CSS 2nd edition cover 150Adapted from The Complete Singer-Songwriter

Minor keys are often said to be brooding and sad, but not all minor key songs are as bleak as, say, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” They can also be soothing (George Gershwin’s “Summertime”), funky (the Commodores’ “Brick House”), or upbeat and rocking (Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing”). Chord progressions in minor keys provide a rich set of musical possibilities and should be part of every songwriter’s palette.

So let’s look at the diatonic chords in minor keys, and at common progressions and classic songs using those chords. For an intro to diatonic chords, see this lesson on major keys (in the book you’ll find a more in-depth discussion plus charts of diatonic chords in all major and minor keys). As with major keys, we find the diatonic chords in minor keys by stacking notes in a scale—in this case, the natural minor scale.

When we build chords from each note in the natural minor scale, we arrive at these chords:

i   ii° or ii   bIII   iv or IV   v or V   bVI   bVII

The i, iv, and v are minor (written lowercase); the ii° is diminished (indicated with ° or dim); and the bIII, bVI, and bVII are major (uppercase). But the ii can also be minor, and the IV and V can be major. These alternatives occur because we can build chords with other minor scales, namely the harmonic and melodic minor, which have slightly different notes and create slightly different chords. The bottom line is you can pick which scales and chords to use, and the three alternatives shown are common choices for songwriting.

Here, for example, are the diatonic chords in the key of Am:

Am (i)    Bdim or Bm (ii° or ii)   C (bIII)    Dm or D (iv or IV)    Em or E (v or V)     G (bVII)

In the following sections we’ll put these numbers to work and look at some common chord progressions and songs that use them. Check out the Spotify playlists to hear some classic examples of these songs in action.

Minor blues

The major I, IV, and V are the kingpins in major keys, and their minor equivalents also figure prominently in minor keys. In minor keys, the IV and V chords can be minor (written lowercase) or major (uppercase). You can see both variations in the following examples. Also notice that “The Thrill Is Gone” and “Unchain My Heart” use bVI–V instead of just V (more on the bVI chord below).

“Black Magic Woman,” Santana (Peter Green):

i   v   i   iv   /   i   v   i

“Evil Ways,” Santana (Sonny Henry):

i   IV   repeats until ending V

“The Thrill Is Gone,” B. B. King (Roy Hawkins/Rick Darnell):

i   iv   i   /   bVI   V   i

“Unchain My Heart,” Ray Charles (Bobby Sharp):

i   bVI   i   /   iv   i   iv   /   bVI   V   i

The bVII and bIII

In minor key songs, the bVII (with a root one whole step, or two frets on the guitar, below the i) and the bIII (one and a half steps, or three frets, up from the i) often play a central role. These two classics use the same combo of the i and the bVII.

“Masters of War,” Bob Dylan
“Working Class Hero,” John Lennon:

i   bVII   (occasional bVII   IV   i)

In a minor key, the bIII is known as the relative major of i; these chords have two notes in common, so songs often move between them. In many songs the bIII leads to the bVII.

“Jolene,” Dolly Parton:

i   bIII   bVII   i   bVII   i

“Another Brick in the Wall,” Pink Floyd:

verse   i    IV
chorus   bIII   bVII   i

The bVI

Another important chord in minor keys is the bVI. To conjure its sound, think of “Eleanor Rigby.”

“Eleanor Rigby,” the Beatles:

verse   i   bVI

Coming from the i, the bVI has an uplifting sound. Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” for instance, starts out with a somber i–bVII–i (darkness is their old friend, after all) but then brightens when it goes to bVI–bIII.

“The Sound of Silence,” Simon and Garfunkel:

i   bVII   i
bVI   bIII   3x
i   bIII   bVII   i

Descending from the i

In many minor songs where the bVI appears, the bVII is right with it. One classic sequence is i–bVII–bVI–bVII, voiced so that the roots of the bVII and bVI are below the i.

“All Along the Watchtower,” Bob Dylan
“Stairway to Heaven” (climax), Led Zeppelin:

i   bVII   bVI   bVII

Often, a descending i–bVII–bVI continues a half step lower, to the V. You can hear this sequence, for example, in the verses of “Stray Cat Strut” (in fact, the song modulates and follows the same descending pattern from the iv chord).

“Stray Cat Strut,” Stray Cats:

i   bVII   bVI   V   /   same pattern from iv

The bVI–V (or bVI–v) move also pops up in songs that don’t include the bVII.

“I Shot the Sheriff,” the Wailers:

chorus   i   iv
verse   bVI   v   i

All together now

Finally, let’s fit these diatonic chords together in longer minor-key progressions.

“The House of the Rising Sun,” the Animals (traditional):

i   bIII   IV   bVI   /   i  bIII   V
i   bIII   IV   bVI   /   i   V   i

“Hotel California,” the Eagles:

verse   i   V   bVII   IV   /   bVI   bIII   iv   V
chorus   bVI   bIII   V   i   /   bVI   bIII   iv   V

Notice how “Hotel California” uses both the major IV and minor iv. In the chorus, we have the brightening move to the bVI followed by the same sequence that ends the verse (bIII–iv–V). The only diatonic chord not used is the ii.

Writing in minor keys

As the songs and progressions above suggest, you can use minor keys for a wide range of moods and effects in your songwriting. They do have an edge that may be just right for an emotionally dark song, but don’t stereotype keys as “major = happy” and “minor = sad.” If you marry heavy lyrics with heavy-sounding music, the result can be, well, heavy handed—the song bludgeons listeners rather than connecting with them. Instead, brighter major-key music might be worth trying for those same heavy lyrics—think of John Prine’s “Sam Stone,” with its tragic story of a drug-addicted veteran set over folky major-key fingerpicking. Conversely, setting lighter lyrics to darker music might give a song a more complex quality. Songs, like life experiences, are often filled with conflicting emotions.

Dig deeper

For more on understanding chord progressions, see The Complete Singer-Songwriter.