Back To CourseMusic 101: Intro to Music
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Liz has taught music for K-12 and beyond. She holds a master's degree in Education Media and Design Technology.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Another relationship between Major and minor key signatures are the parallel keys. Parallel keys are the Major and minor keys that share the same tonic (or home note), such as C Major and c minor. The two are parallel because they have the same tonic. Think of it as you at work or school and you at home. At work, you might normally wear a button-down shirt, dress shoes and slicked-back hair, but at home you sport a leather vest, nose ring and a pink mohawk. It's still you, but it's a different expression of your personality.
Parallel keys are always three flats apart, like we see here with C Major and c minor. If there's a sharp key like A Major, which has three sharps, then each sharp is just canceled out by the flat. In this case, all sharps are canceled, and the relative minor is a minor, which has no sharps or flats.
While being able to determine between Major and minor key signatures won't solve the world's problems, it can help us to see relationships within music. Remember that key signatures are just symbols, and two tonalities are represented by the same symbolism - which is how you ended up here in the first place, isn't it?
If you are transported here again, you'll be able to find relative keys to associate shared Major and minor key signatures, and you can find the minor relative key from a Major key by counting three half-steps backwards. You can find the relative Major key of a minor key by counting three half-steps alphabetically from the minor key. Parallel keys start with the same tonic, but one is Major, and one is minor. Thanks for visiting, and good luck with your key signatures!
After viewing this video, students should be able to:
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Back To CourseMusic 101: Intro to Music
12 chapters | 101 lessons