diatonic harmony / minor tonality

The following links simply examine each of the seven diatonic triads of the natural minor tonality as created from within the equal temperament system. By definition, diatonic harmony is created exclusively from whatever melodic resource we choose to create within. We approach the study of harmony in this way to simplify the learning process. For within the creative process, rarely do we limit ourselves in such a way. Most often, a parent scale is chosen to provide a tonal center, a reference point to base our tonal gravity upon. Once established, it is not uncommon for artists to "borrow" bits from other scales to enhance their work. These borrowed pitches are usually termed non diatonic, as they are not members of the parent scale of the music we are writing or performing. In the minor environment, our basic natural minor scale can be enhanced by adding the pitches of the melodic minor, harmonic minor, the modes etc. In this section we will keep it within the diatonic pitches, exceptions are duly noted. Look for additional links within the page to follow to address these variations of the natural minor scale as well as other pertinent links. 

With this in mind, lets explore the diatonic harmony of the minor tonality. Using A minor as our tonal center and the A natural minor scale as our parent scale, lets create a chart examining the scale degrees, the pitches and the building of the seven diatonic triads of the minor tonality. Are you hip to spelling out the pitches of a chord? Example 1.

scale degree i ii III iv v VI VII viii
A minor scale A B C D E F G A

Using Roman numerals to designate our scale degrees, the lower case ( i, ii, iv, v ) designate the scale degrees upon which the minor chords are created, the upper case numerals ( III, VI, VII ) denote the scale degrees upon which major chords are created. One and Eight are the same. This way of numerical identification may be different from other texts, but probably not. Here is the sound of the above chart. Example 1a.

      i      ii III     iv  v       VI   VII    viii

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Each of the following links examine basic properties of each of the seven diatonic triads as created within the natural minor tonality. One simple ancient folk melody is used to place each of the triads in musical contexts in each of the seven links below. Each of the following choices all contain additional links to expand your search. Try to browse through the numbered chords One through to Seven at least once sequentially in order to get more a gravitational perspective of the resource. Otherwise, pick and click and off ya go.

One chord / tonic
Two chord / supertonic
Three chord / mediant
Four chord / subdominant
Five chord / dominant
Six chord / submediant
Seven chord / subtonic

One chord / tonic. Upon the first degree of the natural minor scale is built the One chord. Termed "tonic" by music theorists globally, the tonic is basically the center of diatonic tonal gravity, it provides the strongest sense of being at rest and creates the overall emotional coloring of the music. In any American music, the term tonic usually defines the key center by its pitch and is the focal point to which the other diatonic chords gravitate. Using the ageless European folk tune Scarboro Fair, lets harmonize this timeless melody with the minor tonic color. Example 2.

    i   i   i   i

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Pretty dark emotionally huh? The minor tonal environment is just that, a more sorrowful, reflective and blusier place to hang out. A common chord progression using this minor tonic One chord is termed the One / Four / Five. This simple harmonic combination is a good solid framework for writing folk, blues and rock tunes. Example 2a, in A minor.

         i   iv   v   i

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Sound familiar? A very common harmonic cycle. Mixing in some major triads, we can create a favorite chord progression of the rockers. Example 1b. 

      i   VII   VI   v

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Are we limited in using just the three note triad? Of course not. How can we extend the chord by adding additional colors? This question opens up the all important topic in this text of chord type, whereby any chord available to the creative musician is categorized into one of three types by it's intervalic construction and function. This perspective can greatly simplify the theory of understanding the harmony, as any one of the gillions of chords available in the tonal universe can be basically distilled down into being a member of one of three chord families, the three original "tribes" if you will. Is there a church mode associated with the tonic pitch of the natural minor tonality? Maybe the Aeolian mode?

Two chord / supertonic. 

