How to Write Songs in Minor (Rock and Metal)
Writing music in minor keys is a tool that should be in every songwriter’s belt, but nowhere is this more important than for those who are writing some form or subgenre of rock or metal.
These genre’s are generally characterized by aggressive, darker sounds because the goal is to express emotions like anger, angst, frustration, empowerment, rebellion, among others and do it loud and heavy. Minor keys are perfect for getting these moods in your music.
No matter what genre you are writing, understanding the minor scales, keys, chords, and modes will greatly benefit you when you write minor songs.
So we are going to cover all the things you should know and that can apply to any genre.
At the bottom of this post, I’ll also give you some tips when it comes to applying it for rock and metal songs.
What Makes Music Minor?
In general, music is minor when the chord progression and melody are built mainly around the Minor scale, which has a ♭3 interval. The ♭3 interval is the main interval that makes it different from the Major scale and gives it its sadder, darker sound.
Oftentimes, if the song starts with a minor chord, that is a good indicator that the entire song is likely in a minor key because songs often start with the root chord. Of course, that’s not always the case and everything in music is relative so checking the rest of the chord progression and melody will confirm this.
What is the Minor Scale?
The Minor Scale is a scale based on the Major scale, but with some key differences, the 3rd, 6th, and 7th intervals are flattened or lowered by half a step.
However, the most important interval that makes it sound minor is the ♭3.
See how the formulas for Major and Minor compare.
Major formula: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Minor formula: 1, 2, ♭3, 4, 5, ♭6, ♭7
What Chords are in the Minor Key?
So the same way that the Major Scale has chords in the Major Key, the Minor Scale also has its own chords in the Minor Key.
The formula for the chords in a Minor Key is this:
i – iio – ♭III – iv – v – ♭VI – ♭VII
whole – half – whole – whole – half – whole
Cmin, Ddim, EbMaj, Fmin, Gmin, AbMaj, BbMaj
We plugged in the key of C, but you can plug in the note you want your Minor Key to be in to get all the chords.
Let’s take a quick look comparing the chords in a Major and a Minor Key:
Major Scale Formula: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Major Key Chords: I – ii – iii – IV – V – vi – viio
Chords in the key of C Major: CMaj, Dmin, Emin, FMaj, GMaj, Amin, Bdim
Minor Scale Formula: 1, 2, ♭3, 4, 5, ♭6, ♭7
Minor Key Chords: i – iio – ♭III – iv – v – ♭VI – ♭VII
Chords in the key of C Minor: Cmin, Ddim, EbMaj, Fmin, Gmin, AbMaj, BbMaj
How to Make Minor Chord Progressions
You can definitely take a shot at coming up with a progression if you already have something you like.
In this case I would just recommend you take into account chord function, or the role each chord plays in building tension and release. If you’re unfamiliar with this concept check out a post about this called Chord Function: The Compass to Flowing Chord Progressions.
This will help you check that the progression works, because sometimes you have a progression that sounds great but maybe doesn’t work to take the song in the direction that you want.
For example if you want the chords to trail off and feel unresolved then you’ll need to use chords that give that vibe. Chord function helps to identify your chord options.
On the other hand, the easiest way to make a minor chord progression for your song is to use a common chord progression and plug in the key you want your song to be in. You can then switch out any chords you like or don’t like.
Here are some minor chord progressions you could play around with:
The first one is a progression from “Black Magic Woman” by Santana, the second is the Andalucian progression often used in Spanish music, the third is the 12 bar blues.
Though they may not sound very rock or metal at first glance, these can all be presented in a way to be more rock/metal sounding.
For example by playing them in powerchords instead of chords and then using different minor scales over them with screaming guitar harmonies with distortion for example.
That’s what’s cool about chord progressions is that they can be presented in different styles so they can be more versatile than you think.
What Modes are Minor?
The modes that are Minor are Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian and Locrian. This is because they all have a ♭3 interval in the scale.
These modes are important to know when you’re writing songs in Minor because they will give you more options on dark moods for your songs. This is because, although Minor sounds sad, you can say that there are different types of sad, or dark sounding moods.
For example, sad in a hopeful way, dark in a mysterious way, dark in a disturbing dissonant way, dark in an evil way, etc.
Tips for Writing Minor Songs for Rock and Metal
While all of the information above applies for minor songs in any genre, there’s some additional tips geared towards rock and metal.
Know the chords your powerchords are based on in the key
These genre’s traditionally have a heavy use of powerchords which don’t have a third that confirms if it’s minor or major, so it really helps to know what chords they represent within your minor key.
This will help you better understand the harmony and it will also help when you are writing the other instruments.
You will know the notes you can use to write bass lines, the scales you can use for melodies, the chords you can substitute for other chords, the functions of each chord in the progression, etc.
Overall you will have more options for writing without flying blind or relying only on your ear to find that elusive chord you need to get the mood you want.
Minor Pentatonic/Blues scale – your swiss army knife scale
Since rock came from blues, it makes sense both the major and minor pentatonic/blues scales would be heavily used in these genres.
In a nutshell, the pentatonic scale is based on the major scale but only uses 5 notes.
Major Pentatonic: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 – add a ♭3 as well to make it Blues
Minor Pentatonic: 1, ♭3, 4, 5, ♭7 – add a ♭5 as well to make it Blues
The pentatonic scale can be played in both major or minor depending on your key, and often, players will briefly switch to the opposite major or minor pentatonic scale while improvising or creating melodies to add some flavor.
It’s also a great scale to make guitar riffs and vocal melodies.
Many rock singers use it for runs and melodies. You can hear it a lot in Chris Cornell and Robert Plant’s singing for example.
There’s also rock singers that have R&B influences in their melodies and of course pentatonic scales are well suited for that too. For example, Jonny Craig from early Emarosa and Dance Gavin Dance.
Mix notes from different minor modes and scales in your melodies
You could definitely use only notes from the minor scale for your melodies, but throwing in a note every once in a while from different types of minor scales can add a really unique flavor.
Try adding a note from one of the minor modes, melodic minor or harmonic minor scales that the natural minor doesn’t have. This will give the melody the signature sound of the scale.
Use your ear to guide you and try not to clash with the notes of the chords too much so it still sounds musical. Doing this over powerchords is great because their simplicity leaves lots of room for the melody not to clash.
Use Phrygian, Harmonic Minor and Phrygian Dominant
Phrygian is a minor mode and is the second darkest mode after Locrian. It’s also used in flamenco and latin music and has a very aggressive, cold sound, which makes it great for rock and metal.
Harmonic Minor is a middle eastern sounding scale and is also used a lot in rock and metal but also flamenco and latin music. It’s very dark and sounds a bit more exotic than Phrygian.
Phrygian Dominant is a mode from the Harmonic Minor scale and sounds really awesome. It’s middle eastern sounding, dark and exotic and is not only used a lot in rock, metal, flamenco and latin music but also in movie soundtracks.
You know those scenes in adventure movies where they show the landscape shots of the desert with the violins? Yea the soundtrack is most likely using Phrygian Dominant.
Wrapping it up
Writing in minor keys is quite appealing to a lot of people. While there is definitely rock in major keys (tons of Led Zeppelin songs for example), many rock and metal musicians will find the darker moods of the Minor scales and keys more appealing.
Hope this post has done a good job in pointing you in the right direction, not just to understand Minor but also to apply it to the music you love to make.
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