Chord Progressions: Switching From Minor to Major

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Purple Synth KeyboardIt’s common in pop songwriting to keep a verse mainly on minor chords, and then switch to major chords for the chorus. That’s not the same thing, by the way, as saying that the verse is in a minor key, but rather that it’s simply focusing on the minor chords from a major key.

It works this way. Let’s say that you’ve got a song in Eb major. That means that the following chords are going to exist naturally in that key:

  1. I: Eb
  2. ii: Fm
  3. iii: Gm
  4. IV: Ab
  5. V: Bb
  6. vi: Cm
  7. vii: Ddim

As you can see, some are major chords, some are minor, while the seventh chord is diminished. So for a song verse, you might try choosing mostly minor chords (Fm, Gm and Cm), and then switch to mostly major ones for the chorus. (Justin Timberlake does this in “Mirrors”.)

What this does is create a natural brightening of the overall sound of your song as it moves from verse to chorus, and that’s generally a beneficial thing in most songs.

There’s another way to do this, and though it’s rarer to see, it can give your music a unique sound: take a mostly minor progression, and then switch the minor chords to mostly major ones. Here’s how it works.

  1. First, create a verse chord progression that focuses mainly on minor chords, like  this one: Cm  Fm  Ab  Gm. It’s key appears to be C minor (even with the minor-V chord).
  2. Next, switch the quality of the chords to be mostly major for your chorus. In other words, make them appear as though they’re from the key of C major: C  F  Am  G.
  3. As a final step, you may want to insert a short pre-chorus progression that makes the switch from minor to major a little less abrupt, perhaps something like this: Ddim  G  Bb  F.

I was playing around with this idea, and thought that it sounded best when the verse progression was played four times, 2 beats per chord. I then played the pre-chorus chords, holding each chord for 4 beats, moving on to the chorus set at two beats per chord:

Cm  Fm  Ab  Gm|Cm  Fm  Ab  Gm|Cm  Fm  Ab  Gm|Cm  Fm  Ab  Gm||
Ddim  G  Bb  F||C  F  Am  G... etc.

In effect, you’re actually changing key with this idea, while the first idea at the beginning of this post involves simply choosing minor chords and then major chords from the same key. The brightening affect you get from this kind of chord change is usually strong, because the audience has been conditioned, so to speak, to expect a continuing of a minor key.

It has a distinctive flavour, so you’re going to have to limit how much you use this trick to avoid sounding repetitious. But it’s a great one to try, because it adds something unique to your song without having to stray very far from standard chords.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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