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So I am composing a piece for piano trio to represent the transition from winter to spring. I have finished the first part where it is all in minor, D minor to be more specific, to represent winter. It starts off with the piano representing snow with the staccato high notes and the violin and cello both representing the wind. Then the violin continues to represent the wind and the cello plays a somber melody to represent the person experiencing the wind and snow. Now, I want to have the music get a more major quality to it but I don't want to go directly to major. I want it to be gradual to represent the rise in temperature with a few bouts of minor to represent cold snaps.

How can I get this gradual move from minor to major in quality? Would I use modes like Dorian and Mixolydian, each of which is 1 step closer to the major scale? Would I simply introduce F# and C# while Bb is still being played or what? I want to keep the tonic of the piece as D while this minor to major transition is occurring.

EDIT:

Here is the progression that occurs in the winter theme:

Dm -> Gm -> Dm -> F -> Dm -> Gm -> Dm -> F -> Bb -> Gm -> Dm -> F -> Gm -> Dm

As you can see, it starts with the same 4 chords twice. Then the Bb chord is the place where it diverges from the original 4 chord progression.

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I have no idea what your music sounds like. First point I would make is to not overvalue the label 'major' and 'minor'. Major sounds as much like winter as it sounds like spring.

It can make a lot of sense to have a piece that stats in D minor and then ends in D major. You can repeat the same thematic material, but now with a major third, and it will sound different.

I wouldn't really explore modal music because modal music is modal and not functional. You state that you have music in D minor right now. So I assume you have harmonic movement. There are many keys you can modulate to leaving D minor before returning to the main theme ending in D major. The most obvious key to modulate to is A major (or A minor). And you can 'simply' return to D major after you are 'done'. How do you modulate? You play some chords that have only notes both keys share, then do a V-I cadence in the new key. You would need to change Bb to B, C to C#, F to F# and G to G#. Which is quite a lot, so you want to do it in a gentle way, or else the music will sound disconnected. If your music is now repeating a simple chord progression several times, and then goes meandering while the key of D minor is undermined and it is not clear what key it is, it will sound meandering. And if you don't just go Dm - G - F#m - E - A, but more gradual, it will not sound like there is a big disconnect.

Taking your current chord progression and repeating it while you change all Fs to F#s and/or Cs to C#s is likely to sound odd. And you will also have to ask if after doing so, D is still tonic and you aren't in G major. And your melody will sound out of whack if your tonic is suddenly different because the degrees of your melody also change. You ended your melody on a fifth, but now your fifth became a second. And ending a phrase on a second doesn't have same effect as ending on a fifth. And it will be even more obvious for a melody ending on the tonic.

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I'll assume that "going to major" means shifting the key to full-blown D major, crucially making the D major chord the tonic chord.

Thus, one nice way to get a more major quality or sound without "going directly to major" is to make sure you use the (♯)6 scale degree instead of the (♭)6 scale degree, make sure you use only the leading tone (instead of the flattened subtonic) at that point, and to essentially borrow chords from the tonic major that use those scale degrees (e.g. IV, ii). Since V is such a common chord in minor-key passages, using it is NOT interpreted as getting a more major sound (and neither is using other leading tone-using chords), but using the flattened subtonic ((♭)7) without using the (♯)6 scale degree will ruin your chances of being interpreted as getting a more major sound because the flattened subtonic is not found in major keys. I still prefer avoiding the ♯3 scale degree at that point because that is THE scale degree hallmark of going to a major key. (This means that I'd avoid using the Mixolydian mode.)

With one manifestation of this (the use of the (♯)6 scale degree), you can argue that you'd be using the Dorian mode; you'd be correct.

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Use modes! I'd recommend the Mixolydian mode or the Lydian mode, two modes which get rather close to Major without being Major.

The Lydian scale starts on the Fourth degree of the major scale and the 6th degree of the minor scale.

The mixolydian scale starts on the V of major and the VII of minor.

Overall, I'd recommend Mixolydian.

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You could change some of your minor chords to m7 chords, e.g. Dm -> Dm7. Because the 7th of a minor chord is the 5th of its parallel major chord (F in this example) it sounds more majory.

Another option is to use maj7 chords. The Dm could be substituted by a Bbmaj7 which just adds an Bb to the Dm chord. Like in the example above the resulting tetrachord "includes" a minor chord and a major chord. Also Fmaj7 is possible which sounds less majory than a pure F because it includes also an Am.

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I agree with @Alcathous...

First point I would make is to not overvalue the label 'major' and 'minor'.

But some things to consider:

  • modes: Dorian shifts closer to major mode, but I would be careful about thinking that a few accidentals closer to a major key will give you the effect you want, Dorian has a serious feel to me, Mixolydian a little forlorn, etc.
  • some kind of emphasis on the major triads: III, VI, & VII
  • you could try some chord planing around the major triad regions. These diatonic chords are the basic set III iv v VI VII or F gm am Bb C but you could use the raised forms of iv and v as F G A Bb C some parallel harmony in that region mixed in with the normal minor mode might provide some possibilities
  • first inversion minor triads seem a bit 'softer' to me, sort of less strongly minor, that might be exploited, 'v6/5' (minor dominant - a minor seventh chord in first inversion) would seem to be a good example of major/minor ambiguity in first inversion
  • incomplete chords could be a good strategy: what is Bb D or F A in D minor? typically they will probably sound as root position VI or III but could ambiguously be iv or i that could be exploited and of course the simple thirds are major.

Minor = cold, major = warm. That's a bit Mickey Mousing.

Why not rather motionless = cold, motion = warmth? What rhythmic devices can be used? What effect could be had with long rests after unresolved or ambiguous harmony to represent endless winter? You could explore similar things with range extremes, timbre, tempo, relative motion types, multi-voice texture, etc. Expression too. Bartok indicated sans vibrato in some of his quartets to create a desolate effect.

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