Upon the second scale degree of the relative minor scale we create the Two chord. Known as the subtonic triad among music theorists, the Two chord is a special type of minor triad in that it's fifth is not a perfect fifth, but lowered by half step, creating a diminished fifth. When the minor seventh is added to the triad, we create the cool and character "half diminished seventh chord." Jazz artists use this color quite a bit, especially in the minor tonality, as it becomes a part of the Two / Five / One cadential motion in the minor tonality. As a passing chord in the minor tonality, we can find the Two chord in predictable places, as in bar 3 below. Example 3.

     i   i   ii   i

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As part of the Two / Five / One chord progression, we can add the seventh degrees to each of the chords creating a softer tonal environment. Example 3a, Two / Five / One in A minor.

   ii min 7b5   v 7   i min 7   i min 7

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"Sugar" by Stanley Turrentine is a classic minor blues that uses the above turnaround to great effect. Ever hear of the term Locrian?

Three chord / mediant. 

Upon the third degree of the natural minor scale we create a major triad, known to music theorist as the "mediant" chord. This third degree of the natural minor scale is also the location of the relative major, known as such due to the sharing of identical pitches between the relative minor and major. In terms of the music of the spheres, the Three and One chords are equal. Both are the "leaders" of their respective tonalities. Lets insert the Three chord into our folk melody and dig the transformation in tonality between the minor and major environments. Example 4, in A minor. Moving to the relative major tonality in bar 2.

            i   III   ii min 7   i

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Motion back and forth between One and Three is very common in American music. Here is one melodic idea viewed from the two distinctly different tonal environments, A minor to C major. Example 4a. 

    i   i   III   III

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Sounds like something out of a country tune huh? Well, the idea of viewing the same theme in two different tonalities is cool, common and a compositional technique we should have on our artistic palette. Write one of your own tunes using this simple but effective compositional device. Other areas to explore of the 3rd scale degree within the minor tonality? Ionian mode perhaps?

Four chord / subdominant.

As the name implies, the Four chord is a sort of sub commander in terms of tonal gravity within the minor tonality. It can suspend the motion of tonal gravity, hold it in place without losing a sense of the tonal environment and forward motion of the music. Thus, the Four chord can play the crucial role of providing a secondary stable resting point so similar in color to that of the tonic / One chord. Thus we have two distinct points within diatonic minor world to balance our ideas. Add the relative major and we create a third "view" for our themes. Here we place the Four chord in the common One / Four / Five chord progression. Example 5, folk melody of Scarboro Fair in A minor.

     i   iv   v   i

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This next idea places a melodic motif in a tonic to Four chord vamp in the minor tonality. Here we look to get a sense of the idea of two similar harmonic platforms to support one melodic idea within one key. So why is this important? Well, in composing our own music, knowing the possibilities creates the ability to explore and experiment on our own terms. This dual platform so to speak creates a situation where our melodic idea can be created on two different colors, without really modulating. Example 5a, tonic to Four, one melodic idea in A minor.

      i   i   iv   iv

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Can you hear how the essence of the melodic idea takes on a more plaintive quality as it moves from tonic to Four? The exact repetition of the melodic idea contributes to this deepening sense, but in the main, it is the shifting to Four which creates a similar but different backing, one that potentially brings out a different view of the emotional essence of the melody. A subtle but potentially important consideration for the creative musician. Cool with this? Is there a church mode on Four in the minor tonality?

Five chord / dominant.

Upon the fifth scale degree of the natural minor scale we create what theorists commonly term the dominant chord. The Five chord in the minor tonality is diatonically a minor triad, with the seventh added it becomes a what players call a minor seventh chord. Unlike the dominant chord in the major tonality, there is no tritone within the dominant chord which is diatonically created from the natural minor scale. This is one of the reasons for both the melodic and harmonic minor scales, both of which raise the seventh degree of the natural minor scale scale up by half step, providing the essential leading tone pitch for creating the tritone tension between the third and seventh degree of the Five 7 chord. With or without the tritone, the dominant chord is oftentimes still the key player in setting up the motion to return to the tonic, especially in the blues. Here is our folk melody using the dominant color. Example 6.

