Most new pianists learn major keys and scales before minor ones. But if you’re just beginning to delve into the world of natural minor scales, you’ll soon discover that minor keys are deep, complex, and full of emotion. Today we’ll be looking at the C minor scale.
About the C Minor Scale
Lots of people describe minor keys as being “sad.” But many minor keys have much more complex moods. Back in 1806, Christian Schubart described the mood of each musical key. He said that “[a]ll languishing, longing, sighing of the love-sick soul” could be found in the key of C minor.
These themes can be found across all musical genres, so it’s no wonder that the key of C minor can be found in rock, pop, indie, trap, blues, and more. In the classical world, notable compositions in the key include Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 5 and Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582.
Scale Structure and Formula
If you’ve been playing piano for any length of time, you’re probably familiar with the pattern of whole steps and half steps you take to determine a major scale. The minor scale formula is different. You just start with C and follow the pattern W-H-W-W-H-W-W-W, where each W is a whole step, and each H is a half step. So if we start with C and follow that, we get the following:
C D E♭ F G A♭ B♭
As you can see, the C natural minor scale includes three flats. For the new pianist, that can make it a little harder to learn, as you need to remember which accidentals to play on the piano keyboard! But fortunately, the key signature is easy to recognize.
To see if a given piece of music is in the key of C minor, all you need to do is look at the key signature and look for the flat symbol. If there are flat symbols on the staff where E, A, and B usually are, then the piece is in the key of C minor. This is the same whether you’re looking at a treble clef, bass clef, alto clef, etc.
Each note in the C natural minor scale is also called a scale degree, and each scale degree has a name:
- 1. C (tonic)
- 2. D (supertonic)
- 3. E♭ (mediant)
- 4. F (subdominant)
- 5. G (dominant)
- 6. A♭ (submediant)
- 7. B♭ (subtonic)
It’s important to note that there are a few types of minor scales. In this article, we’re looking at the C natural minor scale.
How to Play and Learn the C Minor Scale
When learning this or any scale, getting the right technique down is critical. And one of the most crucial aspects of technique is mastering the right fingerings on the piano keyboard. Here’s a quick guide to playing the scale:
With your right hand:
- Start on C. Play it with your thumb.
- Next, play D (the white key to the right of C) with your index finger.
- Now play E♭ (the black key to the right of D) with your middle finger.
- Cross your thumb under your fingers to play F (the white key, two keys to the right of D).
- Then play G (the white key to the right of F) with your index finger.
- Now play A♭ (the black key to the right of G) with your middle finger.
- Next, play B♭ (the black key to the right of A♭) with your ring finger.
- Finally, play C (the second white key to the right of B♭) with your pinky.
With your left hand:
- Start with playing C with your pinky.
- Now play D with your ring finger.
- Next, play E♭ with your middle finger.
- Now play F with your index finger.
- Then play G with your thumb.
- Now cross your fingers over your thumb and play A♭ with your middle finger.
- Then play B♭ with your index finger.
- Finally, play C with your thumb.
Many music books use a simple notation to help you with fingerings for each note. Each finger has its own number:
- Thumb – 1
- Index finger – 2
- Middle finger – 3
- Ring finger – 4
- Pinky – 5
Make sure you keep the same fingerings ascending and descending, and be sure to master one octave before adding an octave higher! To see how to play the C natural minor scale with each hand, check out this quick lesson.
Relative and Parallel Scales
When you know relative and parallel scales, you gain a better understanding of how different scales relate to one another. For example, every major scale has a relative minor scale. Relative majors and minors share the same notes, but the notes are in a different order. The E♭ major scale contains the notes E♭, F, G, A♭, B♭, C, and D, so it’s the relative major scale of the C natural minor scale.
Parallel scales have the same root note (or tonic). Since the C natural minor scale and C major scale both start with C, they are parallel scales.
Chords of the C Minor Scale
Particularly if you want to write music or improvise, it can be helpful to know what chords are in a given key. Fortunately, there’s a formula for that! To find the chords in any minor key, you just apply the following formula:
In this formula, the lowercase Roman numerals indicate minor chords, the degree sign indicates a diminished chord, and the uppercase Roman numerals indicate major chords. So using that formula, we can find out the chords in the scale as well as their scale degrees:
- i. C minor (Cm, tonic chord)
- ii°. D diminished (Ddim, supertonic chord)
- III. E♭ major (E, mediant chord)
- iv. F minor (Fm, subdominant chord)
- v. G minor (Gm, dominant chord)
- VI. A♭ major (A♭, submediant chord)
- VII. B♭ major (B♭, subtonic chord)
Of course, variants of these chords (like seventh chords) are also often used. For instance, since diminished chords are not used too commonly, many chord progressions use Dm7♭5 instead of Ddim.
Songs in The Key of C Minor
The key of C minor has a distinctive, emotional sound. Check out some popular songs in the key:
- 1. “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio
- 2. “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor
- 3. “For the Damaged Coda” by Blonde Redhead
- 4. “Graduation Day” by Kanye West
- 5. “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” by Kate Bush
- 6. “Desert Rose” by Sting
- 7. “Enjoy the Silence” by Depeche Mode
- 8. “Don’t Speak” by No Doubt
- 9. “You Give Love a Bad Name” by Bon Jovi
- 10. “Giant Steps” by John Coltrane
Common Chord Progressions in the Key of C Minor
Many of the above songs have interesting and unusual chord progressions. “For the Damaged Coda” by Blonde Redhead uses an i-VII-i-V progression, though many of the chords are modified. The chord progression is Cm-B♭7/D-Cm/E♭-G7/B. “Enjoy the Silence” by Depeche Mode uses an i-III (Cm-Eb) progression in the intro, an i-iii-VI (Cm-E♭m-A♭) progression for the verse, and an iv-VI-i-III (Fm-A♭-Cm-E♭/B♭) progression for the chorus. And the chorus of “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” by Kate Bush has a VI-VII-i (A♭add9-B♭-Cm7) progression.
Of course, there are plenty of other common progressions in the key. These include i-VI-VII (Cm-A♭-B♭), ii-v-i (Dm7♭5-Gm-Cm), i-VI-III-VII (Cm-A♭-E♭-B♭), i-iv-v (Cm-Fm-Gm), and i-iv-VII (Cm-Fm-B♭).
Mastering the C minor scale on the piano keyboard will ultimately help you improvise and write songs in this deeply nuanced key. Just be sure to do some focused practice each day, and you’ll master the scale in no time! What do you think? Did you find this article useful? Let us know in the comments below, and please don’t forget to like and share if you found this list useful!