What’s your favorite part of learning piano? Chances are good you didn’t say “learning scales.” But while they might not be the most exciting, scales will help you understand how notes and chords work together. With a solid knowledge of scales, you’ll be able to improvise, write music, and more. Today, let’s take a look at the E minor scale.
Getting to Know the E Minor Scale
Composer Ernst Pauer said in the 1800s that the key of E minor represented mournfulness, grief, and a restless spirit. The E minor scale (we’re talking about the E natural minor scale here, not the harmonic minor or melodic minor) is the backbone of the key of E minor.
Notably, a huge portion of music for classical guitar is in E minor, as it suits the guitar’s standard tuning. On the opposite end of the spectrum, E minor is a popular key in heavy metal as well. Haydn’s Symphony No. 44, Mozart’s Violin Sonata No. 21, and Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 8 are a few of the many classical pieces in the key.
Structure and Formula of the E Minor Scale
Most piano players commit scales to memory eventually. But if you know the formula, you can find any natural minor scale based on the first note. Follow the pattern W-H-W-W-H-W-W, where each “W” stands for a whole step and each “H” stands for a half step. By doing that, you get the seven notes of the E natural minor scale:
E F# G A B C D
As you can see, there is just one sharp in this scale, so it shouldn’t be too hard for even beginning piano players to master. You’ll be able to see if a piece of music is in the key of E minor just by looking at the key signature. If you only see one sharp symbol, and that sharp symbol is on the staff where you’d usually find F, then the piece is in E minor!
How to Play and Learn the E Minor Scale on Piano
Any time you learn a new scale, make sure you master the proper fingerings. If you develop the ability to play the E natural minor scale (or any other scale) incorrectly from muscle memory, you’ll have a hard time correcting it!
We’ve included a guide to playing each note of the E natural minor scale with both your right hand and your left hand. We will also include the finger numbers for playing each note on the piano keyboard. They are as follows: thumb (1), index finger (2), middle finger (3), ring finger (4), and pinky (5).
With your right hand:
- Start by playing E with your thumb (1). E is the white key which is two white keys to the right of middle C.
- Next, play F# (the first black key to the right of E) with your index finger (2).
- Then play G (the first white key to the right of F#) with your middle finger (3).
- Now cross your thumb (1) under your fingers and use it to play A (the white key to the right of G).
- Next, use your index finger (2) to play B (the white key to the right of A).
- Then use your middle finger (3) to play C (the white key to the right of B).
- Now use your ring finger (4) to play D (the white key to the right of C).
- Finally, use your pinky (5) to play E an octave higher. This is the white key to the right of D.
With your left hand:
- First, play E with your pinky (5).
- Now play F# with your ring finger (4).
- Then play G with your middle finger (3).
- Now play A with your index finger (2).
- Then play B with your thumb (1).
- Cross your finger over your thumb and use your middle finger (3) to play C.
- Now use your index finger (2) to play D.
- Finally, play E and octave higher with your thumb (1).
With both hands, make sure you maintain the same fingerings for each note, both ascending and descending! If you’d like a visual guide to the E natural minor scale and how to play it, this video lesson is brief but very helpful.
Relative and Parallel Scales
If you want to know how all scales are connected, understanding the concept of relative major scales and minor scales will help. Relative major scales and minor scales contain the same seven notes (just in a different order). The G major scale (G-A-B-C-D-E-F#) is the relative major scale of the E natural minor scale.
The E major scale is a parallel scale of the E minor scale. Parallel scales have the same starting note (or root note), but the rest of the notes can be different.
Chords of the Scale and Their Scale Degrees
To figure out what chords are in any natural minor scale, use this formula: i-ii°-III-iv-v-VI-VII. You just apply one Roman numeral to each note of the scale (in order). If a Roman numeral is in capital letters, its corresponding chord is a major chord. Lowercase numerals mean minor chords, and the degree symbol indicates a diminished chord. Here are the basic chords in the E natural minor scale:
- i. E minor (Em)
- ii°. F# diminished (Fdim)
- III. G major (G)
- iv. A minor (Am)
- v. B minor (Bm)
- VI. C major (C)
- VII. D major (D)
Extended versions of the chords, like suspended chords, minor sevenths, etc., also fit into the key. You aren’t limited to the chords above!
Songs in The Key of E Minor
If you want to really get a feel for the mood of the key of E minor, check out some of these popular songs in the key:
- “Living on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi
- “Nights in White Satin” by The Moody Blues
- “Forgive Them Father” by Lauryn Hill
- “Bring Me to Life” by Evanescence
- “Hey Jealousy” by Gin Blossoms
- “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” by Stevie Nicks
- “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes
- “The Sign” by Ace of Base
- “Tin Angel” by Joni Mitchell
- “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” by Simon & Garfunkel
Common Chord Progressions in E Minor
If you’re hoping to discover some chord progressions in the key of E minor, take a look at some of the songs above. “Living on a Prayer” has a chorus with an i-VI-VII-VII-III-VI-VII-VII progression, though some of the chords are modified. The progression goes Em-Csus2-Dsus4-D-G-C-Dsus4-D. The chorus of “Seven Nation Army” has an I-III-I-VII-VI-V (E-G-E-D-C-B) progression. “Bring Me to Life” has a chorus with a much more straightforward progression. It’s i-III-VII-i (Em-G-D-Em).
If you’d like a few more progressions to get you started, check out these ones:
- i-VI-VII (Em-C-D)
- i-iv-VII (Em-Am-D)
- i-VI-III-VII (Em-C-G-D)
- i-iv-v (Em-Am-Bm)
- ii-v-i (F#m7b5-Bm-Em)
Now that you have a greater understanding of the E minor scale, the music theory behind it, and how to use it, we hope you’ll have an easier time learning it! Let us know your thoughts in the comments, and please like and share if you found this article helpful!