     i   v   v   i

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As with the major tonality, the three principle chords i.e., One, Four, Five, in the minor tonality are all tonally colored the same. Using this minor color creates some very earthy grooves, favored among folk, blues, rock and reggae / world beat musicians, all styles really. Here we flip around the common One / Four / Five to create a vamp or groove of Five / Four / to One, which when continuously cycled, has a powerful centering effect on both the players and dancers alike. Example 6a.

    v   iv   i   i

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The all too common adjustment in the Five chord in the minor key is to make the minor seventh chord type into the dominant seventh chord type, to firm up the Five / One cadential motion within the minor tonality. This is simply done by raising the minor 3rd of the dominant triad up by half step. Raising the third in this manner adds the potential of the leading tone 7th. Click and compare the two cadential possibilities, in A minor. Example 6b.

   v min 7   i   V 7   i

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The Five chord in measure 9 is diatonically created from the natural minor scale, which contains the sub tonic 7th as the 3rd of the minor Five chord, ( G natural ). The Five chord of measure 11 raises this sub tonic 7th to the leading tone or major 7th, ( from G to G# ). By using the leading tone seventh from either the melodic or harmonic minor scale configurations, our dominant chord in the minor tonality becomes a tritone containing dominant seventh chord. Compare the two cadences above. Bars 9 and 10 versus bars 11 and 12. What's your preference? Theoretically, they pretty much do the same thing.  Resolve or release musical tension. Artistically, the first cadence is a bit of a softer hue than the second, as presented in example 3 above. So two easy and common choices in resolving the Five chord to One in the minor tonality. What about other color tones besides the seventh for dominant harmony? What's the church mode built on the 5th degree of the minor tonality?

Six chord / submediant. 

Upon the sixth scale degree of the natural minor scale we build the Six or "submediant" chord, a major triad which is diatonically expandable into tonic color tones. The harmony built on Six provides a very stable major tonal center within the minor tonality. This important component of the equal temperament system allows us to view our themes from both the major and minor perspectives without leaving a particular tonal center or key. Depending on your artistic directions, this simple idea can become very important. Dual tonalities within one tonal center. Lets add the Six chord into our folk melody. The placement of Six before the Five chord is a very common combination, as we head back towards the tonic one chord. Example 7.

    i   VI   v   i

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Do you like the sound? This Six / Five / One harmonic motion is a common sequence in ballads and blues tunes in the minor tonality. Another common place for Six is to simply go in the other direction from example 7 above. In the following idea, we move from Six upward to subtonic Seven, then continue upward to the tonic. This type of motion is common in folk and rock tunes. Bob Dylan's classic rock tune "All Along The Watchtower" follows this chord pattern exclusively. Example 7a in A minor.

         i   VII   VI   VII

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Pretty classic minor tonal motion. Learn "All Along The Watchtower." Jimi Hendrix did a rather important cover of this tune. Check it out. 

A simple readjustment to the above idea creates an important cadential motion / vamp in the minor tonality. Although more of a pop / rock thing, this motion does occasionally find it's way into other styles. Simply moving up the scale in whole steps from Six to Seven to tonic, in the minor tonality. Example 7b in A minor.

   VI   VII   i   i

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Pretty "epic" huh? Sorry about the tempo, the same changes could work just as well in a more rockin groove. Maybe write a tune with these changes or some variation? Is there a scale group or mode associated with Six? But of course!

Seven chord / subtonic. 

The Seven chord in the minor tonality is known as the "subtonic" triad among theorists, the pitch being a whole step below the tonic. Due to it's close proximity to the tonic, the subtonic is generally pulled gravitationally upwards by the strength of the tonic and generally resolves there. Basically major in color, the Seventh chord in the minor tonality creates a cool "back and forth" motion when paired with the minor tonic. Lets use the Seven chord our in folk melody. Example 8.

            i   VII   i   VII

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The Seven and Five chord are pretty closely colored the same way don't you think? Well, they do share some of the same pitches. The shifting to the major tonality lightens things up a bit n'est pas? A simple but powerful vamp in the minor tonality is created by simply moving back and forth from the tonic to subtonic, One to Seven. Check it out. Example 8a.

     i   VII   i   VII

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Classic minor line, kinda bluesy, kinda folk, very of the earth, in my opinion anyway. Can you dig it? The church mode from the seventh degree in the natural minor tonality? Mixolydian of course!

