Switching From Major to Minor; Keep the Same Melody

Balancing major and minor within the same song is a great way to make use of the contrast principle.


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When you choose a key for your song, the main factor is usually vocal range. You don’t often have to think about whether a song is going to wind up being major or minor. That aspect usually happens with the initial creation of a song. While you might switch lyrics around, modify melodies, and change chord progressions, the fact that a song is major or minor is not something that songwriters experiment much with. Hotel California, for example, is in a minor key, and it’s hard to imagine that the writers (Felder, Henley and Frey) would have seriously tried it out in major.

But trying part of your song in minor, and then part in major, is something that’s worth experimenting with.. There are reasons you might want to do this, but the best one is that minor verses work really well when contrasted with major choruses. It’s not unusual for songs to move from minor to major. That’s because there is a psychological brightening that comes from that kind of modulation. For an example of this effect, check out Jordin Sparks’ “Battlefield“.

Working part of your song in minor and then another part of it in major is not that difficult. This often means coming up with an entirely new melody for each contrasting tonality, as in “Battlefield”. But another option is to take the same melodic fragment and harmonize it both ways. Here’s how you can do that:

  1. Create a simple 2-chord progression that focuses on minor, and then move it to the relative major. To do this, simply move your minor progression up a minor 3rd (i.e., 3 semitones). For example, you might choose Am  Em as your minor progression. That means that C  G is the relative major equivalent.
  2. Compose a short 3- to 6- note melody that works well with your minor progression.
  3. Take the same melody and switch to the major chords. If you need to change a note here or there, no problem.

Click here to listen to a melodic fragment accompanied by chords in a minor key. Now click here to listen to the same melody accompanied by major key chords.

You’ll find that many of the melodies you create for your songs can be successfully accompanied by both major and minor progressions without changing a note of your melody.

One further point: When you move a melody into the relative major, it’s often not necessary to move all chords up a minor 3rd. You can even create an entirely new chord progression for your melody. If you’re not confident creating progressions in this way, try these:

  1. Minor: Am  G  F  G  || Major: C  G/B  Am  G
  2. Minor: Am  Dm  Bdim  E  || Major:  C  Dm  Am  G
  3. Minor: Am  F  Am  G  || Major: C  Am  C  G

With the progressions listed above, try playing the minor ones 2 or 4 times, then move on to the major.

Don’t forget that there is no rule that says that when you move a melody from a minor accompaniment to a major one that you can’t make modifications to your melody. You might need to change one or two notes in order to make the new major tonality work.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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