which is caused by those clues.

Examples:

  • La Esperanza (Ralf Hildenbeutel, Sven Vaeth) chord sequence is A minor, E minor, G major, D minor. The piece is A minor.
  • La valse d'Amelie (Yann Tiersen) is D minor, A minor, F major, C major. The initial chord and the last chord are A minor. The piece is A minor.
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    Unless you're playing in a modal setting, you are not very likely to find an E minor in a piece in A minor. – Basstickler Dec 26 '14 at 1:51
  • @Basstickler I guess you're right. The only piece in A minor that I could quickly make out that uses E minor is La Esperanza. It's A minor, E minor, G major, D minor. I've updated my answer accordingly. – Christian Hujer Dec 26 '14 at 3:44
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One way to quickly tell if a piece is in A minor versus C major is to scan through the score and see if you see a number of occurrences of G#. That's an indication of A melodic minor.

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    This doesn't work because obviously you could have a secondary dominant (E7) in C major as well. Look around and you'll see zillions of examples. – Matt L. Dec 24 '14 at 8:19
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The answer varies according to styles. You seem to specify classical movements of symphonies and the like, so I'll answer it there. Jazz has so many harmonic nuances, and Pop/Rock really blurs the lines with natural minor.

In Classical theory, minor key does use the same key signature as the relative major, so A minor and C major have no sharps or flats. However, most classical works do not rely heavily on natural minor, which is all white keys. Instead, composers use melodic minor (F and G are sharpened), and harmonic minor (only G is sharpened). For other keys you have to learn some transposition skills, and key signatures, buts that's a different question.

That's visually studying the score. In terms of listening, the idea of key in all western music is that the music sounds like, or feels like it is pulled to one of the 12 keys in the octave. So for A minor, the music is naturally pulled to A, in C major music is pulled to C. In C major, The destination is C, which is called the tonic, or I (one). Look at the last note in the movement or piece. Sing it. It is probably your key, because that note is the destination note, tonic note, or "key" note.

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The chord progressions revolve around A minor triad instead of C major triad. In other words, the A minor is the chord that is one or more of the following:

  • repeated most often
  • starts and finishes the song
  • the chord that immediately follows G7 or E7
  • is sustained for longer periods compared to other chords

Additionally the "G" note/tone does not play a big role of emphasis for the melody or improvisation, but "A" and "E" tones do. In other words, melody or improvisation tends to target the root and fifth of the tonic chord.

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When would you say a piece, or a movement in a symphony, is in A minor versus C major? They both use the same notes on the scale... what would indicate that the piece is in A minor?

This is no entirely true a minor has a G sharp that C major has not. There are some other indicators. If a piece has a anacrusis (Upbeat) than this is usually built on the dominant chord. SO if the upbeat was build around a E major chord than it would clearly indicate the key of a minor.

In the example you mention we start on C major chord which has a natural G which indicates that piece starts on the tonic chord of the key of C Major. Always check whether the leading tone of the minor key is raised or not. That should give you a clear enough indication most of the time.

  • There are songs in A minor that do not contain G#. That in itself is not a good enough criterion. – Tim Jan 14 at 10:56
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If an appreciable number of cadences come to rest on an A minor chord, and E7 (with its distinctive G# note features heavily in the piece), it's in A minor. Don't be fooled by a final excursion into C major, or even a final A major chord.

Don't worry too much about attaching labels. It's good that you realise C major and A minor are closely related.

If this is about answering "theory exam" questions, just look out for the G sharps!

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