Creating Minor Key Chord Progressions

A minor key may add just the right mood to your lyric. Here’s how to create minor chord progression.


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Guitar chordThere are 2 common ways that songwriters get the feeling of minor across to their audience. The first way is to choose mostly minor chords from the major key, and this way is actually very common. Here’s how it works:

In C major, there are 7 naturally-occurring chords. You create them by playing a triad above each note of the major scale, and you wind up with these:

C – Dm – Em – F – G – Am – Bdim

You’ll notice that some of those chords are major (C – F – G), while others are minor (Dm – Em – Am), and one which is diminished (Bdim). Most songs in a  major key will use a mixture of mainly major and some minor chords. Typical chord progressions might be something like:

  • C  F  G  C
  • C  Dm  G  C
  • C  Am  F  G
  • C  F  Am  G  C
  • Am  F  Dm  G  C

…and so on. What really makes it sound major is the fact that each progression ends on the tonic (C) chord. Even that final progression above, Am  F  Dm  G  C, despite the fact that it starts on Am, still sounds major by the time it’s done, because you can hear the typical chords that point directly to the tonic. Each progression ends with a strong move to the tonic.

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In many pop songs, you’ll find that the writer simply chooses mostly minor chords from the list of 7 chords, and they try to end phrases (e.g., lines of lyrics) on a minor chord. In that sense, they’re not really in a minor key, they’re simply choosing mostly minor chords from the major key.

Using chords in this way means that you’re actually in the Aeolian mode — specifically, A Aeolian — and these progressions are common, and very useful.

Typical progressions might be something like:

  • Am  Em  F  Am
  • Am  Dm  Em  Am
  • Am  G  F  G  Am
  • Em  F  C  Em  Am
  • C  Am  Dm  Em  Am

As you can see, they all feature mostly minor chords, and they all have a strong move to Am at the end. Am is a common choice for chords that have been taken from the key of C major. That’s because A minor is the “relative minor” of C major: they both use the same key signature. In this case, we’re “pretending” to be in A minor by choosing mainly minor chords from C major.

So when you hear Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower“, you’re really listening to something in C# Aeolian: chords that have all been taken from the key of E major, but using C# as an important starting/ending point rather than E.

So what’s the other kind of minor? It’s when you are truly in a minor key, like the song “California Dreamin‘”, which starts with this progression:

C#m  B  A  G#sus4  G#  A  E  G#  C#m  A  G#sus4  G#  C#m…

It’s the G# chord that plants this song firmly in C# minor. The G# uses the notes G#-B#-D#. That B# (the same as C) acts as a leading tone which points directly to C#. That’s why the G# chord is almost always followed by C#m… it’s the dominant chord in C# minor.

So “California Dreamin'” is not using chords taken from E major, as we know there is no G# chord in E major. It’s taking chords from C# minor (many of which, granted, are in common with E major).

If you’re looking for a chart of chords for each minor chord, take a look at this one from

And for one more thing to try: many major key melodies can be successfully harmonized with minor chords, making them sound like minor key melodies. To read a bit more about that, try this post I did a couple of years ago.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer

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  1. Interesting notion that the so-called “natural” minor is not *really* minor, but your example of California Dreamin’ is pretty convincing!

  2. So what would a typical chord progression be if we truly were in A minor instead of just pretending to be in A minor? Aren’t all the chords the same for A minor and C major with just the function of the chords changing? I’m also confused when you say there is no G# chord in E major because according to the chart there is a G# chord, although it is a minor chord.

    • Hi Matt:

      The crucial difference between the key of A minor and A Aeolian (the “key” that’s actually a mode) is the V-chord. Can I recommend that you start by giving this article a quick read? It will give you the basic ideas behind the difference between modes and keys, and that’s at the heart of your question. When we say that something is “pretending to be” a minor key, we’re usually referring to the subtle difference between key and mode.

      Once you’ve read that article, you’ll see that there is a difference between C major and A minor, and it refers to the chord built on the 5th note of the minor scale: if we’re in A minor, we change that chord by raising the 3rd note (the middle note) of that chord. In other words, the 5th note of A minor is E. We change that chord by raising the G to G#. That G# acts as a leading tone to A, and that’s the crucial difference between A Aeolian and A minor. The mode, A Aeolian, will use all the same notes as the ones from C major.

      When I said there is no G# chord in E major, I meant that there is no major chord built on G#… it’s a minor chord.

      Once you’ve read that other article, please feel free to write back for clarification on any of the information.


      • Hi Gary:

        Ok thanks for the quick reply. It all makes sense to me now. When i was watching a guy on youtube explain minor keys i probably forgot that the last note of the scale (7th) was a semitone below the root and thought it was a wholetone. The difference between the Aeolian mode and the truly minor key are quite subtle so i can see why its an easy mistake for people to make.

  3. Pingback: Interesting Links For Musicians and Songwritiers – September 18, 2015 | Creative Music | Inspiring Musical Creativity

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