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LostInParadise's avatar

What is meant by major and minor chords?

Asked by LostInParadise (17182 points ) April 27th, 2012

I was listening to a wonderful radio interview of Paul McCartney, and at one point he was talking about musical techniques employed in writing songs. One that he talked about was shifting between major and minor chords. He gave a few examples, and I could not notice anything going on. What should I have been able to hear? In simple terms, please. I looked at a Wikipedia article on major chords, talking about fifths and triads, which left me clueless.

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33 Answers

majorrich's avatar

It can sound pretty subtle. In a three note chord a major chord usually has the base tone, then skips two whole notes then skips a note and a half to complete the chord. A minor is the other way ‘round. This would be speaking like on piano keys, remembering sharps and flats.

tom_g's avatar

Major and minor chords sound completely different. Some people describe minor chords as sounding dark or sad.
Tried to find someone switching between major and minor and could only come up with this…Go here and listen to A major. Then go here and listen to A minor.

Note: my daughter is tone deaf and cannot identify the difference between major and minor (or completely different chords altogether). Do you know if you could be tone deaf? Here is a test you take.

Rock2's avatar

A major chord consists of the 1 3 5 7 of a scale.
A minor chord consists of the 1 b3 5 b7 of a scale.

LostInParadise's avatar

@tom_g , I took the test. I did slightly above random on the first one, and a bit better on the second. I really felt that my ability to discern differences improved as I went along. Some of the differences seemed to be rather subtle, involving differences in timing rather than different notes. I am the first to admit that I am musically disinclined. I can, however, carry a tune more or less, and with a bit of effort I can sound out a tune on a piano. Do you think musical ability can improve with practice?

tom_g's avatar

@LostInParadise: “Do you think musical ability can improve with practice?”

Sure! There does seem to be a biological component in some cases, however. I have 3 kids. My daughter can’t even sing the tune to “Happy Birthday” – it’s unrecognizable. She also can’t keep a steady beat. We’ve exposed her to music (listening and playing) since she was born, and her “ear” for it hasn’t changed. It’s just not her thing. She’s 9 years old and in many ways smarter than me, but for some reason tone and rhythm are not her thing.

Now, my 6-year-old son came out of the womb with this ability to “hear” music. He can hear a song once and sing the melody days later note-for-note and in the correct key. It’s surreal. He has such a great sense of rhythm that he started adding “beat box” style beats when he sings songs, and he never loses the tempo or sings out of key. Never. He’s had the same exposure to music as my daughter, but they are just night and day.

So, I guess what I’m saying is…I don’t know. I do know that I have always been able to pick up an instrument and make music with it without taking lessons. I’m sure I could cultivate my natural “ear” if I had taken lessons.

Anyway, unless you are completely tone-deaf and rhythm-challenged, you should be able to apply some practice and learn an instrument (that’s my guess anyway).

wundayatta's avatar

I gather the technical information doesn’t help. A major chord has the bottom note, middle note and top note. The middle note is two steps above the bottom note. Confusingly, two steps is the interval to the “third.” That’s because it is the third note in the scale, if you start counting at the first note.

The top note is a fifth above the bottom note. It’s actually the fifth note in the scale, although it is only three and a half steps above the bottom note.

Each note has other names, too. The first note is called the “tonic.” The fifth note is called the “dominant.”

Anyway, each major chord and each minor chord has three notes. Two of those notes are the tonic and dominant. It doesn’t matter what key you are in, the relationship is always the same.

What changes is the third. In a major chord, you use the major third which is two steps above the tonic. In the minor chord, you use the minor third, which is one and a half steps above the tonic.

The sound of major and minor chords are dramatically different, and you probably feel it in your body even if you are not consciously aware of it. The major chord is happy feeling. The minor chord is sad. Major is bright and light. Minor is dark and melancholy.

Trust your feelings. Listen to the song and figure out the mood of the song. Most likely, if it’s a happy song, it will be in a predominantly major key, and if it is a sad song, it will be mostly in a minor key.

tedd's avatar

In easy to understand terms, Major chords sound happy or uplifting. Minor chords are sad or somber.

wundayatta's avatar

Um, @tedd, it is customary to acknowledge someone when you copy what they just said. Or did you not read the post above yours.