Adding the 7th to each of the triads? Easy one. Simply extend to the next pitch in the arpeggio eh? Example 9.

scale degree i ii III iv v VI VII viii
A minor scale A B C D E F G A

Cool with how we did this? Dig the sound of the expanding harmonies of the minor tonality. Example 9a.

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Other related topics to diatonic harmony of the minor tonality?

spelling chords
chord function / families
minor chord family

In the above discussions, the natural minor scale was the exclusive resource for building the chords. And if the natural minor scale is the relative minor to the major scale, are all of the chords of the minor tonality the exact same as the ones in the major tonality? Yep, pretty much. And if all of the church modes are contained within the major scale / Ionian mode, then these chords are identical also? Absolutely. So, are we "stuck" with this "set" of harmonic colors? No of course not, but you knew that right? First, all of the above ideas are diatonically generated, meaning that on the pitches of the scales can be used to generate the chords. Of course, once we are cool with the diatonic elements we are completely free to "borrow" any pitch from anywhere to create the sounds we need right? Thus, an incredible harmonic resources unprecedented in the history of humankind that has created so much cool and important musical art. But even with this vast resource and the literature it has created, doesn't that leave us still within the tonality defined by the major / relative minor scales? Yep, pretty much. Anyway out of this ... tonality?

Well, can we build chords using groups of pitches that are not diatonically generated from the major / relative minor colors? Do we have any of those? You bet, both the melodic minor and harmonic minor scales are basically non diatonic or altered diatonic groups of pitches, and yes, we can "harmonize" these groups diatonically creating a different sense of tonality than the most common major / relative minor. In thirds? Yep. In fourths? Yep. Other ways? Well, the modernists have evolved the idea of a tone row, which functions as the source of creating a diatonic center, whose emotional color is determined by the character of the tone row. And from this tone row we can create chords / songs? Of course, we do it all here n'est pas? Can we use the "tonality without a tritone" to break out of the "diatonic realm.? Absolutely.

Harmonizing the melodic and harmonic minor scale. Here are quick looks at harmonizing the melodic minor and harmonic minor scales. Essentially creating the minor tonality with the minor 3rd degree, both of these groups have cool and unique properties, both in and out of functional or diatonic musical settings.

The melodic minor scale could be viewed as half minor and and half major. The lower four pitches create the minor color while the upper four mirror the major tonality. Example 10.

scale degree i ii III iv v VI VII viii
A minor scale A B C D E F# G# A

Here is the sound of the above pitches / chords. Example 10a.

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So, the minor / major mix creates a different tonality eh? What is the sense of tonal stability? How does the tonal gravity of the melodic minor color compare with the natural minor color? In traditional theory, the 6th and 7th degrees of the melodic minor are usually only raised by half step when the melodic line ascends, returning to their natural minor pitch when descending. So why the difference in ascending and descending? Why does jazz harmony differ from the traditional, European approach? Or is it just common practice? What if your lines break these rules?

In harmonizing the harmonic minor scale, we can see from the pitches that only the leading tone 7th degree is altered from the natural minor group. Example 11.

scale degree i ii III iv v VI VII viii
A minor scale A B C D E F G# A

Here is the sound of the above pitches / chords. Example 10a.

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So, can we create modes of the harmonic minor color similar to the church modes as created from within the major scale / Ionian mode? Sure why not? What do we call them? That's a good question. For now, we'll just go by scale degree. If you come up with names, let me know. Here is a modal idea from each of the 7 degrees of the harmonic minor scale. Example 12.

one two three four

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five six seven one / eight

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So, where do we use these various harmonies of the minor tonalities? Are there common chord progressions in the minor tonality?

For additional reading on the diatonic harmony of the minor tonalities from the traditional perspective, please consider the following options.

Ottman, Robert. Functional Harmony.

Piston, Walter. Harmony, Third edition. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1969.

Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much. Helen Keller