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I am learning guitar at the moment and I learned the major scale. Then I checked the minor scale and the positions are the same!

Not only that, the C major scale is the same as the A minor scale. So how is that possible? Is there any distinction between the two?

I thought major scales were happy and minor sad and dark. So when a listener hears a piece he might say "well, that sounds happy if we consider the C to be the root note, but sounds sad if we consider the A to be the root note"? That's absurd. There is something I don't get.

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    @user1584421 -- try playing the notes of the C major scale over a C drone, then compare the sound when you play them over an A drone. – ex nihilo Nov 16 '17 at 12:19
  • Look up the circle of fifths. Outer circle is major scales, inner is their relative minor. – user42882 Nov 18 '17 at 17:46
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    I've cleaned up some comments here -- in summary, there are different versions of the minor scale: natural, harmonic, and melodic. – Matthew Read Nov 18 '17 at 18:05
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    Note that even for natural minor, the identity between the pitches in C major and A minor is only exact in equal temperament tuning (which is indeed what guitar tunings with standard fret positoning aim to achieve). In just intonation the D needs to be somewhat flatter (by about 21.5 cents) in A minor than in C major, because then it is more important for D to be one pure fifth below A than to be two pure fifths above C. – Henning Makholm Nov 19 '17 at 14:00
57

You’ve discovered a very deep fact about music that is referred to as “mode.” It isn’t ridiculous at all to say that the same notes can have a different emotional quality depending on how you use them, in fact that’s a huge part of what composition is about! Most western composers use the same twelve notes to express everything from rage to joy to anhedonia. The seven classic modes are all defined as a specific sequence of whole and half steps: some version of WWHWWWH. What I mean by “version” is that any starting point in that sequence can be used if we just rotate the sequence. For instance, I might start with the first half step: that gives me HWWWH, and then I finish up with the part of the sequence i skipped from the beginning, WW. The complete sequence is HWWWHWW. If I start my scale with an E, that gives me EFGABCDE, and this mode is called E Phrygian. You’ll notice this is the same notes as C Major—CDEFGABC—only rotated so that it starts on E.

But what a difference it makes! C is the home note of C Major, and it can be approached by a half step up from the B below it. E is the home note of E Phrygian, but it can’t be approached from below by a half step. However, it can be approached from above by a half step. The most common resolutions in C major involve an upward push, but in E Phrygian they involve a downward fall; that’s bound to have an emotional effect. There’s a reason that Phrygian scales are very common in heavy metal music, but C major is quite rare.

If I rotate the step sequence in a different way, I get WHWWHWW. If I start on A, that gives me ABCDEFGA. You referred to this as A minor, but actually it would be better to call it A natural minor, or, better yet, A Aeolian. That’s the name of this mode. It doesn’t have a half step on either side of the home note, and thus has yet another set of potential emotional qualities. However, the world of true A minor is more complicated: sometimes the sixth and seventh notes of the scale are raised by one half step from their “natural” state and at other times are left natural. You should look up harmonic minor and melodic minor scales for more details on this. The upshot is that A minor is more complicated than A Aeolian, since it sometimes use F# and G#.

One last example of how order can matter: the sentences “I’m a genius, am I not?” and “I’m not a genius, am I?” Same collection of words, different meaning.

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    A small detail that I personally miss in this otherwise excellent answer (and missed for several years in all explanations of major and minor): the 'home note' is not just the note where the scale starts, but it is the 'central note' of a song. It is where the melody feels 'at rest'. In C major, your song feels 'at rest' when you play a c, and in A minor, your song feels 'at rest' when you play an a. This small detail (so obvious if you know it that teachers don't explain it) prevented me from understanding why we make a difference between A minor and C major for many years... – user38314 Nov 16 '17 at 18:20
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    @user1584421 Any Major scale is always WWHWWWH, so if you want to have A Major, you have to go up a whole step from A, which is B. Then you need to go up another whole step—that isn't C, it's C#. Then you need a half step to D, etc. In the end, A Major is A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G#-A, using several notes that aren't part of C Major or any of its modes. Of course you can rotate the notes of A Major so that they start on F#, F#-G#-A-B-C#-D-E-F#, and that would be an F# natural minor or F# Aeolian scale. All that matter is the succession of whole and half steps between the pitches. – Pat Muchmore Nov 16 '17 at 20:32
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    @Pakk - the term 'home note' says it all. It's not just the start note for a scale: it's the note (or chord) that feels like home - the place where a journey starts, and also finishes, completely. Thus - 'home'. – Tim Nov 17 '17 at 8:02
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    @Tim: Well, to me the term 'home note' did not say all this without explanation. Maybe it does to all other people, and I might be an exception. – user38314 Nov 17 '17 at 9:49
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    So basically, if I play some arbitrary melody using only the white keys on a piano, then whether I need to finish on a C or an A or an E to make it feel "finished" is what decides whether it's major, minor or phrygian? (At least in a simplified sense...) – Arthur Nov 17 '17 at 15:27
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The difference between C major and A minor, as you have observed, is not the collection of notes. The difference is how those notes are used. A melody or harmony based in C major will emphasize different notes than one in A minor. This emphasis can take different forms such as which note a melody starts on, which one it ends on, and which ones it chooses to linger on.

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Hardly absurd! The idea may be, but the fact isn't! However, it only works with reference to the natural minor notes. Certainly not with harmonic or melodic minors.

These days, we use the major scale notes as our datum point, and refer to other things from this standpoint. Thus, the natural minor of any major scale starts on the 6th note of the latter. This is a well known phenomenon and is labelled 'relative maj/min for obvious reasons'.

It's actually thought of as a mode of the major scale. Think about it, there are 7 possibilities of which note to start on (or use as 'home') in the major scale. Also referred to as the Ionian mode. The natural minor comes in as the Aeolian mode. Start on the second note, and go through to the 9th, it's Dorian.

