Minor Chords, what are they?

If you’ve already looked through this article about major chords, understanding minor chords will be a breeze. At least, understanding how they are constructed. There can be a lot of complexity to how chords of any tonality (major, minor, etc.) are used and what they’re useful for.

Minor chords are typically presented as sounding sad in contrast to the happy-sounding major chords. Both of these descriptions barely scratch the surface of what each can achieve on an emotional level, but it’s a fair enough starting place. It’s a least helpful to acknowledge that they affect us in their own way and work on different feelings.

So, on to the technical stuff

What makes a minor chord, well, minor?

If you remember from major chords, they are built out of a root, major 3rd, and perfect 5th. This construction is all based on the distance between notes, measured in half steps.

Root + 4 half steps = major 3rd
Root + 7 half steps = perfect 5th

Major or Minor? Why?

Right away you might notice that a major chord has a major 3rd in it. Well, that is no coincidence. The chord is named, in this case, after that major 3rd. It just so happens that a minor chord is also named after the 3rd. So, how do you make a major 3rd into a minor 3rd? It’s actually very simple and calls for just one, small change.

Root + 4 half steps = major 3rd     C → C# → D → D# → E
Root + 3 half steps = minor 3rd     C → C# → D → Eb (aka D#)

The only difference here is of one half step! With this in mind, you can take any major chord you know how to spell, such as C E G for C major, and just lower the 3rd a half step to get: C Eb G, C minor.

D major = D F# A   →   lower that major 3rd a half step, down to F   →   D minor = D F A

E major = E G# B   →   G# becomes G   →   E minor = E G B

This works for any major triad chord, which means if you know how to spell the major you know how to find the minor very quickly. And if you don’t already know the major, then you can build the minor from scratch using the same method as for the major, only changing the major 3rd to a minor 3rd.

Root = F 

Root + 3 half steps (minor 3rd):
F → F# → G → Ab (G#)

Root + 7 half steps (perfect 5th):
F → F# → G → G# → A → A# → B → C

F minor chord = F Ab C 

What next?

Now you know how to build any major chord or any minor chord, and how to turn one into the other in an instant. Using this knowledge, play and listen to these triad chords. Try moving from a major to the same chord in minor and listen to how it sounds and feels different. The better your ear understands this difference, the more intuitively you’ll understand how to use chords in a way pleasing to you. You may also find yourself knowing, just by listening, whether a song is on a minor or major chord, which is pretty cool, too!