What chords are in the key of C minor? Learn all about the C minor scale and C minor chords below.
Are you struggling to understand how to play piano chords in C minor? We can help you learn the chords you need to play any piece in that key.
Playing in the key of C minor means you’re using the notes of the C minor scale. This scale uses three flats, which is why any piece written in the key of C minor has three flats in the key signature. When you use only the notes of the C minor scale to build chords, you end up with the diatonic chords for the key of C minor. In this article, we will walk you through the notes of the C minor scale, and show you how to put those notes together to play all of the diatonic chords for that key.
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Why is the C minor scale so popular?
C minor is used in some of the most popular works in classical music! The noteworthy beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? C minor. The catchy ‘80’s pop song power anthem Eye of the Tiger? C minor!
Traditionally, this scale was associated with sadness – but because all minor keys are created the same way, it just depends on how the listener interprets the music written in that key. While some listeners consider C minor to be sad or gloomy, every minor key uses the same combination of half and whole steps. This means that every listener forms their own relationship with each minor key.
As an experiment, take some time to listen to the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and then to Mendelssohn’s First Symphony and write down some emotion words that come to mind describing each piece. While both of these pieces are in the key of C minor and use diatonic chords, you’ll likely associate different emotions with each piece.
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What are the notes of the C minor scale on the piano?
Knowing the notes of the C minor scale is the first step in learning the chords for the key of C minor. Did you know there are actually three different types of minor scale in Western music? There is the natural minor scale, the harmonic minor scale, and the melodic minor scale. Each different ‘flavor’ of minor scale sounds different because each one is built with a different combination of half and whole steps on the piano keys. Once you know the notes of the C minor scale on piano, you can learn how to play the diatonic chords that fit the quality of the piece you’re learning!
Let’s start with the building blocks of natural minor – you can use these with any starting note to make the minor scale. Natural minor begins with the starting note and travels whole step – half step – whole step – whole step – half step – whole step – whole step. To build the C natural minor scale, start on C and take a whole step up to D, a half step to Eb, a whole step to F, a whole step to G, a half step to Ab, a whole step to Bb, and a whole step to C. If you are familiar with solfege, natural minor is do – re – me – fa – so – le – te – do (me is pronounced “may,” le is pronounced “lay,” and te is pronounced “tay”).
Next, let’s make the C melodic minor scale! To make the melodic minor, raise the 6th and 7th degrees of the scale when it’s ascending. This makes the melodic minor scale sound more like major, because the end of the scale is now la – ti – do. So, the C melodic minor scale ascending is C- D -Eb – F – G – A – B – C. The descending scale for C Melodic Minor is the same as in C natural minor – the 6th and 7th scale degrees are flat coming back down.
The final version of the C minor scale is C harmonic minor. Harmonic minor incorporates qualities of both natural minor and melodic minor scales. C harmonic minor is the same scale as C natural minor, but the 7th scale degree is raised, so the final notes are le – ti – do.
What keys are closely related to C minor?
When musicians think about the relationship between different keys, they organize this information into patterns. Keys can relate to each other as relative major or minor, or parallel major or minor. C minor’s parallel major is C major, and C minor’s relative major is Eb major. The parallel major starts on the same note ( C ) and the relative major has the same key signature of three flats, but starts on me, the third note of the scale, E-flat.
Another way musical keys relate to one another is through the Circle of Fifths. To move around the circle of fifths using key signatures, you can add or subtract an accidental. Thinking harmonically, you can move to a different key by going to the dominant, or fifth scale degree. G major and minor are related to C minor through the circle of fifths. It’s important to note that composers in one piece may modulate, or change key, through a parallel major or relative major or minor key as they journey through the piece’s emotional landscape.
What are the chords in the key of C minor?
A triad is the simplest chord, built from just three notes. The C minor triad is the i chord because it’s built on C, the first note of the scale. It’s also called the tonic chord, and is made up of C – Eb- and G (or Do – Me – So in solfege). Remember, in minor, “mi” changes to “me,” because the third scale degree is lowered.
The next chord is built on D, the second note of the scale, and is therefore called the ii chord, or supertonic. It is a diminished triad, and is made up of D – F – Ab. A diminished triad sounds angrier and more confused than a minor chord, because there are fewer half steps between the middle and top notes of the chord. Take a moment to sit at your piano and count the half steps between C -Eb- G and D – F – Ab. What do you notice? There are more half steps between Eb and G than between F and Ab.
Our next chord is the III chord, or mediant. It’s built on the third note of the scale, E-flat, and has the notes Eb – G – Bb. This is the E-flat major triad. We’ve risen out of the gloom of the first two chords, C minor and D diminished, and made it to our first major chord!
The next chord is the iv chord, or subdominant. Built on F, the fourth note of the scale, it has F – Ab – C, and we’re back to the gloomy minor sound. This is the F minor triad.
Up to the fifth note of the C minor scale, G. Build a triad on it and we get the v chord. This one can be a major or minor triad, depending on whether the composer is using either the natural minor version of the C minor scale or the harmonic minor version. If we’re using the C natural minor scale, the v chord has G – Bb – D, which makes it a G minor triad. On the other hand, if we use the C harmonic minor scale, our V chord becomes G Major, with G – B – D. Notice how the Roman numeral is lowercase (v) if the chord is minor, and uppercase (V) if the chord is major. The major V chord, G major, has a strong tendency to go back to the i chord, and is therefore called the dominant.
The next triad is the VI chord, or submediant, with the notes Ab – C – Eb. It’s major in quality, so this is the A-flat Major triad.
The seventh and final chord in the key of C minor depends, once again, on whether we’re using C natural minor or C harmonic minor. If we use the C natural minor scale, the seventh note is B-flat, and our VII chord is a B-flat Major triad (Bb – D – F), also called the subtonic. However, if we use the C harmonic minor scale, the seventh note is B natural. Build a triad on it and we get a B diminished triad (B – D – F), the vii chord. Lowercase Roman numeral again, and this one is called the leading tone triad. Like the major V chord, the leading tone triad has a strong tendency to go to the i chord.
These are all the chords that are diatonic to the key of C minor. But remember, a song might be in the key of C Minor, but borrow chords from relative major or minor keys. This means that not every chord in a song in the key of C minor is one of the chords above – it might be a different chord sneaking in from other keys. Be sure to check your sheet music to see if there are places where the key modulates – or moves to a different tonic or starting note – and to see if there are any accidentals (flats, naturals, or sharps) that change the quality of a chord.
With the building blocks in this article, you can explore C minor chords and the C minor scale on piano, or try building chords in a completely different key. We hope you enjoy adding chords to your songs in C minor with Hoffman Academy!