If you’re a new pianist, you may have just started to learn your scales. Most beginners start with learning major scales before progressing to minor scales. And because it is relatively uncomplicated, the A minor scale (meaning the A natural minor scale, not the harmonic minor or melodic minor scale) is the first scale most new piano players learn.
Getting to Know the A Minor Scale
Each musical scale has its own distinctive mood or energy, and the key of A minor is built around the A natural minor scale. Minor scales have a reputation for being gloomy or sad, and German composer Christian Schubert described A minor as a key of “pious womanliness and tenderness of character.”
This might seem like an odd description, as A minor is the most popular minor key and can be found across all musical genres. There are plenty of famous classical pieces written in the key, including Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 4, and the famous Bagatelle in A Minor (commonly known as “Für Elise”).
Structure and Formula of the A Minor Scale
Some people prefer to just commit their piano scales to memory. But even if you don’t know a scale off the top of your head, you can figure it out using a simple formula. The formula for a natural minor scale is a pattern of whole steps and half steps (also called tones and semitones): W-H-W-W-H-W-W. If you apply the formula starting with A, you get A-B-C-D-E-F-G. That’s the A natural minor scale.
Like the C major scale, the A natural minor scale has no sharp or flat notes, so the key signature for a piece of music in A minor will look like this:
Each note in the A natural minor scale has its own scale degree, too:
- A – tonic
- B – supertonic
- C – mediant
- D – subdominant
- E – dominant
- F – submediant
- G – subtonic
- A (one octave higher) – octave
How to Play and Learn the A Minor Scale on Piano (With Fingerings)
As we’ve seen, the A natural minor scale contains no sharps or flats, so it’s one of the easiest scales to play! Here’s how to play it with both your right and your left hand.
- Start with A. This is the white key that is five white keys to the right of C. Play it with your thumb (1).
- Then play B (the white key immediately to the right) with your index finger (2).
- Now play C (the next white key to the right) with your middle finger (3).
- Then cross your thumb (1) under your fingers and use it to play D (the next white key to the right).
- Then play E (the next white key to the right) with your index finger (2).
- Now play F (the next white key to the right) with your middle finger (3).
- Then play G (the next white key to the right) with your ring finger (4).
- Finally, play A (the next white key to the right, and one octave higher than the note you started with) with your pinky (5).
- Start by playing A with your pinky finger (5).
- Then play B with your ring finger (4).
- Next, play C with your ring finger (3).
- Then play D with your index finger (2).
- Now play E with your thumb (1).
- Next, play F with your middle finger (3).
- Now play G with your index finger (2).
- Finally, play A (an octave higher) with your thumb (1).
Although the A natural minor scale is relatively straightforward, it can still help to have a visual guide to playing it. This quick video lesson will take you through how to play it with both your right hand and your left hand.
Mastering the ‘A’ natural minor scale is just a matter of practice. Start slowly, and be sure to use the same fingerings ascending and descending!
Relative and Parallel Scales
As you saw above, playing the A minor scale is just like playing the C major scale in a different order. That’s because these are relative scales. A relative major scale (the C major scale) and its relative minor scale (the A natural minor scale) both contain the same seven notes. You may also hear C referred to as the relative major key of A minor.
The A natural minor scale also has a parallel scale: the A major scale. Parallel scales have the same root note (starting note), but the rest of the notes in the scale may be different.
Chords of the Scale and Their Scale Degrees
You already know that there’s a formula you can use to figure out the notes in any minor scale. But once you have the natural minor scale in question, did you know there’s a formula to find the chords, too?
This formula is a pattern of Roman numerals. You apply the formula to the scale to find the relevant chords. The result is shown here, along with the scale degree of each chord:
- i. A minor (Am), tonic
- ii°. B diminished (Bdim), supertonic
- III. C major (C), mediant
- iv. D minor (Dm), subdominant
- v. E minor (Em), dominant
- VI. F major (F), submediant
- VII. G major (G), subtonic
The chords listed are basic chords, but extended and seventh versions of these chords are also included in the key of A minor.
Songs in The Key of A Minor
If you want to really understand the mood and feel of the key of A minor, check out some of these popular songs:
- 1. “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga
- 2. “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac
- 3. “Losing My Religion” by REM
- 4. “Whistle” by Flo Rida
- 5. “Rockit” by Herbie Hancock
- 6. “Hurt” by Johnny Cash
- 7. “Blown Away” by Carrie Underwood
- 8. “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor
- 9. “Tennis Courts” by Lorde
- 10. “Ms. Jackson” by OutKast
Common Chord Progressions in A Minor
If you’re writing music or just trying to take a closer look at songs in the key, it can be helpful to know some common chord progressions. The songs above offer some interesting examples.
The verses of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” have an i-i-VI-i-i-VII (Am-Am/C-F-Am-Am/C-G) progression. In Johnny Cash’s famous song “Hurt,” the chorus has a progression of i-VI-III-VII (Am7-Fmaj9-C-G). And lastly, the chorus of the OutKast song “Ms. Jackson” has an iv-VII-i-V (F6-G-Am7-G6) progression.
Here are a few more common chord progressions:
- i-VI-III-VII (Am-F-C-G)
- ii°-v-i (Bdim-Em-Am)
- i-VI-VII (Am-F-G)
Whether this is the first scale you’re learning or the umpteenth, we hope you now have a solid understanding of the A minor scale and the music theory behind it. What do you think? Do you have any tips for beginner piano players just learning the scale? Let us know below, and please like and share if you found this article useful!