Chord Progressions for Songs in a Minor Key or Mode

The difference between minor key and minor mode.

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Synthesizer keyboard - songwritingMany songwriters are comfortable with chord progressions for songs in major keys, but aren’t sure which chords work well in minor. Part of the confusion comes from the fact that (especially in pop music genres) minor key is often confused with minor mode.

Most songs that are thought of as being in a minor key are actually in the aeolian mode. The discussion around the difference between minor key (“California Dreaming‘”), aeolian mode (“All Along the Watchtower“) and dorian mode (“Another Brick in the Wall“) can dissolve into a bit of an argument and confusion, as you can see when you read the comments on this post.

I think it’s best to not worry so much. The crucial note that makes something minor key rather than minor mode is what’s known as the raised leading tone. Let’s say that you think your song is in A minor, but you want to know for sure. You’re in a minor key if you find that the chord based on E is a major chord. If you use Em, you’re in one of the minor modes: Aeolian or Dorian. (It’s dorian if you use chords that include an F# in them, like a D chord in the key of A minor.)


Here’s a short list of chord progressions that will help you get your mind thinking in minor, whether that’s a key or a mode:


Am  E7  Am  Dm  Am

Am  G  F  E7  Am

Am  Dm  E  F7  E7  E/G#  Am


Am G F G Am

Am Dm C F Em G Am

Am C Dm Am F Em  Am


Am  D  Am  G  F  D  Am

Am  F#dim  G  C  D  G  Am

Am  G  C  D  Am  Bm  Am

Writing songs that use these chords is simply a matter of choosing one, playing through it several times until you feel comfortable with it, and then improvise melodic ideas over those chords.

Mix & Match

And of course, with the progressions listed above, you can modify them, and “mix & match” them any way you wish. And there is no reason that you can’t fluctuate back and forth from one kind of minor to another, like “Eleanor Rigby“, which moves from dorian mode to aeolian.

______________Gary Ewer

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  1. Just read through your linked post and a good chunk of the comments related to this and I believe the takeaway is: STOP REFERRING TO AEOLIAN AS NATURAL MINOR!

    I’m guessing this confusion can be partly blamed on the fact that we look at the third to determine whether something is major or minor. Aeolian has a flat third, therefore it’s a minor key. But its flat seventh negates that.

    Using your example of Am, raising the seventh gives us an Emaj (E G# B). But what would the key signature look like? The key with one sharp is G, and it’s F#.

    According to Wikipedia: “A key signature is not the same as a key; key signatures are merely notational devices. They are convenient principally for diatonic or tonal music.”

    So would you just throw a # in for the G, or would the key signature still be the same as it is for C and all of the G#s would be shown as accidentals? I saw key signatures were addressed in the other post, but I don’t know if they answered this specific question. It’s late.

    • When we talk about the 3 forms of minor scales (“natural”, “melodic” and “harmonic”), there is a tendency to think of them all as 3 types of minor scale that exist in tonality. In fact, tonality refers to something being in a key, with a tonic, a dominant and a leading tone being important parts of the definition. By definition, if a scale doesn’t have a leading tone, it’s more likely to be a *mode* rather than a key. For that reason, the phrase “natural minor” is confusing, since it’s really a scale that starts and ends on the 6th note of a major key. (Yes, it is definitely confusing!)

      I’m not sure I’m understanding the question you ask at the end of your comment, so if you could restate it, I’d be grateful.


      • Maybe this is getting into an area that’s beyond me.

        Your example was how to tell if you’re in a minor key or minor mode. Your example, Am, has no sharps or flats, but the *key* of Am requires G# to get the Emaj.

        We look at the key signature to know which notes are used in a piece of music. If something is in the key of Am rather than A Aeolian, how is that indicated? Does that make sense?

        • Hi Steve:

          A piece of music in A Aeolian will have no sharps or flats in the key signature, and no accidentals throughout the music.

          A piece of music in A minor will have no sharps or flats in the key signature, but will add a G# in the music (not in the key signature) especially in circumstances where a melodic line is rising up to the note A. It will also often add an F# (right in the music, not in the key signature). So how you’ll notice the difference between aeolian and minor key is by looking at the music itself. You won’t see the difference simply by looking at the key signatures.


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