Judi's avatar

As a person with only a limited self taught musical knowledge, I might be able to explain in terms you might get.
If you sit down at a piano and play a C note, you might notice that if you hit the C, skip one key, hit the next, skip another key and hit the next, you will hear a harmonious sound that makes a triad or a chord. If you hit all three of these keys at the same time you will be playing the chord C.
A minor chord is when the middle key of the triad is dropped usually to one of the black keys. It changes the sound to a more mysterious sound. To tell you the truth, without a piano in front if me I can’t tell you which key would make the C chord a minor, but I could figure it out because of the specific sound a minor chord makes.

LostInParadise's avatar

@Judi , Thanks, that does make things a bit clearer.

gailcalled's avatar

C minor chord is C, Eflat, G.

@Judi: It’s easier to hear the difference on a piano or keyboard. The minor quality has nothing to do with either black or white keys.

D major, for example, is D, F sharp (black key) and A.

D minor then becomes D, F (white key) and A.

@LostinParadise; Do you have access to a piano or keyboard and someone who can play the chords for you? It is much easier to understand than to read all the technical stuff.

Timing has nothing to do with this question either. I have a tin ear and can easily hear the difference between a major or minor scale or chord.

tedd's avatar

@wundayatta Rarely, if ever do I read long posts that precede mine, lol….. If my post ditto’s yours, my apologies.

gailcalled's avatar

@tedd: Speed reading is a good idea, both to check out what others have said and to spare the OP and the readers duplicate answers.

LostInParadise's avatar

What I am gathering is that both major and minor chords involve playing 3 notes together. Would it be correct to say that in both cases the ratio of frequencies is the same, or is it a slight variation in the frequency ratio that accounts for the different perception of major and minor chords?

gailcalled's avatar

@LostInParadise: Stop being analytical and get thee to a musical instrument. If you can find anything, we can show you how to play both a major or minor scale. You ear will tell you.

You can play these chords easily on a piano, clavier, harpsichord, guitar or banjo or harp, and can play the scales on stringed, brass and wind instruments, plus harmonica, Jew’s harp, comb and tissue paper. Any friend who can sing on pitch can also sing the scales for you.

The behavior of the frequency (hence pitch) of a vibrating string is very interesting, if you are a physicist.

LostInParadise's avatar

A related question. On a piano, chords are played with the left hand. Is the choice of keys played by the right hand affected by difference of chords played by the left hand?

gailcalled's avatar

Same keyboard. The notes repeat themselves from the lowest bass to the 88th note at the top…the squeaky one that only a passing bat can hear.

Chords are also played with the right hand all the time, at least in the standard classical music repertoire. The division of left and right hand is arbitrary and mainly geometric. The middle key is C; normally the right hand covers all the keys above that and the left hand the ones below that. But that is also arbitrary.

Did you ever see a pianist cross hands?

C,C# (black key), D, D# (black key), E, F, F# (black key), G, G# (black key), A, A# (black key), B, and then C again.

Find a keyboard and play all the notes starting from the bottom, including the black keys and you will hear the repetition.

LostInParadise's avatar

I have seen a number of books that promise to teach how to play piano in a few months. The basic idea in these books seems to be to first learn how to play keys one at a time with the right hand and then introduce chords played by the left hand. I don’t have a piano at home, but I was thinking of getting an inexpensive electronic keyboard. My objective would be to be able to play some simple tunes and to get a better feel for music.

gailcalled's avatar

That’s the ticket. Talking about music theory is like explaining what ice cream tastes like.

My mother’s 93 year-old boyfriend bought an electronic keyboard and did just that..

tedd's avatar

@gailcalled Ehh… mine was shorter anyways, so if the OP just wanted a fast answer… clearly they’d have favored my answer :) ... lol

Judi's avatar

@gailcalled, that’s why I said “usually.” I was trying to simplify the answer and not confuse it with words like flats and sharps.

majorrich's avatar

I just finished that music theory workshop that promised to help with guitar chording. I had my notes close at hand, but think it’s gonna take a while for the material to soak in.