You've discovered a whole 'new' world of music!

And the major=happy, minor=sad syndrome still applies (to a lot of folk) because the 'home' on A will sound quite different from the 'home' on C, using the same notes.

And - another thing you may find interesting. Take a major triad, CEG. The major bit's C>E, but E>G is actually minor. Take a minor triad, ACE. The minor bit's A>C, but C>E is actually major. So that maybe topples the maj=happy/ min=sad idea somewhat...

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    Does the word “relative” appear in this answer? I can’t find it. Without it I have to see this answer as incomplete. – Todd Wilcox Nov 16 '17 at 13:58
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    @ToddWilcox - it did appear in the mind during the typing, but never made it to my fingers. Thanks. – Tim Nov 16 '17 at 14:00
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Major scale of one note is the Minor scale of another note?

Some points to consider:

  • We're speaking here in a strictly ethnocentric western world music sense. There are systems of musical intonation that have more or less than 12 distinct tones outside of the diatonic scale system.
  • Notes don't have scales inherent to them, only even frequency distance from one another.
  • By itself a single note is not major, minor, or otherwise. It's just a tone.
  • Two notes form an interval, and intervals are usually:
    • major
    • minor
    • perfect (refers to IVs and Vs)
    • NOTE: with accidentals, it's also possible to get augmented or diminished intervals.
  • Three notes make up triads, commonly thought to be necessary to make up a “chord”; they're usually constructed of two 3rds: one minor, one major.

[…] the C major scale is the same as the A minor scale.

No, it isn't at all. What you mean to say is: they share the same key signature. and thus are related but that's different.

“So how is that possible? Is there any distinction between the two?”

Absolutely. One uses "a minor" as its tonic and modifies e minor into E major in order to form a dominant fifth. Contrast this with C major, which also has no sharps or flats but forms it's dominant fifth on G major without needing to sharpen the leading tone.

Sharps

№   | Accidentals    | Major Key | Minor Key
--- | -------------- | --------- | ---------
0   | (no sharps)    | C major   | a minor
1   | F♯             | G major   | e minor
2   | F♯C♯           | D major   | b minor
3   | F♯C♯G♯         | A major   | f♯ minor
4   | F♯C♯G♯D♯       | E major   | c♯ minor
5   | F♯C♯G♯D♯A      | B major   | g♯ minor
6   | F♯C♯G♯D♯A♯E♯   | F♯ major  | d♯ minor
7   | F♯C♯G♯D♯A♯E♯B♯ | C♯ major  | a♯ minor

Flats

№   | Accidentals    | Major Key | Minor Key
0   | (no flats)     | C major   | a minor
1   | B♭             | F major   | d minor
2   | B♭E♭          | B♭ major  | g minor
3   | B♭E♭A♭        | E♭ major  | c minor
4   | B♭E♭A♭D♭      | A♭ major  | f minor
5   | B♭E♭A♭D♭G♭    | D♭ major  | b♭ minor
6   | B♭E♭A♭D♭G♭C♭  | G♭ major  | e♭ minor
7   | B♭E♭A♭D♭G♭C♭F♭ | C♭ major  | a♭ minor
4

The quality of Major and minor comes from the order and frequency that notes are used and how they are combined.

While this may not seem profound, it is everything. A single note is not major or minor, but the note C will sound “happy” when followed by E F, but “sad” when following A B.

  • "[…] the note C will sound ‘happy’ when followed by E F, but ‘sad’ when following A B." ☞ it's worth noting that the phenomenon of major chords = happy & minor ones = sad isn't universal. This is particularly true of people unfamiliar with western music. It very well may be an entirely learned response. – danwarfel Nov 30 '17 at 9:28
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It's all a matter of context, one note alone doesn't mean much, what's really important is the relationship between several notes.

Start thinking about intervals. Intervals have a very distinct "flavor", and that flavor remains the same if you change the root note. When playing a C just after an A (3th minor interval) you'll get a completely different sound of the one of an E played after a C (3th major interval). Just like words, notes have different meanings depending on what words come first or after it.

I'd suggest you ear training on intervals, it might help you spot the mood change you get when changing roots.

1

The way I would phrase it is that C major and A minor have the same key signature, but in many other ways they're very different.

How would you play a I-V7-I progression in C major? I know, I know, C major is not such a great key for the guitar. Maybe C-E, then G-B-F, and back to G-C-E.

Now how would you play a i-V7-i progression in A minor? Maybe A-C-E, then G-D-E... wait that's a minor seventh rather than major seventh chord. So you go with G#-D-E instead.

Of course for a melody you might or might not like the sound of the succession of notes E, F, G#, A, G#, F, E, so you might do E, F#, G#, A, G (natural), F (natural), E instead. Since you might be constantly overriding F# and G#, you just don't put them in the key signature. And they would look kind of weird without the sharp for C in between them.

Do we have VexFlow or something like that on here?

  • Why is C major a bad key for guitar? I use it all the time. Also, the actual RELATIVE MINOR scale does not include a G#, that's the harmonic minor scale. It also only includes the G# while ascending (while descending, it's back to a G). Relative major and minor scales have the same key signature (meaning same accidentals, re: G#), so it might make sense to say you are using a slightly different scale than the OP is talking about (harmonic vs natural/aeolian. The natural scale being the one that is used for the relative minor of C major, not the harmonic scale). – user42882 Nov 21 '17 at 16:52
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    @AytAyt Classical guitarists have told me it's a "bad" key. It doesn't look so bad to me as I look at the chord charts, but then again, I've never played guitar in front of other people, aside from family gatherings. By the way, happy Thanksgiving. – Robert Soupe Nov 21 '17 at 17:17

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