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What’s the difference between a major and minor scale?

When you go to practice scales, you will find that there are lots of them. Each note has more than 2 different types of scales that start from it. This post will just explore the difference between major and minor scales.

Each major scale has a minor scale that it is related to. This means that they both share the same key signature. To find the relative minor of any major scale, count six notes up from the tonic. For example, the relative C major's relative minor is A minor. To find the relative major from a minor scale, count three notes up from the tonic. For example, C minor's relative major is Eb major.

The first thing you need to understand how scales are formed is to understand what a tone (whole step) and a semitone (half-step) are. A semitone is the smallest distance or interval between two notes in Western music. If you are looking at a keyboard, it's going to be 2 next door notes, for example, an F to F# or E to F, there are no other keys between these two keys.

A tone is two semitones. If you were looking again at a keyboard, in a whole step there would be a key in-between the notes. For example, going between and F and G, there is a black note in-between these two notes and between an E to F#, there is a white note between these two notes.

Major Scales

A major scale is made up of 7 notes, that are have its notes arranged in this order of tones and semitones (T = tone, S = semitone).

C major scale

Minor scales

The big difference between a major and minor scale is the third note of the scale. The 3rd note in a minor scale is made lower by a semitone. So the E in C major becomes an Eb in C minor.

C minor pentascale

This change of the third changes the sound of the scale entirely and also changes the order of tones and semitones.

You may have noticed that for the minor scale, I showed the first five notes. This is because there are three different types of minor scales. The first five notes of which, they all share.

Natural Minor

The natural minor only uses the notes found in the relative major scale. Therefore as C minor is related to Eb major, it shares the same key signature (Bb, Eb Ab).

C natural minor scale

Harmonic Minor

The harmonic minor scale is a variant of the natural minor. The difference is that the 7th notes are raised a semitone when you go up and down the scale. This creates a ‘leading note’ which pulls back to the tonic and helps establish the central tone of the key. The harmonic minor scales are used for harmonising melodies and is used in many important chord progressions.

The raised 7th note is not included in the key signature, it is written as an accidental.

C harmonic minor scale

Melodic Minor

The problem with the harmonic minor is that the distance between the 6th and 7th note was difficult for singers to sing. The problem was solved in the melodic minor scale by raising the 6th and 7th note by a semitone on the way up. On the way down the melodic minor scale reverts back to the natural minor as the leading note is no longer needed.

C melodic minor ascending

This is a quick overview of the different types of major and minor scales. As I have already said there are loads of other types of scales, that I will explain at a future date.

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