Minor scale tone tendencies ( 1 – 5)

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This post takes a look at tone tendencies of the minor scales.  (tendencies differ by scale type).  After reading this, you should have a reasonable idea of how to use (resolve) both scale notes and chromatic notes in a major scale melody (and by implication how to handle these when they occur in chords).

This post includes emuso interactivity.  If you  read this blog in emuso, remember you can click on the eye-ear icons below , to go interactive.  If reading via your browser, on mobile, and so on, this does nothing.


Melody and scale

A section of music, or maybe the entire piece,  is typically made up of notes from a specific key.  A key is defined by the scale type used, and by the start note choice for the scale (the tonic).   For example, the music may mainly use the notes from key of E major, maybe with a few chromatic (non-scale) notes.  Different notes from the key get more emphasis to bring out the sound flavour of the key.  But chromatic notes may also be used, though with little emphasis usually, so they don’t stand out too much to the listener.  Rhythm plays a large part here, too, for emphasis, but we’ll ignore this here.

In any melody based on the major scale, the notes that get the most emphasis are those of the major triad, built off the chosen scale tonic  (so, the E major triad, in the key of E major).   This is because the E triad is a very stable sounding chord, from which a chord progression can move away (to less stable sounding chords in the key of E major) and come back to.  Emphasising the notes of the E triad both makes the key centre clear (E), and also makes it clear that the tune has a “major” flavour to it  (any scale with a major 3rd above its tonic has the capability of creating a “major” flavour … the precise flavour (such as Mixolydian or Lydian)  being dictated by the other scale notes present)

For the major scale, the fourth and seventh scale members distinguish the major scale, making intervals of a perfect 4th (5 semitones) and a major 7th (11 semitones) with the scale tonic.

Notice I said “capability” above.  If the notes aren’t emphasised correctly, then the listener may become aware of a different key.  For example, if the tune mainly uses the notes of the A major triad (which are present in the E major scale), the listener will probably hear this tune as being in A major, not E major !!


Expectation and Resolution

A scale tone (the sound of an individual note), when heard, may make the listener expect to hear it replaced by a specific nearby scale tone. A chromatic tone will make the listener expect to hear it replaced by a nearby scale tone.  The act of replacing the tone is known as resolving that tone.

The idea is that the replacement tone (the one that follows) reduces, or even removes, the level of expectation the listener was in due to the first tone.



To get a sense of the expectations present in the tones of the major scale, here is the E major triad arpeggiated, followed by each scale note in turn, from which we can judge how much that scale note needs to resolve to another scale note.

The first bar spells out the E major triad, accompanied by the bass E ringing out.  The second bar uses the first member of E major accompanied by a bass E.  Same idea for the third bar.  The fourth bar uses the second member of E major accompanied by a bass E, and its resolution.  Similar ideas apply to the sixth, eighth, tenth, twelvth, fourteenth and sixteenth bars.  The sixth bar uses the 3rd scale member.  The eighth bar uses the 4th scale member and resolution.  The tenth bar uses the 5th scale member.  The twelvth bar uses the 6th scale member and resolution.  The fourteenth bar uses the 7th scale member and resolution.  The sixteenth bar uses the octave of E.

Here is this example as an emuso snappet.  Press “Start” on Rhythm-X to play it and again to stop it.


Click on the image of the tab to enlarge.

When you listen to the above, the most obvious (strongest) tone tendencies are for the 4 to resolve down to 3, and especially for the 7 to resolve up to 1.  These are the most unstable tones in the major scale.  Whereas the notes of the tonic triad (1, 3, 5) don’t really create any expectations … they are stable tones.  Though the ultimate resolution would be for both the 3 and the 5 to resolve to 1.

Consensus is that the unstable major scale tones rank from 6 as the least unstable, then 2, then 4, then 7 as the most unstable.  This is subjective, but most people agree on this.


Resolving chromatic tones

Chromatic tones are all unstable.

A chromatic tone typically wants to resolve down a semitone, when that chromatic tone itself has been approached from above.  In music notation, that tone is shown as a flattened version of the scale note preceding it (for example, we have B, Bb, A).

It wants to resolve up a semitone, when that chromatic tone itself has been approached from below.  In music notation, that tone is shown as a sharpened version of the scale note preceding it (for example, A, A#, B).  The next diagram shows this using the dark blue circles with the name including b (flattened) or # (sharpened).

If a chromatic tone is jumped to, rather than moved to by a semitone, then the preferred resolution is the nearest, least unstable scale tone.  For example, jumping from the 6 (C#) down to the #4 (A#) resolves up to the 5 (B), which is far less unstable (actually a very stable tone) than the 4 (A) … which would then itself probably need resolving down to the 3 (G#).  Try this …

Here is this example as an emuso snappet.  Press “Start” on Rhythm-X to play it and again to stop it.

Click on the image of the tab to enlarge.


Summary of tone tendencies

This next diagram summarises  tone tendencies for the scale members 1,2,b3,4,5 when creating music based on the minor system  Click on it to enlarge it.




NOTE:  THIS DOES NOT MEAN THESE RESOLUTIONS MUST BE OBEYED (oherwise music would be pre-ordained, which would be a nightmare)



Tone tendencies and chords

Also note that when these tones appear in chords being used with the melody, the same same tendencies are present, which is why the V chord, a major triad, same as the I chord, has much more drive, setting up the I chord, resolving the 7 and the 2 in the V to the 1 of the tonic triad, as a very strong resolution.


Some resolutions

Here is the resolution from 4 to 3 in E major.

Here is the resolution from chromatic b7 to 6 in E major.


Test your understanding

This next test asks you to adjust some tendency tones in E major, to remove the tensions as much as possible.  Hint. Think where the most stable nearest tones are.


This next test plays two notes in E major, and then jumps to a chromatic note.  Resolve that chromatic note.


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