“That’s major!” some might exclaim when hearing that one of their mates has had a day of it. But in terms of music, Major can refer to something that feels a lot more cheerful, while minor tends to have a more sad vibe. But is this always the case? And how does this difference actually happen? In this blog, I’m going to be saying a lot about how ‘Major’ and ‘Minor’ actually works in music so that you can not only hear the difference, but actually understand it and why it happens at all.

Major & Minor: Hearing and Understanding the Difference


Please note that I’ll be jumping from the very concrete, straight into the deeply theoretical, so I’d better warn you that some people might only find the first part of this blog interesting. Of course, that’s not a problem! Just give anything that does stick the time it needs to sink in and maybe come back later once you feel ready.

Major vs. Minor: Hear the Difference!

The video included below lays out the differences between major and minor with the help of audio fragments and is a great little introduction to what we’re about to discuss.

Now, have a listen to a little bit of Hallelujah by G.F. Händel. Incredibly positive feeling and uplifting, right?

Now have a listen to Der Tod und das Mädchen by Franz Schubert and things feel immediately different – more heavy and full of sadness.


So, how can there be such a remarkable difference in atmosphere and feeling between two pieces of music? There are a lot of reasons that we could name, but, much like a painter using specific colours, one of the most important tools that a composer uses to create such distinct atmospheres is the difference between the major and minor keys. So, as you may have guessed already, Hallelujah is in major and Schubert’s piece is in minor. It’s little wonder that Händel chose to write his piece in major since it is about the birth of Jesus, which by all accounts, was a pretty joyous event. Der Tod und das Mädchen, on the other hand, is about the contemplation of death itself so again, it’s no surprise that it was written in minor. Another well known example is Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. Since it’s written specifically to mark one of the happier events of human life, it’s naturally been written in major.

But it’s also worth noting that exceptions to the happy/sad, major/minor rule exist in abundance. Composers can even shift from major to minor in single pieces, like Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, where the first chord you hear is a major chord but this immediately changes to a minor chord, causing a sudden shift in atmosphere.

How Can Major and Minor Have Such an Effect on Our Emotions?

But how is the difference between major and minor created? And how does this difference have such an effect on our emotional reaction to music? First, we have to admit that this effect can’t fall entirely on the theoretical. We can also say that it has a lot to do with overtones, but before we get to those, we’re going to begin with the natural notes: the twelve different notes that any Western composer has at their disposal. Most composers will only use a few of them to build one piece, or use a set of seven (a scale) as the foundation. While composers will deviate from this, they will always return to the seven notes that form the starting point of a piece. If a composer is writing a piece in major, then they use a specific selection of seven notes (and we call this set of notes a major scale). If writing a piece in minor, then a different selection of notes is used (a minor scale). Ok, but this is where it gets weird. The notes of a major scale better match the overtones of, for example, a musical instrument or the human voice, than the notes of a minor scale. But what exactly are overtones? If you strike one piano key or sing a single note, as you’d expect, you only hear one note. Or at least, that’s how it seems. What is actually produced is a range of other notes at the same time, all louder or quieter than others, and all happening without our really being aware of it. This is because, hidden inside every natural note, there are overtones. So, here it comes: If you play a C, then the most prominent note of the C-major scale (the E) will be unconsciously ‘heard’ with more clarity than the most prominent note from the C-minor scale (the Eb). You could actually say that a major scale sounds more balanced than a minor scale, which is why it has a more positive feeling to it. To hopefully make things a little clearer, we’ve included an explanatory image below.

Major & Minor: Hearing and Understanding the Difference
Above, you can see sixteen notes: note number 1 is C. The notes following are the first fifteen overtones of C (in principle, this list could be endless; each overtone getting quieter and quieter as you go up the line). The note that plays the most important role in the ‘excited’ major sound of the C-major scale is the E. E appears as the fifth overtone of C, and then again at 10, while the Eb (typical of the C-minor scale) doesn’t appear until the list reaches number 19 – where the overtones are already getting very quiet. As such, you can’t even see the 19th overtone on the stave above.

There is More than Just Major and Minor!

Always note: it’s not just that a piece has been written in a major or minor key that dictates how happy or sad it’s going to feel. The rhythm, tempo, dynamic, and the use of specific instruments also has a dramatic effect on the atmopshere of a piece. For example, slower, softer music has a more immediately heavy and sad feel than music that’s fast and ‘upbeat’.


