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How to Determine Minor Key Signatures in Music

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  • 0:08 Major and Minor Key Signatures
  • 1:41 Relative Key
  • 2:42 Relative Key - Major to Minor
  • 3:59 Relative Key - Minor to Major
  • 4:28 How to Determine Major…
  • 5:18 Parallel Key
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Diamond-Manlusoc

Liz has taught music for K-12 and beyond. She holds a master's degree in Education Media and Design Technology.

Key signatures are useful in playing and understanding music, but how do you know if the key signature is for a Major or a minor key? Find out in this lesson!

Major and Minor Key Signatures

Hello, and welcome to Minorland. I'm glad you've made it here safely through the portal. What's that? You thought you were watching an educational video? Well, you're not the first one; Earthlings tend to get confused about these things. I can understand that, though; you saw a familiar symbol and didn't realize it had two functions. It's like the key signature in music. Key signatures can represent both Major and minor keys. Each key signature represents a set of notes, but we can't tell if a key signature is Major or minor just by looking at it. Where you assume a Major key signature, I assume a minor key signature. Sounds confusing? Don't worry - let's start with what you already know.

Major Key Signature Review

When you see a key signature, your automatic response is to figure out the key, right? So if it's a sharp Major key signature like this one, you know that the key is one half-step higher than the last sharp shown in the key signature. That means that this example, where C# is the last sharp shown, signifies the key of D Major, where D is the 'home note,' or 'tonic.' And in a flat Major key signature, like this one, you know that you can find the key by identifying the second-to-last flat shown. So, this example shows Eb Major.

Relative Key

But since minor keys have key signatures, too, and the key signature does not show tonality, we can't just tell by looking at the key signature alone whether the piece is Major or minor. For example, here in Minorland, where you see the key of D Major, we see the key of b minor. They use the same letter notes and have the same key signature, but because they are centered around a different note - D Major revolving around D, and b minor revolving around B - they have a different tone and different emotional feel. This is called relative key. Relative keys are Major and minor keys that share the same key signature. It's like if you had an evil twin. Although you look the same and you have the same DNA, you are two totally different people, and you act differently.

Relative Key - Major to Minor

All you need to do to find the relative minor from a Major key signature is to count backwards three half-steps. For example, C Major has no sharps or flats - it's just C D E F G A B C. When working backwards through the musical alphabet three half-steps (so from C to B, from B to Bb and from Bb to A) we find that the relative minor of C Major is a minor. This means that a minor has no sharps or flats - just A B C D E F G A - but because the tonal center is now A instead of C, the music will sound different than C Major.

We know that a key signature with one sharp is G Major - G A B C D E F# G. When counting backwards three half-steps, we find that the relative minor is e minor - E F# G A B C D E. Same notes, different sound. This process is the same for sharp and flat key signatures. If we look at Ab Major - Ab Bb C Db Eb F G Ab - we can count backwards three half-steps and find that the relative minor is f minor.

Relative Key - Minor to Major

If you are here in Minorland, or if you're shown a key signature that has been determined as minor and need to find the relative Major key, you would just count forward three half-steps. In this example, we are told that the key signature is c minor. To find the relative Major, count three half-steps alphabetically. When we count three half-steps alphabetically, we find that the relative key of c minor is Eb Major.

How to Determine Major or Minor

So how can you know whether the Major or the minor key is being represented by a key signature? Unfortunately, there is nothing in a key signature that tells us whether the music is Major or minor. This sounds hopeless, but really it's just a matter of looking for one letter or the other. Our first example showed this key signature, and we now know that it can either be for D Major or b minor. All you need to do is look at the notes. If there are more Ds, and especially if the last note is D, then you most likely have D Major. You know - walks like a duck, talks like a duck... that kind of thing. But if there are more Bs, and if the last note is B, then you most likely have b minor. There are exceptions to this, but it will work for most cases.

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