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You probably think you know what major and minor mean. You might think that major means happy and minor means sad. Or you might think that major means written in a major key and minor means written in a minor key. And you’d be right, for the most part. But the whole truth is both simpler and more complicated than that.

Major means bigger and minor means smaller.

You knew that already, right? You’d rather have a minor catastrophe than a major catastrophe. But you might have forgotten how it applies to music.

A major 3rd is bigger than a minor 3rd (C-E is a bigger distance than C-Eb). Similarly, a major 7th is bigger than a minor 7th (C-B is a bigger distance than C-Bb). Major just means bigger. So why do we forget this?

Well, consider a major triad. A major triad is not actually bigger than a minor triad. The 3rd of a major triad is bigger than the 3rd of a minor triad, so we call it a major triad as a kind of shorthand, but what we really mean is a triad with a major 3rd and a perfect 5th.

Similarly, a major scale is not bigger than a minor scale, we just call it that because the 3rd is bigger.

And when we talk about a major symphony, what we really mean is a symphony that’s primarily based on a scale that has a major 3rd.

We talk about chords, scales and symphonies more than we talk about intervals, and because major ones sound happier than minor ones we can even think that major means happy. But it doesn’t.

Major means bigger and minor means smaller.

Summary

  • the tonic is the first note of a scale, the root is the first note of a chord

That’s the short answer. However, a lot of people get confused when it comes to scales and chords, even when they think they know what they are. After all, isn’t the C major triad just the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the C major scale, so the tonic and the root are the same: C?

Here’s the longer answer:

Scales

Consider the opening of Harold Arlen’s Over the Rainbow:

Over the Rainbow (opening)

Before we get to the end of the second phrase, we’ve covered all the white notes from C to C:

C major scale

which, as some of you will know, is the C major scale. That’s the real meaning of a scale:

  • a scale is a set of notes a melody is based on

Now look at melody on the page again. It’s lots of single notes, one after the other:

Over the Rainbow - opening

For that reason, we say that melody is the horizontal aspect of music.

  • melody = horizontal = scale

Now, if you’re playing on the white notes, why is C the tonic, and not D or E, etc.? Let’s look at the end of the tune:

Over the Rainbow - end

If you play Over the Rainbow on the white notes, it finishes on C. In fact, most tunes played on the white notes finish on C:

Amazing Grace - end

happybirthday_end

whenthesaints_end

It’s as if C exerts a gravitational pull on the melody. For that reason, I prefer to call the tonic the home note of a scale rather than the first note. It’s the note that a tune comes home to. So:

  • the tonic is the home note of a scale

and

  • melody = horizontal = scale = tonic

Chords

Now chords. First of all, what is a chord?

  • a chord is more than one note happening at once

It doesn’t have to be a triad or a seventh, it really is just any bunch of notes happening at once.

Here’s the opening of Over the Rainbow with chords:

Over the Rainbow - chords

Now look at any chord in Over the Rainbow. It’s always a bunch of notes on top of each other:

Over the Rainbow - chords

For that reason, we say that harmony is the vertical aspect of music.

  • harmony = vertical = chord

Once again, I prefer to use the phrase home note when describing a root, because a root isn’t always the first note of a chord. For instance, it doesn’t matter how you arrange C, E and G, they always make up a C major chord:

C major triad

So:

  • the root is the home note of a chord

and

  • harmony = vertical = chord = root

Horizontal vs vertical

So, why is this all so important? Look at the opening of Over the Rainbow with chords again:

Over the Rainbow - chord symbols

The roots of the chords are C, A, E, C, F, B, C. However, all of the chords use white notes only, which is the C major scale, so the tonic is always C.

  • the root can change while the tonic stays the same

For that reason:

  • always keep horizontal and vertical separate in your mind

If you say C major, you need to know whether you’re referring to the C major scale (horizontal) or a C major chord (vertical), as they don’t always go together.

  • melody = horizontal = scale = tonic
  • harmony = vertical = chord = root

Carve it in stone.

To do this tutorial you need to know your 5ths really well.

To do

1. Practice going up by 5ths from C with your RH, until you get to F# – so C, G, D, A, E, B, F#.

2. Then practice going down by 5ths from C with your LH, until you get to Gb, remembering that you go to Bb after F, not B – so C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb.

3. Now do 1. again, but this time saying: no sharps (C), 1 sharp (G), 2 sharps (D), 3 sharps (A), 4 sharps (E), 5 sharps (B), 6 sharps (F#).

4. Now do 2. again, but this time saying: no flats (C), 1 flat (F), 2 flats (Bb), 3 flats (Eb), 4 flats (Ab), 5 flats (Db), 6 flats (Gb).

5. You can now work out the tonic of any major key signature. Just ask yourself how many sharps of flats there in the key signature are and go up or down by 5ths by that number until you find the tonic.

6. How do you know that the piece isn’t in the relative minor? Look at the last bass note in the piece – if it’s 3 semitones below the answer you found in 5, it’s in the relative minor, but the scale is the same.

The circle of 5ths

To do this tutorial you need to have learned 4ths and 5ths.

Summary

The circle of 5ths is a way of going through all 12 notes on the scale so that each note is a 5th below the previous one.

Never mind why you need to learn it right now, just memorise it! It won’t take you very long and it’ll be incredibly useful very soon.

To do

1. Memorise the circle of 5ths, starting on C, then going up a 4th, down a 5th, and so on, until you get to C again. Remember that you change colour between the F’s and B’s.

2. Now memorise the circle of 5ths, starting and finishing on C, but going down a 5th, up a 4th, etc., this time.

3. Finally, get used to going through the circle of 5ths those 2 ways, but starting and finishing on notes other than C.

In American English, the words note and tone are used interchangeably, possibly because Americans have trouble with letter order. This is confusing to me, as a tone to me is what an American would call a step. The terms step and half-step are okay in themselves, but then what do you call the whole-tone scale, the whole-whole-step scale? No, Americans call it the whole-tone scale, which – given that tone means note in American English – implies that it’s a scale entirely made up of notes, just like every other scale. That’s even more confusing, so on this site, whenever I say tone I mean whole-step, not note.

When it comes to note values, however, Americans talk about 12-notes, 14-notes and 18-notes whereas British people use the archaic terms minims, crotchets and quavers, which don’t give you any insight into how long they are. The Americans win hands down here, so while I’ll use tone to mean whole-step, I’ll also talk about 12-notes, 14-notes and 18-notes.

To do

If you speak American English, say note when you mean note, and remember that when I say tone I mean whole-step.

If you speak British English, learn the American system of note values, for goodness’s sake. It makes time signatures so much easier, and do you really want to write hemidemisemiquaver when you could write 164-note?