When I search for keys for various songs online I see that it's the minor scale. But they don't say which minor scale.

For example, if I search for "greensleeves key" in google I get back "E minor" https://www.google.com/search?q=greensleeves+key

So my question is what is the "default" minor scale? Is it the harmonic, the natural, or the melodic, or something else? When a website leaves out which type of minor scale, which one do I assume it to be?

  • Hi, if there isn't a default one then that's an answer too. if you answer below I can give you a thumbs up. – user34288 Apr 27 '17 at 1:47
  • @foreyez, I like this question and think the discussion of key vs. scale is misguided. However, perhaps you could obviate that discussion by rephrasing the question like this: "When I search for the keys of various songs online, I will often see that they're in a minor key. But they don't state which minor scale the minor key is based on." – jdjazz Aug 5 '17 at 18:37

It's not really correct to say that a song is in a "minor scale". You can say it's in a "minor key". But melodies in minor keys tend to use a mixture of minor and major sixths and sevenths (Greensleeves does, at least as I know it). They don't necessarily stick to a single scale throughout.

For the purposes of reading and writing such melodies, you usually use a key signature that allows writing the natural minor without accidentals. (So, in the case of E minor, the key signature with just F#.)

Also note songs don't necessarily have fixed keys--you can play Greensleeves in any (minor) key you'd like. Sometimes a song is traditionally associated with one key, but even then individual performers might transpose the song, for example to make it fit the range of their voice better.

  • thanks. I didn't know you could play it in any minor key. cheers – user34288 Apr 27 '17 at 1:48
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    Greensleeves is actually in the Dorian mode. It generally has a raised sixth and lowered seventh. There are some old versions (one in Bukhofzer's book on Baroque music) which also have the ending tonic chord as major. – ttw Apr 27 '17 at 3:38
  • Huh. My totally unscientific approach was to check the first few videos on youtube. I think they all used a flatted sixth on the first phrase (do me, fa sol, se sol fa, re te). Then a raised sixth in the B section (te, te, la so fa, re te). And raised sevenths for leading tones at the end of phrases. Kind of felt like "minor except that we like to borrow from the major V sometimes" which I thought was pretty standard for melodies in minor keys, but I dunno, maybe also raising the sixth to get a major IV is a more unusual?) – Bruce Fields Apr 27 '17 at 15:48
  • I like that you connected the 'default' minor scale with what key signature is used and that is the convention for writing notation on staff. – Michael Curtis Apr 28 '17 at 19:16
  • @foreyez - you can play any piece of tonally based music in any key - or in between any key for that matter, if you have an instrument capable of doing so, such as a violin. (although some pieces will sound better in certain keys) . The note names will change, but the relationships between those notes - that which gives a piece its unique characteristics, does not change across keys. Moving the key of a piece from one key to another is called transposition . Very common for vocalists to transpose a song from one key to another to match their best range for singing it. – Stinkfoot Aug 16 '17 at 10:22

A minor key is just that - a minor key. Scales associated with a particular key have, unlike the major key, options. You are already aware that there are 4 distinct scales used in minor keys - natural, harmonic, classical melodic, and jazz melodic. All have changes from each other involving only the 6th and 7th notes. the reasons have been aired for a long time - plenty are on this site.

Often, a piece in a minor key will stick to notes from a particular minor scale, but others slide in and out of the available combinations. Bear in mind also that minor will include minor modes, which help muddy the waters.

So the writer cannot say which minor scale a piece is in, because a scale is not a key - in minor. Greensleeves is a particular example, and has two versions (at least!) of scales involved, both of which could maybe be pigeonholed as 'this is xyz minor'. But there's little point. In a way, it's like when a major piece modulates, there'a a non-diatonic note involved. Is it absolutely necessary to label everything? I think not!

  • @jdjazz - moot point! Yes, it's incorrect (imo) as a key is either major or minor. Even modes have keys! Em is Em. E Aeolian is a derivative of Em. E Phrygian...E Dorian... It appears that to be 'in E minor' needs only two key (excuse the pun) things. To be based on home=E, and to have G natural cropping up. I honestly don't know what's correct or not. Powers greater than me (that's most of you) will clarify... – Tim Aug 5 '17 at 18:12
  • Haha. I'm trying to figure out if there's a way to ask the question while eliminating the issue of scale vs. key. I can think of instances where the melody is written from a single minor scale. And in those contexts, I feel like the word "minor" does occasionally imply one particular minor scale. I can't narrow down those cases where a particular minor is implied though--I can't distill it enough to articulate an actual convention. – jdjazz Aug 5 '17 at 18:14
  • @jdjazz - I just feel that the minory bit is inferred by there being a minor 3rd. There really is nothing else. Aeolian, natural, harmonic, melodic, Dorian, et al all possess that golden bit. If any of these are E based, then E minor comes to mind. E melodic minor only has one note different from E major - the defining minor third. Can't see how a 'key' can signify use of one specific set of notes in 'minor'. – Tim Aug 5 '17 at 18:18
  • I see the merit in your point. I'm going to try to articulate the other side and would appreciate your feedback. (Though you may not be swayed :) – jdjazz Aug 5 '17 at 18:20
  • @jdjazz - I am always open to other ideas, (on everything), even if I disagree. Must keep the remaining synapses active... I think your use of the term 'tonality' is apposite. – Tim Aug 5 '17 at 18:22

On "Key" vs. "Scale"

The phrasing of this question seems to be generating a lot of discussion about the difference between a key and a scale. First, I'll address that issue, and then I'll offer an answer with some references.