Hopefully, you now have a deeper understanding of the difference between major and minor keys and have started to hear the difference. Now we’re going to dig in much deeper and start looking at the theory in more detail.

The Foundation of Western Music

It may surprise you, but the foundation of making music is the same for pretty much every Western composer. All the music ever made has a specific key forming its base, and what that key is depends on the root note (also known as the ‘tonic’) and whether or not it’s major or minor. As a very rough rule of thumb, you could say that the root note is the lowest note often heard at the end of a piece of music. This root note could be an A, C, F or any of the other twelve notes so, the key of a piece of music is the combination of the root note and whether or not the foundation scale is major or minor.

Major & Minor: Hearing and Understanding the Difference


The difference between minor and major has everything to do with the space between the notes. These all important spaces are also known as intervals. Intervals are easy to understand if we look at the black and white keys of a piano: a piano keyboard is made up of a series of twelve notes that are then repeated, and the transition between each note of a keyboard spans a semitone (also known as a ‘half-tone’, as indicated by ‘half’ in the image below). Why they’re called semitones is not important, but twelve semitones combined are what form a single octave – stemming from the Latin word, ‘octavus’, meaning eight. Why ‘eight’? If the foundation of every piece of music lies in seven notes, then the eighth note is the same as the first of the seven (which is also the root note of the scale) – and this selection of notes is referred to as a scale. The notes that follow the root note in a particular scale are dictated by whether or not the scale is in major or minor, and we’ll speak more about this in a moment. Of course, most of the time, a composer will use more than seven notes when writing, and just uses a chosen scale as a skeleton on which to hang their piece.

Major & Minor: Hearing and Understanding the Difference

Image 1: all twelve notes. Some have two names but the reason for this is not important right now. The ‘#’ symbol indicates that a note is ‘sharp’, while the ‘b’ symbol indicates that a note is flat.


A major scale always has a fixed structure of whole and half notes (or semitones). The intervals (so the space between the notes) of a major scale are always as follows:

whole whole half whole whole whole half

We’ll use C-major as our example. This key has a root note of C and, as you can see, runs in a major scale structure, so the first step to the next note is a whole note. If we take another look at image 1: we jump a whole step, or note, from the C (which is two semitones, so half + half = whole) to get to the D. Now, we take another whole step to come to the E before taking a half step to reach the F, and so on. Below, you can see how the intervals form the entire C-major scale:

 C     D     E     F     G     A     B     C
( whole whole half  whole whole whole  half )

Read our blog dedicated to the C-Major scale if you want to know more!


The intervals within a minor scale are made up of five whole steps and two half steps, but … the different steps sit in an entirely different place:

whole half whole whole half whole whole

We’ll keep C as our root note and build a C-minor scale (C-major and C-minor both have ‘C’ in their titles since they share the same root note). Below, you can see the result. Compare this with the C-major scale above and you’ll quickly notice the difference.

 c     d     eb    f     g    ab     bb     c
(‌ whole  half whole whole half  whole  whole )

Read our blog about the C-Minor scale to find out more!

Major & Minor: Hearing and Understanding the Difference

Image 2: The C major scale (along the top) and the C-minor scale (along the bottom) written in notation. The vertical stripes link up the notes that are the same.

Major Thirds vs. Minor Thirds

The first and most important difference between the major and minor keys lies in the second interval. With a major scale, the space between the root note and third note (the interval between a C and E for example) is a jump of two whole notes, and is referred to as a major third. While in a minor scale, an interval of one and a half notes is referred to as a minor third (like the space between a C and Eb). The difference in intervals doesn’t just give a melody its excited or sad feeling, but also gives a major chord its euphoric sound, and a minor chord its tragic edge. These interval differences are so important to the atmosphere created by major and minor keys and chords, that the terms themselves are actually based on the major third and minor third intervals.

Lead Tones

Besides the difference created by the major and minor thirds, there is another important element: the lead tone. In a major scale, this is the seventh note, so in the C-major scale, this is B. This note is known as the lead tone because as you play it, it already ‘leads’ strongly into the following note in the scale. If you play the C-major scale but stop before the final C, finishing on the B will leave you feeling that something is missing, as if the end of the story has been chopped off. Contrary to this, minor scales have no lead tone. The seventh note of a minor scale (a Bb in the case of the C-minor scale) has much less pull towards to the next note. So, you can comfortably stop on the Bb without being left missing that final C. Because composers saw this as a shame, some take the interval of the last whole step in the sequence, down to half a step. The result is the harmonic minor scale:

 c   d   eb   f   g   ab    b   c   
(‌  1  1/2   1   1  1/2  11/2  1/2 )

