Black and white, yin and yang: opposites need each other and it’s the same with music. Milton Mermikides creates bitter-sweet chord progressions and melodies by using parallel major and minor keys.
involves using the notes and chords from two (or more) keys to build melodies and chord progressions. We are drawing upon chords and notes from more than one key, if not simultaneously, then in rapid succession. not a shift from one key to another, but more of a sharing of keys. There are many options as there are 12 possible root notes and many different scales; however, here we will look at just the all important major and minor scales and the keys that share the same root. Keys that share the same root are called ‘parallel’. To make things as clear as possible we’ll limit our attention to C major and C minor. We are going to build chord progressions and melodies by using both C major and C minor, expanding significantly our musical options and allowing us to create a sophisticated mix of the ‘bitter’ flavour of a minor key with the ‘sweet’ vibe of a major key. The technique of being in a major key and 'borrowing' from the parallel minor (and vice versa) is used by a wide range of artists from The Beatles to Beck and The Shadows to radiohead, michael Jackson to madness, Stevie Wonder to nirvana and countless others. It is a fundamental (although not always well articulated) concept in a wide range of music.
In order to adopt a parallel approach using C major and C minor we need to understand both of these keys very well, how they differ in terms of notes and which chords are found in each. Let’s compare the scales: you’ll notice that four of the seven notes stay the same, while three of them (e, a and B) are flattened in the minor scale. Example 1a and 1b compare these two scales within one octave on the guitar. The three notes that are one semitone lower are the 3rd, 6th and 7th degrees of the scale. In the table below, the major 3rd, major 6th and major 7th are in yellow; and in blue - the minor 3rd, minor 6th and minor 7th. The other notes (C, d, f and G) are unchanged.
now, let’s look at the chords that emerge from these two scales (also known as the diatonic chords – diatonic simply meaning ‘from the key’). firstly, let’s compare the triads (three-note chords) in the two keys diatonic Triads of C major and C minor:
Do remember, we are focusing on one particular concept in this article and by doing so we can dig deep into its implications.
There are a lot of chords to learn here (and all are different in the two keys). I’ve included roman numerals so that we can talk about these chords generally. The roman numeral describes the root of a chord in relation to the major scale. The symbol after the roman numeral is the chord type. (m is minor, dim is diminished, and no symbol means major). So IV is a major triad built on the 4th degree of the scale, IIm means a minor chord built on the 2nd degree, VIIdim is a diminished chord on the 7th degree, and bVI is a triad built on the flattened 6th degree of the major scale.
We can extend these triads upwards to include four notes to produce four types of 7th chords: maj7, m7, dom7, m7b5. here are the diatonic 7th chords in the two keys together with roman numerals - diatonic 7: how all these chords are constructed and might be played on the guitar is shown in examples 2 and 3 (examples 2b and 3b show the 7th chords as they are theoretically constructed but are awkward to play on the guitar; examples 2c and 3c are far more guitar-centric – and less painful). This is a lot of information to take in, even to memorise - let alone have any effective creative or aural understanding over. So it’s best to look at the concept in small sections. example 4 shows