The difference between minor key and minor mode.
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Many 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.
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