What About Minor Harmony?

Featuring Paul Baloche Posted on January 20, 2010

Our discussion so far has only dealt with major keys but there are many popular songs that employ a minor key center. It’s interesting to note that most of the “minor” songs that have become standards in the church begin in a minor feel, then change to a major key feeling on the chorus. Examples include “Awesome God,” “The Battle Belongs to the Lord,” “Praise Adonai” and “More Love, More Power.” Most pop or western forms using a minor scale are based on the harmonic minor scale. In E minor, that would spell: i (Em), III (G), iv (Am), v (Bm), VI (C), VII (D) Notice that the songs below utilize every chord in the harmonic minor scale, except one. The missing one is the ii, which is seldom, if ever, used. 

Awesome God: 

The Verse Contains: Em  Am  Bm C Bm 

The Chorus Contains: C  G  D  Em Am  Bm 

The Battle Belongs to The Lord 

Verse: Em  Am  Bm 

Chorus: G  D  C  Am  Bm Em 

More Love, More Power 

Verse: Em Cmaj7 Bm7 

Chorus: Am7 Bm7  Em Cmaj7 

In the key of A minor the chords would be: 

i (Am), III (C), iv (Dm), v (Em), VI (F), VII (G) 

Praise Adonai 

Verse:      Am  F  C  G 

Chorus: F  Am  G Dm 

Minor chords put out a lot of emotion. There is usually an intensity or urgency communicated, a cry of the heart.  Look over some of your own song lyrics. Are there any that might fit a minor chord feeling?  Perhaps you have a worship song that sounds “too happy” or “campy”. Try singing your same melody over a new set of minor chords and see if it doesn’t change it for the better.  A lot of the ‘alternative rock style’ that has spilled over into the church employs the emotion of minor keys. Be careful though, too much minor harmony can get depressing and heavy. Use minor keys like a fine spice, sparingly. 

It’s refreshing to hear a well-placed surprise chord. Of course, they need to be used sparingly, or they aren’t surprising, and you need to be careful how you use them in a congregational song. But they work just fine in a congregational song so long as they don’t change the melody. Listen for example to the last chord in each chorus of “Praise Adonai,” on Paul’s. " Open the Eyes of My Heart" album. You were expecting a C major chord, weren’t you? But that Ba chord against a C in the melody makes it feel like the ground has dropped out from under us and left us floating in a momentary out-of-body experience. 

Before we move on, this raises another question: When we have a chord with more different tones than voices, which notes do we leave out? Well, we need the 3rd because that tells us whether the chord is major or minor. The altered, added or extended tones are important to give the chord its flavor. There is no absolute rule, but if we play around with the voicing, our ears will probably tell us that the two notes that are expendable are first the 5th, then the root. There are probably exceptions to this. Play it and do what sounds good. 

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