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I've been composing in major for some time and decided to work in a minor key for practice. It's not going too well – I'm having trouble using common techniques in major, such as utilizing the powerful V-I relationship, or using the vi chord to replace the I chord to create suspense, in minor. Are these tricks applicable? Or do these things fly out the window when I move to minor keys? My song right now doesn't sound bad, but it is lacking tension and release, suspense, anticipation, momentum, etc. Any tips? Let me know if I can provide more details.

Song (A minor)

Verse: iv-VI-III-VII(6/4)

Bridge VII-III

Chorus VI-VII-i-III

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    Is that I chord in the chorus supposed to be minor (i.e. lower case)? On that note, you only hit the i (I?) chord once through the entire song. It's hard to tonicize a progression in the mind's ear when it transiently passes through other chords without direction. Perhaps coming up with a long-range chord structure (eg, i | % | % | V) and filling in other chords along the way (eg, i | % | % | V becomes: i | VI | ii-7b5 | V) – LSM07 Jul 24 '18 at 3:44
  • LSM07 has a good point that you use the tonic chord only once. Additionally, you use VII and III rather frequently, which is actually V and I in Major. Also, in the chorus you have VII -> I -> III which in major would be the very plausible progression V -> VI -> I. I think you are unhappy because you are unintentionally still looking for the sound of a major key, while writing in a minor key. Also, the absence of V stands out. – 11684 Jul 24 '18 at 8:21
  • @LSM07 , what exactly makes that a "long-range" chord structure? And would that be applicable to the verse? – 286642 Jul 24 '18 at 12:41
  • @11684 , this goes back to one of my questions--does v here have the same function as it would in major? Where would you expect to see the v? Is it best to make the g sharp so that it's a V chord? – 286642 Jul 24 '18 at 12:41
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    @286642 , v does not have the same function as V (i.e. it does not have the same function as "it would in major"). v usually does not resolve to i, unlike V. I recommend making the G sharp. – Dekkadeci Jul 24 '18 at 14:29
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By and large, any harmonic tools you use in major—progressions, particular chords, inversions, etc.—should work basically the same way in minor. However, what works in minor doesn't always work so well in major. As such, there are a couple of tricks that are specific to minor:

  • Although the dominant chord in natural minor would be minor (v), we typically go ahead and make it major (V). Doing so uses the leading tone to help drive a return to tonic.
  • The use of VII in minor is much more common than the use of vii° in major. In fact, VII in minor often functions as a dominant (even though it does not have the leading tone!). Try experimenting with some progressions that use VII in this way.
  • As a corollary to the above point: whereas descending fifth motion is really common in major, in minor it's often descending fourths. Check out "The Crowing" by Coheed and Cambria. The section I've queued is basically i—VI—III—VII—i, with the descending-fourths progression VI—III—VII. Perhaps play around with this idea to see if anything speaks to you.
  • You could even venture into some chromaticism and try to use ♭II (e.g., B♭ major in the key of A) as a type of dominant. This gives it a Phrygian feel, the idea being that the half step above tonic can lead to tonic just as strongly as the leading tone (the half step below) does.

Otherwise, I wonder if you might want to experiment more with your verse progression. As it is, it's a very common rock progression, but there's just one problem: it's backwards! i—III—VI—iv—i is heard all over the place (in major, it's the theme to the American version of The Office), but you actually have the chords going iv—VI—III. Such a "retrogression" (as opposed to progression) may contribute to your troubles creating tension and release.

  • I think something based on -- could work fine, if some notes out of the natural minor scale are added for leading effect. That could for example be a ♭Ⅱ. The Karma Police progression works in a similar way. – leftaroundabout Jul 24 '18 at 9:02
  • @Richard, thanks for the response. Looking at your second point, is the decision to use the VII vs. the V in minor simply a personal decision then? – 286642 Jul 24 '18 at 16:29
  • @288642 Yep! Like many things when it comes to composition, it's all about what effect you're trying to create. – Richard Jul 24 '18 at 16:41
  • I swapped out the bridge chords for the B-flat major (flat-II) chord you suggested. This really helped the piece in that it not only adds variety, but pulls you into the chorus because the b-flat resolves down by step to the A note of the VI chord. Thanks for the suggestion. @richard – 286642 Jul 25 '18 at 21:49
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Not going to address the chords, particularly. Are you aware of several different note patterns involved in minor keys? For starters, there are natural, harmonic and melodic minors. These all give the first five notes of each scale the same (in Am, A B C D E) but then there's a choice of F, F#, G, G#. Any of these notes work in key Am.

