Major and Minor Chords

Major and minor chords are the building blocks of Western music, the starting point of harmony and chord progressions in almost all genres.

by Michael Lane

But what’s the difference between major and minor chords?

The first difference is technical: how you play them. The second is human: how the chords “sound” different to us as listeners.

Let’s go through how to play major and minor chords on piano, how they sound, why they sound different and some examples of both—with a final note on relative major/minor chords.

Major chords

How do you play major chords on piano?

If you’re familiar with scales, you might know that most scales have seven notes (on the eighth note, the scale starts again an octave higher—see our Beginners Guide to Piano for more on this).

This is a major scale:

Keyboard with a C major scale marked out 1-7

For any scale, the first note is called the "root" note, and every other note is named after its position in the scale. So the fourth note is the "fourth," the fifth note is the "fifth," and so on.

The most important note in this particular scale is the third. Because this is a major scale, the third is called a "major third." A major third is four half steps higher than the root note. The rule applies for any key. In this example, the key is C major—so the major third is E.

Keyboard with a C major scale marked out 1-7

The major chord consists of only the first, third, and fifth from the scale. The fifth is seven half steps higher than the root note. This is always true for any chord, whether major or minor. Since we now have three notes, this is also called a major “triad”.

Keyboard with a C major triad marked out

To play this major chord, place your first, third, and fifth fingers on the first, third, and fifth notes respectively. It should look—and sound—like this:

What do major chords sound like?

You can describe the sound of a major chord in various ways, but the words we use are positive, like “happy” or “bright.” The reason why we associate major chords with positivity is a more difficult question, but it’s easier to get into that after we’ve introduced minor chords.

Minor chords

How do you play minor chords on piano?

Let’s go back to scales again, but this time looking at a minor scale.

Keyboard with a C minor scale marked out 1-7

Again, the most important note is the third. You’ll notice that here, the third is one half step lower than for the major scale. A minor third is three half steps higher than the root note. The rule follows in any key. In this example, the key is C minor—so the minor third is E♭.

Keyboard with a C minor scale marked out 1-7 *minor 3rd highlighted*

Just like before, the minor chord is made up of the first, third, and fifth notes of the scale. Again, since the fifth is the same for major and minor scales—the fifth is seven half steps higher than the root note. Since we now have three notes, this chord is also called a "minor triad."

Keyboard with a C minor chord marked out

And just like before, to play this minor chord, place your first, third, and fifth fingers on the first, third, and fifth notes respectively. Like this:

What do minor chords sound like?

For a minor chord, the most common descriptions we use are negative, like “sad” or “dark.” The reason for this is a complex one, so let’s dig in.

One of the wonderful elements of music is how simple differences—like a single half step change in a chord—can evoke such different emotions in us. The reason why major is “happy” and minor is “sad” to Western ears is possibly the oldest mystery in musical theory.

The most common thinking is that these associations have simply built up over time. Since Western music started to evolve, songs for happy occasions were generally centered around major chords, while songs for sad occasions used more minor chords.

It’s important to note that these associations are specific to Western music. In cultures across the rest of the world, the emotional associations to music are often different, meaning that a major key may not convey happiness in the same way.

What songs are good examples of major and minor chords?

It’s very rare that a song or piece of music will use only major or only minor chords. Songs move naturally through a progression of chords that combine to create something more special than any single chord ever could. So even sad songs often start with major chords and happy songs can use a lot of minor chords. Here are some examples that start with major and minor chords:

Songs starting with major chords

Eine kleine Nachtmusik – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

This is probably the most famous progression of major chords in Classical music, bouncing with joy, lightness, and positivity from the very first note.

Imagine – John Lennon

From probably the most famous Classical piece in a major key to arguably the most famous in pop music history. Whether or not you find it cheesy, these simple major chords have been bringing a sense of hope to listeners for more than fifty years.

Angels – Robbie Williams 

Sometimes, a pure love song needs pure positivity. This 90s hit stays with major chords all the way through the first verse, setting the tone for the uplifting singalong.

Songs starting with minor chords

Moonlight Sonata (1st Movement) – Ludwig van Beethoven

If you want something to play while feeling sad and mournful, staring at the moonlight (or just the wall of your apartment) go no further than this minor-chord-centric masterpiece.

Skinny Love – Birdy

This version of the Bon Iver original opens with a scattered minor piano chord. The rest of the song moves through a simple progression that is often major, but never far from that first chord that sets the tone perfectly for a song soaked in heartbreak.

All of Me – John Legend

The minor chord that opens this tender piano ballad is a lesson in how to take a listener on a journey. It sounds sad and mournful, but when the chorus kicks in and goes major, it’s time to really take out the tissues.

What is a relative minor/major?

When the last song above (All of Me – John Legend) switches from a minor chord to major in the chorus, the transition has a particular sweetness to it. This is because those two chords have a special relationship: The two chords (F minor and A major) are the relative of each other, so F minor is the relative minor of A♭ major and A♭ major is the relative major of F minor.

What this means is that the keys of A major and F minor contain the same pattern of notes but simply start in different places, on the root notes A and F respectively.

How do you find the relative minor/major?

You may have noticed that the relative minor (F minor) above is three half steps below the relative major (A major). This is true in any key, so:

  • If you have a major chord, go three half steps down to find the relative minor
  • If you have a minor chord, go three half steps up to find the relative major 

Why is the relative major/minor useful?

If you’re just starting out, it’s simply another building block in understanding the relationship between chords. It gives you a safe and secure way of moving from a major chord to a minor chord, and often you can safely swap one for the other for variation. Once you grasp the concept, you will start to see them everywhere. Then, if you choose to start improvising over your favorite songs or writing your own, you can easily figure out which chords go well together for a shortcut to composing your own masterpiece!

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