Sunny2's avatar has a keyboard you can use on your computer for exploring answers to this question.

Sunny2's avatar

The above keyboard has only single notes, so chords aren’t possible. I misremembered. You can play the individual notes to hear the progressions of various chords..

hiphiphopflipflapflop's avatar

Usually, it’s a shift in the “thirds” that show up in the chord that differentiate a major one from a minor one.

I find it easy to think in physical terms and just intonation since only simple ratios in frequency are involved.

Start with a pure tone of frequency X. Add a pure tone of frequency 5X/4, and you have a major third interval. Add one more pure tone of frequency 3X/2 (the “fifth”) and you’ve got a major triad, the simplest major chord.

Take that middle tone and change it’s frequency to 6X/5 and that interval becomes a minor third, changing the triad to a minor one.

Demonstration: Open three separate browser windows to
Keep the first window at 440 Hertz and hit ‘play’. Type 550 Hertz into the next and hit ‘play’. Then type 660 Hertz into the last, hit ‘play’ and let it sink in for a while.

Now go back to the second window and change it to 528 Hertz. It should sound “darker”. Change it back. Sounds “brighter”?

harple's avatar

You might like reading this link which references songs you will probably know to help recognise intervals – the gaps between the notes.

LostInParadise's avatar

@hiphiphopflipflapflop , so there is a simple explanation in terms of frequency ratios. Thanks.

wildpotato's avatar

Major and minor are known formally as “modes”. There are a bunch more than just these two. To understand modes, it helps to think about the chromatic scale, which is all the 13 tones that make up an octave (including the octave note). On a piano, you would press 13 white and black keys in order. We represent this in solfege (you know, the “doe, a deer, a female deer” song) as: do di re ri mi fa fi so si la li ti do. This has more tones than in the Sound of Music song (which is a major scale) because of all the half-step notes (di, ri, fi, si, & li) we included.

We create modes by picking out patterns (we call them “intervals”) in different ways from that chromatic scale. So all the differences between the modes are just different regular manipulations of these intervals. Here is a helpful chart. You can sing these yourself with a little practice and hear the differences. Dorian is my favorite – listen to Gregorian chant for examples of this mode.

hiphiphopflipflapflop's avatar

@LostInParadise the problem with using that as an example is that these simple frequency ratios are only approximated by the actual intervals as played on an instrument like the piano. It is impossible to divide up an octave into equal steps and keep simple ratios between those steps because 2^(1/n) will always be irrational. The twelve-tone equal tempered fifth is quite close to 3/2, but some “violence” is done to the thirds.

LostInParadise's avatar

It is still based on ratios, even if the ratios are not rational numbers.

@wildpotato , I looked up the meaning of interval. It said that intervals are combinations of two notes, while chords are combinations of three notes. I find the specialized vocabulary takes a little getting used to, but the basic concepts seem to be fairly simple.

gailcalled's avatar

I still vote for trying things out on a keyboard. All this descriptive language is interesting for a physicist or an acoustical engineer but has little to do with composing, playing and listening to music.

For example, chords can be combinations of three, five, seven or nine notes if you want to get technical. That and a dollar may get you a cup of coffee but not a musical ear.

LostInParadise's avatar

@gailcalled , I agree with you, but the nerd in me wants to know the technicalities.

Pythagoras had a great interest in ratios of frequencies, and was the first to discover that pitches varied in proportion to the lengths of the cords that produced them. He thought that numbers are the ultimate reality and that the Universe is ruled by ratios of whole numbers. The Sun, moon and planets all gave off a hum based on their periods of revolution, known as the Harmony of the Spheres. Pythagoras definitely went off the deep end, but I think his heart was in the right place.

gailcalled's avatar

Agree about it being fascinating.

Imagine squatting (toga permitting) in a wet sandy patch with a stick and doodling a right triangle while your neighbor was giving a boring lecture on bull rush baskets and Eureka!
a^2 = b^2 = c^2

You can analyze bird songs and calls this way also. Frequency, pitch and overtones. But it is very different from listening to a cardinal do this..

Or read the sonograms. Here Scroll down to middle of the page.

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