Then there are the minor modes, namely Dorian, Phrygian and aforementioned Aeolian. This is just to give you some slightly different tinges to a minor piece. The chords derived from the different scales/modes can all be found using the tried and tested 1-3-5-(7). Tertiary chords. I'd also include C# as it's the leading note going to D/Dm, which will feature somewhere in a piece in Am.

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There is nothing inherently wrong with your progression but it may lack the feel on resolution. As the first answer points out using a major chord on the V of your minor key (iii of the relative major) introduces the leading tone and as Tim points out (or alludes to) this is in the harmonic minor scale.

The chords in the major scale are based on stacking thirds in the Ionian mode. In order of appearance the seventh chords are: I Maj7, ii-7, iii-7, IV Maj7, V7, vi-7, vii-7(b5).

In the relative minor key one of the most common progressions is the minor ii-V which is (using relative Major roman numerals) vii-7(b5) --> III7 --> vi

The 4 minor chord (relative to the minor key) can replace the 2 chord leading to ii-7 --> III7 --> vi. To explore more chords in minor keys start with the melodic minor scale and start building seventh chords. You will find an abundance of -7(b5) chords, roots that do not lie in the key (in A minor you'll find F#-7(b5), G# dim, and G#-7(b5)). Then start building the circle progression, I-IV-V, etc using these chords. Keep what works and drop what doesn't.

EDIT as per comment:

To address the OP questions to me and the overall post here is a description of the triads that naturally occur in the Harmonic and Melodic minor scales (as well as Ionian). Since the OP song is in Cmaj (Amin) I will stick to that key as an example. The chords are built from stacking thirds, e.g. taking every other note in the scale from any starting note. Using the C maj scale this gives:

(C, E, G) = C Maj

(D, F, A) = D min

(E, G, B) = E min

(F, A, C) = F Maj

(G, B, D) = G Maj

(A, C, E) = A min

(B, D, F) = B dim

The seventh chords are obtained by adding one more "third" to the stack, and so on for ninths and thirteenths (the end). A 13th chord is the entire scale in thirds. Natural minor produces the exact same set of chords. Harmonic minor has a sharp 7th to create the leading tone to the i of the minor key (in this case that is G# leading to A). The chords are:

(A, C, E) = A min

(B, D, F) = B dim

(C, E, G#) = C aug

(D, F, A) = D min

(E, G#, B) = E Maj

(F, A, C) = F Maj

(G#, B, D) = G dim

The Melodic minor has both a sharpened 6th and 7th (F# and G#) on the way up, and natural on the way down. In Jazz we leave them sharp in both directions. The chords:

(A, C, E) = A min

(B, D, F#) = B min

(C, E, G#) = C aug

(D, F#, A) = D Maj

(E, G#, B) = E Maj

(F#, A, C) = F dim

(G#, B, D) = G dim

So, in this context the IV and V chord relative to the minor key are both major. Based on this, and the structure of your song I'd say it's D minor with chords from the Melodic minor family. As for your concern that it lacks resolution and other features you can always play with the other chords in the sequence, as the other answers point out putting the V7 in there would create that sound but in my opinion the correct chord would be the V7 of the D min. Maybe take your VII (which is G Maj, and the IV of D min) and make it vii before going to D min, or go to A7 or some variant in a way that is not too abrupt.

  • I cannot decide whether III7 (3rd para.) should be V/vi instead. Any thoughts? – Tim Jul 24 '18 at 17:03
  • No, referencing it to the major key as a Major chord on the 3rd (fifth of the minor key) is clear and unambiguous as stated. If formal music theory prefers referencing it to the relative minor key as a formal rule then I'd change it to your notation. I do desire to follow the rules (as I learn them) but have seen both in other documentation. – ggcg Jul 24 '18 at 20:57
  • By the same token the vii-7(b5) should be ii-7(b5) (rel to vi as the one). – ggcg Jul 24 '18 at 20:58
  • @ggcg, this looks like a great answer, but it's gone a bit over my head. Any chance you could relate it more obviously back to my progression? If not, could you point me to a place where I can read more about this technique? – 286642 Jul 25 '18 at 3:28
  • @286642, I will try to address your comment. – ggcg Jul 25 '18 at 10:27

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