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In the C major / A minor scale, I know which of the chords are minor and major (ie E is minor, F is major, etc) from experience.

But when working in a different scale, is there an easy way to figure out which of the chords would be major/minor? I could figure it out by thinking about which notes go in the scale, but to my mind, this is far from easy.

Is this just something that you have to learn (just like I know it for the A minor scale from experience), or is there some trick that I don't know about? There are many scales and modes, and learning it all seems daunting. Mostly in the context of guitar, but any insight in the matter would be appreciated.

  • Note that in Am, there is always the option that an E chord could be maj or min. – Tim Nov 11 '16 at 7:28
  • @Tim, how is that? The Am scale has the notes A, B, C, D, E, F and G, and Emaj chord is EG#B, so I'm a little confused here... Thanks! – SvenM Nov 14 '16 at 4:13
  • The fact is there are three or four well used minor scales - all with the same key sig. as C major, but with different notes. The one you know is A natural minor, A B C D E F G. A harmonic minor has A B C D E F G#. A melodic minor has A B C D E F# G# rising, and follows natural minor on the way down classically, and a jazz melodic uses melodic rising and the same notes going down. So, G# does feature, hence the options of Em or E maj. as the V chord. – Tim Nov 14 '16 at 7:25
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You can memorize the chords that belong in each scale. For instance, in a major scale you have: Major, minor, minor, Major, Major, minor, diminished.

This applies to all major scales. If you remember that by heart, you can figure out the chords for the major scale you're playing in.

Similarly, in the minor scales.

  • Harmonic Minor: minor, diminished, augmented, minor, Major, Major, diminished.
  • Natural Minor: same as the major scale, starting from the sixth degree
  • Melodic Minor (ascending): minor, minor, augmented, minor, Major, diminished, diminished

This might take a while at first, but if you practice you'll get the hang of it. It might also help to try to figure out the chords by the notes that are in each scale.

  • Thanks, this is really helpful. I do have a question: with this method, when you're giving a root note, you still have to count "it's the Nth note of the scale", and then go over those Major/minor patterns to figure out which one it is... Well, guess this is not a real question, just wondering if I'm missing something, or if my mind is just wired in a way that has trouble with mapping all that together quickly, and if there's any tools that can help with learning this. – SvenM Nov 10 '16 at 21:20
  • @SvenM Yes, you still have to count. – Shevliaskovic Nov 10 '16 at 21:23
  • This is an excellent answer, there is another level of detail where you could learn how to construct the chords that fit the scale from the notes in the scale, but in the end you will arrive at this answer just with a deeper knowledge. – amalgamate Nov 10 '16 at 23:44
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    The mediant chord of the harmonic minor is augmented. – Neil Meyer Nov 11 '16 at 3:34
  • Harmonic minor:minor, diminished, Augmented, minor etc. – Tim Nov 11 '16 at 7:41
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Let's approach this from a different view. It works well on guitar. Take the key chord in major as a barre E shape. Put it somewhere on the neck - say 8th fret - C - I chord.. By keeping the barre, but playing an A shape, you're on the IV chord - F. Move the whole lot up 2 frets, it's the V chord. Keep that 10th fret barre, and it's the ii chord, go up another 2 frets, same shape, and you've found the iii chord. That iii chord also lives one fret below the original (8) fret, using an Am shape. So, even without knowing their names, you could do the whole 6 chords in, say, Bb, by using this method, starting on fret 6. Some will say you can't do this without knowing what the chords are called - please explain why if it's you!

That's from a practical playing point of view. If you mean from a theory angle, that's not in my answer - rather like the lesser-used viio chord - which isn't hiding too far away.

EDIT: from a slightly more theoretical point of view, then -in major - I,IV and V will be the majors and ii, iii and vi the minors. Providing you know your key sigs, which tell if notes/chords are flat/sharp, then you can calculate the chords. Or, as Shev says, the order is M,m;m,M;M,m,o. This translates, for example, in Dmaj., to I=D ii=Em iii=F#m IV=G V=A vi=Bm viiio=C#o. But you do need to know keys well. On guitar, on relection,the former method works well in most situations. Boxes.

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Yes. Most musicians are trained as to the qualities of the chords in a key; I-ii-iii-IV-V-vi-vii(dim). So when learning, most people see a B chord in E major, and they think, 'The E major scale goes E-F♯-G♯-A-B..., so B is the fifth of the scale; since the dominant (5th) chord is major, it has to be B major'. This is the logical way to do it.

As musicians get better and more experienced, however, they often just know through memorization. Not necessarily through concentrated effort, but often osmosis due to their near-constant exposure. They'd think, 'Okay, we're in E, so it's B major'.

In my opinion, this is a great skill to have, as it severely reduces the amount of time you have to take to think about chord progressions. It also allows one to communicate more easily with others; as a trivial example, if someone tells me to play a "two-five-one", I don't need to ask them what qualities the chords are.

I therefore recommend knowing one's major scales and minor scales (more on that later), and also learning the relative diatonic chords (meaning "the one is major, two is minor, et cetera..."). but I also recommend simply practicing playing diatonic chords a lot, so one can simply know that, for example, B major has G♯m, without having to think about it.

Minor keys are a bit more difficult. In B♭ natural minor, the F chord is minor. However, there's a thing called harmonic minor, and that replaces the ♭7 degree with the leading tone. So, B♭-C-D♭-E♭-F-G♭-A♭-B♭ becomes B♭-C-D♭-E♭-F-G♭-A♮-B♭, and consequently some of the chords change qualities. Namely, III becomes III+, v becomes V, and VII becomes ♮vii(dim). Don't worry too much about this, beause there's a third type of minor, and the first two are nearly interchangeable/inseparable anyway; just remember that that F chord is very often changed to F major.

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    Did you mean to write: "most people see a B chord in E major, and they think,...."? – David Bowling Mar 2 at 6:51
  • @DavidBowling Yes. I changed up the chords in my examples while writing, and I just knew I'd forget to change something... Thank you. – user45266 Mar 3 at 0:50
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You are talking about scale, but that has nothing to do with the chords in the key signature. Almost any chord can work with a given key signature (my exception if the major seventh, that just sounds gawd awful). In the major key, the major fourth, the major fifth, the minor second, the minor third, and the minor sixth are the most common. But the major second, the major third and the major sixth are also widethy used. There are also more that are widely used, though not as much as the ones I mentioned. In the minor key there is even more flexibility. I won't go into any detail, but I'll give you an example. The fifth in the minor key can be either major or minor. They both work and they are both commonly used in a variety of genres. Technically, the minor fifth is correct, but the major fifth is more widely used. That goes against key signature because ultimately, the key signature isn't really that important.

  • The notes from a scale have all to do with the key signature - they are the notes in that key! They are also the notes which usually make up the chords most often used in that key. Technically, the 5th chord (major) is also correct in a minor key - one of the reasons it's used. Ultimately, the key sig is important, really. – Tim Nov 13 '16 at 9:10
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I don't really understand why you think F goes with em. But my suggestion would be to learn one chord very well, then apply that knowledge to other key signatures. At least learn the 7, 6, 5 and 5m, and the 4m.

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