Guitar - Major and Minor Key Signatures

If You Are Going To Play In A Key Every Day, Shouldn't You Learn That Way?Uncle Tim's Building Blocks

Yes, you should!

Music is key based. You are always in one key or another. Always!

Yet playing a guitar is not taught that way! Why?

Once you understand keys and the chords and scales that come from keys, the whole world of music opens up before your eyes!

Suddenly everything is MUCH easier. And it totally makes sense when you get into it.

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by Tim Gillespie

When I first started studying keys and scales, I noticed how well they helped me construct solos over some chordings. I would often times play with the radio and overlay a lead on top of whatever happened to be playing.

Sometimes things went smoothly and I thought I really had command over my skill and then the next song would throw me for a loop. The more I played at this, the better I became at playing leads over chordings. I still find this to be one of my favorite ways of playing. When you play by yourself, you can use songs as an avenue to work out timing issues and creative strategies for leads.

After a while I would play a song that I thought was in a major key, only to find the piece came to rest on a note other than the one I was using for tonic. Tonic is another way of identifying the keynote. The keynote is the magical note that the music relates to and serves as the center piece for whatever key you are in.

When you first hear a piece come to rest on tonic, it is unmistakable. If you are singing do, re, mi, fa, so la, ti, do, tonic is do (pronounced doe)! That is the sound of a diatonic scale.

Tonic is the note that tells your ear you have arrived. You have been on a journey but now you can tell the journey is coming to a close because we have reached tonic and things are now at rest. It is an unmistakable feeling as many of you know. Almost all songs of any type are centered around a keynote. Understanding tonic when you hear it can help you understand songs.

But now I tried to bring a piece to rest and the note I had in mind did not do what I thought it would. I was trying to use the C note to bring a piece to rest, only when I played it, that did not happen. Instead I got mild tension. Here is what was occurring. I was playing in C major and the song was in A minor. C is the third in the key of A minor and there is a tendency for the third to impose a need to resolve to tonic. I could hear the song coming around to tonic and I recognized that. So I would set up to be heading towards what I thought was the keynote. The song was moving towards A (the real tonic) and I was moving towards the third (C) hoping to achieve tonic. The first few times it happened to me, it stopped the music.

Once you realize this has happened, it is just a matter of switching to the other tonal center keynote and adjusting your timing. The same scale works, the same pathways are available and any creative idea you were about to try, may still yield results but you will have to adjust the timing (at least). Thinking about alternate chord sets and moving the tonal center, can cause you to stop playing, so that you may sit there and think about what you should be playing. Everything can come to a grinding halt. It happens! After a while you will not be easily fooled by this dual tonal center problem much.

One way to get centered when this happens is to run the scale you know is working, and see what note achieves this restful state. Never mind what you thought you knew, go identify the tonal center. Run the scale and find it.

Playing over the top of songs allowed me to make lots of mistakes while I learned how things worked. So I would just rip a quick scale fragment and get centered. It worked great. My technique at that time was to run the scale and see if I was in the right key. I was only practicing the scale as a major scale at that time, so the notion of the relative minor sharing the same notes was foreign to me. This is a natural way of understanding this relationship.

The Circle Of Fifths

Remember each scale has a major tonal center and a minor one. To understand this take a look at the Circle of Fifths.

The outer ring has lower case letters in it. These are the minor keys. The second circle has upper case letters in it and these are the major keys. Each slice of the pie is a scale. The letters are the two tonal centers and the little number is the number of sharps in the key.

The numbers around the outside represent the numbers of flats in the key.

So another way to look at scales are as the keepers of tonal centers. Inside each scale are two tonal centers. One of them is built on minor chords and the other built on major chords. These two keys are related because they share the same exact family of notes.

Each major key has a minor key associated with it. That means these two notes share the same scale and each is the central note of a key. One of these keys will be the center with the emphasis on a major set of chords and one of them will be the center with the emphasis on a minor set of chords. These keys will be related to each other because they use the same notes and chords.

Notice this diagram is the C scale. You know the notes and you have seen in past columns that the chords of the key are carved out of this block of notes.

If you are memorizing scales and you are not associating this exact scale as C major and A minor you are making this harder than it has to be. Cut your work in half and start to think of both keys when you practice this pattern. This means instead of 24 keys to memorize, you only need to memorize twelve.



Notice How The Notes Flow

So the notes in question are A, B, C, D, E, F, G. That is it. No matter which key we are talking about, C major or A minor, we will never use any additional notes. Of course you can alter the natural minor to form a harmonic or melodic scale but that is only through an alteration.

Notice the scale is the same.


Notice the chords are the same too!

Notice the one, four and five chords for the minor key are all minor (A minor, D minor and E minor).


Also notice the one, four and five for the major key are all major (C major, F major and G major).

Notice here that the progression of minor, major and diminished chords is constant. It does not matter if you start on the major or minor keynote, the progression is set.

Look at the chords in the sequence and then adapt them to the minor and the major keys below.

Look at another example. This one might point out an interesting assumption made all the time.



Pentatonic scales are a favorite of rock musicians. You will often times hear this referred to as a minor pentatonic scale.

Why is it minor? How can you tell?

As you can see both tonal centers are represented in this scale.

Sometimes the rules that create the scale are stated in terms of the minor key. But in the case of this scale, you can describe it in terms of the major or minor form. So is there a difference?

The factor that determines if this will be used as a major or minor scale is the song or progression you use it with. The song will be in either the major or minor key. Then you use this scale according to the key. If you are playing in a minor key, you will probably use the A note as the keynote. If you are playing in the key of C major, then the C note will serve as tonic. In any event you use the same scale.

Just for the record, you can just play a single note melody line all by itself (without chords) and establish a tonal center. You do not need to have chords but in a practical sense this is how we manipulate keys.

There are many reasons why this is important. It shows you a real life example of how keys work. When you see it in action, you start to get a deeper understanding of tonal centers. But one of the best reasons is the short cuts that this allows for.

For instance, if you are going to memorize all of the scales available, then this little trick just cut what you must memorize in half! Just memorize the relative minor with the related major. If you can remember the major and minor keynotes, you are in business. By just knowing the C scale, you can improvise in two keys now.

This is magnified if you are in the habit of memorizing entire signatures, not just fragments or smaller patterns. Once the signature is memorized, then individual pathways, opportunities to reach tonic and convenience can all be included in note selection. You just have to identify the tonal center on the fretboard and look for favorite entry and exit sequences.

So think in terms of related keys and see if you don't eliminate about half of the confusion right off the bat.

So what I hope you go away with this week is an awareness of the two tonal centers and how they coexist together. Once you play around with them, you get familiar with them. You start to think of the individual notes as family members. "The Need For Speed" will give you some tools to work it out for yourself.

Are there more complicated examples?

Oh yes! Do you remember the example last month, the Blues scale? Do you remember when I mentioned that sometimes the rules regarding scale construction are based on minor scale construction? Well the Blues scale is an example of how the rules are set up to describe the minor key or scale. Can they be applied to a major key? Yes, they can. But the notion of "what is the key" comes into play. The issues are not as simple.

Let's jump back to the pentatonic key as an example for a moment. We noted you can use the scale above if you are in a major or a minor pentatonic key. But what constitutes the key. Most likely the chords being played behind the scale are in a diatonic key. They probably don't adhere to the rules that make up a pentatonic key. They might, but probably not. So the chords are in a diatonic key. But the single note lines are in a pentatonic key, which is a subset of the diatonic key.

So is the song using a pentatonic key. Yes for the lead line. Is the song in a pentatonic key? No, probably not. The song (chord progression) is still using diatonic sequences.