I think much of the discussion about key vs. scale is misguided because keys are based on scales. For example, Wikipedia states:

In music theory, the key of a piece is a group of pitches, or scale upon which a music composition is created in classical, Western art, and Western pop music.

If keys are based on scales, then a minor key must be based on a particular minor scale. So the question is valid in asking about the underlying scale on which the minor tonality is based. I see the question as being: is there a single minor scale that is implied when a song is stated to be in a "minor" key?

Answer: Natural Minor

The answer to this question is: in general, yes, a single minor scale is implied. Stating "E minor" implies E natural minor. For example, studybass.com states:

Similarly, a piece of music can be in a minor key and revolve around a natural minor scale. For example, a song in the ‘key of D minor’ uses the notes of the D minor scale – D, E, F, G, A, Bb, and C.

Furthermore, the same Wikipedia article from above states:

A key may be major or minor. Music can be described as being in the Dorian mode, or Phrygian, etc., and is thus usually thought of as in a specific mode rather than a key.

So even the Wikipedia article straightaway excludes Dorian minor as a key, implying that a different minor scale must serve as the basis for minor keys. This affirms the general position on studybass.com that a single minor scale is implied by a minor key.


This approach might seem to leave no room for keys based on other minor scales--the Wikipedia article states as much. However, there is still a way to describe a song written in a Dorian mode, but that description shouldn't include the word "key." A statement along the lines of "the song is in the key of E minor" implies E natural minor. Perhaps a song written in E melodic minor would be best described this way: "the song is written using the E melodic minor scale."

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    I would like to disagree with Wiki on that definition. A scale is a set of pitches ordered by frequency. A key is a set of relations among chords. Some of these: tonic (major or minor), dominant chord with root a fifth above, sub-dominant chord with root a fifth below, etc. (including secondary dominants, augmented sixths, etc., cadential formulae....) – ttw Aug 5 '17 at 20:03
  • @ttw, can you provide a reference or citation in support of this definition? – jdjazz Aug 5 '17 at 20:13
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    I haven't seen a definition as such. I just got this idea from Tovey and Schoenberg and other music commentators. I'll take a look around some references over the weekend and see what I can find. Note that one can establish a key by playing (for example) the chord progression ii6, V7, I but not necessarily playing a scale. Even a V7-I sequence is sufficient or even a French Sixth followed by a V, no I needed. – ttw Aug 5 '17 at 21:45
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    According to some music-psychologist (I don't remember who. This was commented on in a lecture I attended), a repeated chord with no other sonorities begins to sound like a dominant. (I never experimented with the idea.) I think the lecturer's point was that chords get their identity (at least partly) from context. – ttw Aug 14 '17 at 16:51

There isn't a default minor scale, but if we are looking for some kind of foundation idea for minor (mode, key, tonality, etc.) we could say a mediant that is a minor third above a tonic is the primary identifying characteristic of minor tonality.

Beside the tonic and mediant all the other scale degrees are flexible in their exact interval above the tonic. In actual practice minor key music will exploit several options for these flexible scale degrees. You could regard the natural minor scale as the default scale from which scale degrees are altered, but this might be misleading for two reasons: first, it seems to dodge the main issue about the fluid nature of minor tonality, second it doesn't seem to match history. Minor keys in the Baroque era used a key signature that would be equal to the dorian mode. Is dorian mode the default minor scale?

It may be best to embrace the fluid nature of minor tonality. A seven pitch default scale just won't give us a complete picture. Maybe an analogy from science would be useful. Compare theories of the atom: the theory of an electron cloud based on probability versus the old Bohr model of fixed electron shells. Sometimes we just deal with things that are indefinite.


First of all, as other people have already stated, a song is in a key, not a scale. Also, many songs move to or at least allude to several different keys. When a song is written in a minor key, it will often switch between harmonic, melodic, and even natural. Melodic minor will sometimes be used on ascending scale passages, and natural minor is rather rare because its leading tone is not raised, which means that it doesn't naturally lead to tonic. However, harmonic minor is the most-used form because generally speaking it sounds the best to most Western listeners. This is because the leading tone is raised but it is still distinct from major, and it remains the same whether ascending or descending.

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    Isn't the statement "harmonic minor ... sounds the best to modern ears" subjective? – jdjazz Aug 5 '17 at 18:35
  • You're right, but generally speaking it's most comfortable for Western music/listeners. This is because the leading tone is raised but it is still distinct from major, and it remains the same whether ascending or descending. – Mary Aug 6 '17 at 19:26
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    @jdjazz - unless you stick to pure mathematical analysis, everything we say about what music sounds like is subjective - based on time (period/era etc), location, surrounding culture, personal taste, experience.... If there is a problem with "sounds the best to modern ears" it's not because it's subjective, but because it's too great a generalization. – Stinkfoot Aug 16 '17 at 10:10
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    @jdjazz If you see something that can be improved in my answer, you're welcome to edit it. I have tried to edit it based on your criticisms, but it might not be satisfactory still... Thanks for your comments though; my statement was definitely too generalized. I certainly did not mean to imply that anyone who does not prefer harmonic scales is "primitive" or anything of the sort. I merely meant that in previous ages, the preference for a harmonic scale was not always as obvious as it is today, as Stinkfoot clarified. – Mary Aug 17 '17 at 23:36
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    @Mary, I assumed you didn't actually intend anything negative by it. I've removed my -1. I think the half step leading tone is a good point because it creates a stronger resolution toward the tonic. If you have any thoughts on why that evolution of preference occurred, I would be interested in hearing them. – jdjazz Aug 18 '17 at 1:56

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