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Any major scale contains the same notes as the natural associated minor scale - C major being the easy option contains all the same notes as A minor natural.

But of course we also have other common minor scales. A harmonic minor gives us G# and in the melodic minor scale we also get F#.

I wondered if this means that F# and G# would be the "least controversial" notes to add when playing in C major since they come from variants of the associated minor key? i.e. they'd fit quite nicely without sounding too dissonant?

Answers that don't use complex music theory terminology - or explain what the terms mean - are preferred as I don't know much theory.

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This is going into modal territory. There are also 'minor' scales in some of the modes. Obviously the Aeolian, as mentioned, but Dorian and Phrygian also sport that important minor third from the root. The F# mentioned will appear in the C Lydian mode, although it's perceived as a major mode.That F# can also be thought of as a b5 as in blues.

Actually, any non-diatonic note can and is used in any melody. It is more dependent as to where it's played than anything. Sometimes, a non-diatonic note will work as a main stressed note, sometimes it won't. I say to students "any note, anywhere will fit - if you know what you're doing." A 'wrong' note can be used to make the listener wince, just for a moment, before it's resolved. Very effective it is too! Quick example - Maria, West Side Story!

There's also the fact that an underlying harmony may be crying out for a non-diatonic note. Take a lot of middle 8s, that end on the dominant (G, in C). That dominant pushes the song back to tonic. But to get there, a secondary dominant ('dominant of the dominant') is used before the dominant. As in C key, sequence at end of mid.8 goes D7-G(7). That D7 will contain a non diatonic F#, but it's waiting to be reflected in the melody right there.

Someone once told me that Star Spangled Banner was written in Lydian because it had that #4 in it. No, it's only modulating slightly!

Hope this is laymannish enough for you.

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    @Mr.Boy You're right in saying that major/minor relationships are not "opposites", but should rather be thought of as different flavors. – jjmusicnotes Jan 27 '15 at 0:58
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    @mey It would depend on what you're doing with it. A "VI" would need a picardy third in the new key, which would almost sound like voice-leading to "D" depending on how it was prepared. A "VI" would be considered a parallel major of the relative minor and would be considered root movement by mediant relationship. – jjmusicnotes Jan 27 '15 at 5:11
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    @Tim The difference is not academic, but of function. The point of roman numeral analysis is to show harmonic function. If it functions as a V/vi then that's great; you wouldn't label it as III. If it's part of a series of unrelated chords, then you shouldn't use RN analysis and instead just use chord names. Regarding your point about "D", the answer is yes, V/V/II(I) would be correct; you would put the whole motion in the context of D since that is where it's heading. I have analyzed pieces that contained V/V/V/vii°/I. Yes, I agree, it's obnoxious. – jjmusicnotes Jan 27 '15 at 13:27
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    @jjmusicnotes - clarified! Thanks! Sounds pretty academic- to me! Would your last example end up played as a G#? (#V) I feel that most musos who know their stuff would be just as happy seeing the simplified version, and would instinctively understand where it's going. Obnoxious is one description! – Tim Jan 27 '15 at 14:45
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    @mey - letter name seems important, so working back, in C - vii=B, V of=F#, V of=C#, so V of that =G#. That's my tuppenceworth. – Tim Jan 27 '15 at 17:25
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Yes it fits well. It is basically the same scale that starts on different notes with the exception of the leading tone of the Harmonic minor which is raised by a semi tone and in the case of the Melodic minor both the Sub Mediant and the Leading Tone is raised when going up and also then lowered when going down (Natural Minor).

  • Jazzers might disagree with the last bit. – Tim Jan 27 '15 at 17:54
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In a-minor:

  • G# is coming from the dominant of a-minor (E-G#-B).
  • F# is coming from the subdominant of a-minor (D-F#-A).

Generally, the scale is fitted to the harmonic progression in accordance with where the scale moves. Because of the dominant chord used when progressing from G to A, G is augmented to G# in the ascending scale of a melodic minor (a->b->c->d->e->f#->g#->a) and V-I cadance of the harmonic minor (g#->a where the scale is a, b, c, d, e, f, g#, a). They are untouched in the descending scale (a->g->f->e->d->c->b->a) because we don't need a the dominant as G progresses to F. Melodic minor has also F augmented to F# because the augmented 2nd interval followed by minor 2nd's (e->f->g#->a) is not characteristically used in western classical music (this kind of melodies are common in Turkish and Arabic music but they don't imply any western harmony because they are not polyphonic styles).

Without a context you can relate F# from the dominant (D) of the dominant (G) of C-Major, or subdominant (D) of the minor (A) of the C-Major and G# from dominant (E) of the related minor (A) of C Major. But this is a simple guide that means nothing without context. You can relate those notes to C-Major from many various ways so it doesn't mean much like this.

  • check out the harmonic minors. There's never an F# in them. They tend to live in the melodic minors, but then not all the time! – Tim Jan 27 '15 at 14:48
  • @Tim Thanks, edited. Pardon my confusion, too much concentrated on the dominant idea. I hope that is fine now. – Guney Ozsan Jan 27 '15 at 19:01
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Yes, F# can imply the 'dominant of the dominant', G# can lead us to Am, which can be considered an alternative flavour of C major.

But other chromatic notes are equally acceptable, and equally common. C, C#dim7, Dm7, G7, C is a cliche progression. As is C, C7, F, Fm, G/C, G7, C. That's all the chromatic tones except Eb accounted for - and I could easily find a way to fit that in! Shall we take a different approach and invoke the Blues? That uses a (sort of) Eb.

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Do notes from non-natural minor scales fit well in the associated major key?

They can, depending on context.

I wondered if this means that F# and G# would be the "least controversial" notes to add when playing in C major since they come from variants of the associated minor key? i.e. they'd fit quite nicely without sounding too dissonant?

Are they somehow the least controversial, or least dissonant? No. In fact, this question doesn't really make sense when you consider the meaning of dissonance.

The fallacy in your assumption is in thinking that notes outside of a given key somehow have a certain amount of "dissonance" inherent to them by virtue of their being outside of the key. This is not the case. A note's dissonance can only be measured against other notes sounding at the same time. Simply put, if there is another note sounding that is a second, seventh, or a tritone away, then there is a dissonance. If it's a third, sixth, perfect fourth, or perfect fifth, then it's consonant.

Therefore, to determine whether a note is dissonant (or "controversial") depends entirely on the other notes in the chord that is being played. In fact, by using the correct chords, any note outside of the key can be made to sound quite consonant. The correct question is in what context (i.e. in what chord) that note belongs to make it consonant, and then what implications that chord has on the chord progression.

In the case of G# in the C major scale, as others have already mentioned, it creates a consonance with E and B to form an E major chord. The result of raising the G to make this chord major is that it acts like a dominant chord, strongly implying an A minor tonality.

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