Practice playing in major and minor to get familiar with hearing them …

In the first video included below, you’ll hear ten chords repeated three times each. As you listen, make a note of whether you think they are major or minor chords. At the end of the video, you’ll be given the right answers so you can see if you heard right. In the second video, you’ll hear a series of scales. Listen to see whether you think the scale is in major or minor and the video will let you know if you were right at the end of each scale. Don’t worry if you get any wrong! This is something that takes a little time to train your ears to notice, and if you want to practice some more, then go to Google and search for ‘ear training major and minor’ and you’ll find plenty of helpful sites and exercises.

Major vs. Minor: See the Difference!

To understand the next bit, you might need to learn a little more music theory. Maybe take a look at the three following blogs: Major-Scale, Minor-Scale and Notation Symbols.

As you’ve seen, along with notes, a little ‘#’, or ‘b’ is sometimes written. Since these symbols are used in official music notation, they can be found on every bit of sheet music you’ll ever lay your hands on. To make notation easier and clearer, fixed symbols are used to indicate specific details. For example, to indicate that a piece has been written in the key of C-minor, three flats are placed in the margin: Eb, Ab, and Bb. This is the composer saying, ‘every time I write an E, an Eb needs to be played. In the same way, when an A appears in the piece, an Ab must be played, and every time an E appears, an Eb must be played. Another good example is the C-major key: since no ‘#’, or ‘b’ is included in the margin to indicate that a piece has been written in the key of C-major, all notes are to be played as they are read.

Major & Minor: Hearing and Understanding the Difference

Image 3: Here, you can see two versions of the same set of notes. The first is notated with fixed symbols included in the margin of the stave. The second includes some notes marked with a ‘#’, and these symbols are referred to as accidentals.

Counting and Finding the Root Note

All of this means that you can (usually) see the key of a piece of music by checking for any symbols included at the start of the piece. Below, we’ve included an image in which you can see the symbols used to indicate a specific key. Note that there are only two keys that are indicated by a single ‘#’ symbol: G-major and E-minor. To know which of the two keys a piece including this symbol has been written in, take a look at the final note, all the way at the end of the piece of music, since nine times out of ten, this will be the root note. If you see a single ‘#’ written at the start of the stave and the final note of the piece is G, then the piece has been written in G-major. If the piece ends with an E, then it’s in E-minor. There’s also another detail you can look at: if the music closes with a minor chord, then the key is E-minor. However, please note that this little trick doesn’t always work out, since some composers use more than one key in one piece (and this change can be seen by checking for the symbols and changes during the piece) or they end on a chord that makes it difficult to figure out which key it’s in.

Major & Minor: Hearing and Understanding the Difference

Image 4: check the opening margin of the stave for any fixed symbols, and with the help of the final note or chord of the piece, most of the time, you’ll be able to tell what key the piece is in.

Medieval Church Modes

In the Middle Ages, major and minor scales had yet to be used. Instead, since the Christian Church sought to define what ‘correct’ music should consist of, only what was referred to as Church Modes were used when composing Western music. The Church Modes are just seven scales that provided the roots of the major and minor scales we now know. Since they’re closely related, there are many similarities. The seven Church Modes are each built of five whole and two half intervals and in each mode or scale, the whole and half intervals sit in an entirely different place. In fact, two of these scales are exactly the same as the major and minor scales we use today: the Ionion scale has the same intervals as the contemporary major scale, and the Aeolian scale has the same intervals as the minor scale. Most composers now only use these two kinds of scales, and just in case you’re curious about the rest of the seven Church Modes, we’ve included a list of the intervals of each for you below. The letters seen on the right are a little indication of what these scales actually sound like, so if you want to know what the Mixolydian scale sounds like, simply play the white keys of a piano, starting from G. The same is true for the other Church Modes: simply start at the note included on the right and play up the keyboard using only the white keys. Of course, you could play any of the scales starting from any note, but this may prove harder when sharps and flats come into play.

Major & Minor: Hearing and Understanding the Difference

There is so much more we could say about the major and minor keys, but this blog should give you more than enough to chew on. If you’ve got any interesting additions you’d like to share with us, simply add them to the comments section below!

See Also …

» Classical Piano for Beginners – 6 Well-Known Compositions
» How To Play Basic Piano Chords
» Chords: Theory and Chord Symbols

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