Minor Chords: The Keys to the Dismal, Cheery, Heartbreaking & Dramatic Sides of a Song

BY JIM D’VILLE | From the Spring 2017 issue of Ukulele 

In a recent column, I explained the emotional quality of the major chords built on the I–IV–V scale degrees. Now let’s explore the minor world of the remaining four chords, the ii–iii–vi and vii(dim) on ukulele.

We live in a world of opposites: black and white, day and night, male and female. The major scale shares this dualistic nature, as it has both major and minor characteristics. Ascend the major scale and the intervals are major and perfect. Descend the scale and the intervals are minor and perfect. There is another minor side to the major scale that reveals itself through the chords built on each scale degree.

We can discover the major or minor quality of each major scale chord (also called diatonic chords) by playing up the scale five notes at a time, in rhythm. When you play up in rhythm, the notes of the chord fall on the downbeats (the numerals, or foot-taps, are downbeats; “and”s are upbeats: 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and).

In the key of C, start on your low C (open third string) and play the first five notes of the C major scale (C–D–E–F–G) as shown in Example 1a. The resulting harmony projected is that of a C major chord (C–E–G or the 1–3–5 notes of the C scale) as shown in Example 1b.

Now, play the next five notes of the C major scale starting on the scale’s second note, D (D–E–F–G–A), shown in Example 2a. The resulting chord is D minor (D–F–A), shown in Example 2b.

Minor Chord Ukulele Lesson Examples

If we repeat the procedure on each subsequent scale degree, the next chords revealed are E minor, F major, G major, A minor, and B diminished. The reason the B chord is diminished, and not a minor chord, is its structure of 1–b3–b5 (B–D–F) which contains a flatted 5.


Minor Chord Chart Ukulele Lesson version 2Meet the Minors

Now that we know the chordal quality of each chord in the major scale, let’s meet the minors. I like to give nicknames to chords based on their tonal personalities. I refer to the I chord as “home,” the IV as the “sunshine chord,” and the V7 as the “tension chord.” The most popular of the minor chords is the vi (which is A minor in the key of C). Because C major and A minor scales contain the same notes, the relative minor of C major is, you guessed it, A minor. The primary difference is that they start on different tones.

C Major Scale: C D E F G A B

A Natural Minor Scale: A B C D E F G

As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, I learn a lot about the tonal personality of a chord not just by its sound in relationship to its interval from the home chord (I), but also by the important words songwriters use with those chords. For example, I refer to the vi minor chord as the “Mother Mary” chord because that’s how Paul McCartney heard the chord when he wrote “Let It Be” (I–V–vi–IV). He’s referring to his mother, who died when he was 14, appearing to him in a dream to comfort him. That’s a powerful image for a chord personality.

The most heartbreaking of the minor chords is the iii minor. Find songs where the iii is prominently featured and see what lyrics fall on the iii minor change. Nick Lowe knew the heartbreak of going to the iii when he wrote the pop/rock anthem “Cruel to Be Kind.” “Oh, I can’t take another heartache…” Bonnie Tyler’s 1978 hit “It’s a Heartache” heads straight to the iii before you can grab a crying towel. The iii also reveals its dismal outlook on life in songs including “Puff the Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul and Mary; The Band’s “The Weight”; and “I Started a Joke” by the Bee Gees.

Welcome to The Minor League Minor Chord Chart Ukulele Lesson Batter UpThe ii minor has a much cheerier disposition. Many times, a song will just breeze through the ii on its way to the V chord, as in the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love.” The ii has a “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” attitude much of the time, especially in that song by Bobby McFerrin. There’s also a mystical quality to the ii that can be found in Don McLean’s “Vincent,” the Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere,” Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” and the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer.”

The diminished vii is built on the last note of the major scale. It also known as the leading tone because it contains a dramatic tension that wants to force us back home to the I chord. For this reason, it’s not one of the popular chords. In fact, the only reason to feature the vii(dim) prominently in a song is if someone is tied to the railroad tracks and a train is coming, as in The Coasters’ “Along Came Jones.”


Now, practice the diatonic chords up and down, as well as each one’s interval from the home chord (I–ii, I–iii etc.). Get the sounds of these chords—and the intervals in-between each of them—in your ears, and in due course the musical personalities of the chords will reveal themselves to you.


Music educator and facilitator Jim D’Ville is on a mission to get ukulele players off the paper and into playing music by ear. Over the last six years he has taught his “Play Ukulele By Ear” workshops in the United States, Australia, and Canada. Jim is the author of the Play Ukulele By Ear DVD series and hosts the popular Play Ukulele By Ear website www.PlayUkuleleByEar.com.