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Quick Tracks Nº 8: Change the Tonality of a Popular Song

Welcome back to Quick Tracks! Every other week, we’ll send you another short composition, performance, or production challenge to help you up your musicianship. Respond to the challenge and you can get 40% off any of our courses! Just email us, leave a comment, or post to social media with the hashtag #quicktracks and tag us @learntosoundfly. Good luck! 

Greetings Quick Trackers! This week’s challenge is a fun way to explore and reveal the malleability of emotion in songwriting, using the simple trick of converting a song’s tonality to its parallel or tonic major or minor. We’ve done this before, using popular and highly recognizable TV and film theme songs, and it was hilarious!

Remember John Carpenter’s hellishly tense theme music to Halloween? Well here it is transposed to a major key.

Not so scary anymore huh? It’s actually quite joyous! Tonalities and modes are everything when it comes to conveying specific, and even vaguely ballpark, emotional messages in music. What may have sounded happy and uplifting can all of a sudden feel mysterious, dark, and uncertain with just a few flattened notes.

So for this week’s exercise, I challenge you to convert a popular song into its parallel major or minor key. For inspiration, if you want to use one of 2017’s Top 40 songs, check out this handy (slightly insane) song analysis to find out what key your favorite song from last year is in. And if you need a refresher on major and minor scales, check out our free Theory for Producers course series, taught using the Ableton Live piano roll.

As always, anyone who shares their submission with us will get 40% off any of our Mainstage courses, including our harmonic theory double-header, Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords and The Creative Power of Advanced Harmonywhich explore the fundamental elements for writing chord progressions that can produce a wide range of emotions.

Scroll down for more insights and details into how to deliver this challenge.

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Chords are built on scales

Changing a single chord from major to minor is easy, but how do we change a whole song?

In our course Unlocking the Emotional Power of Harmonyone of the things our instructor Ethan Hein talks about is the idea that chords can be built using scales by stacking thirds up the scale. For instance, in the key of C major, if you stack two thirds on top of each other all the way up the scale, you get this set of chords that all “belong” in that key. (Note: No ornamentation implies a major chord, the dash “-” implies minor, and the circle “º” implies diminished).

The cool thing is that you can do this same trick for any scale out there and get a slightly different set of chords. For instance, if you used a C natural minor scale instead, then instead of an E minor chord, you’d have an E♭ major chord instead, because the C natural minor scale has an E♭ instead of an E and a B♭ instead of a B in it.

Using relative and parallel scales

Once you realize that chords are built on scales, it’s not too difficult to alter the tonality of a song. Simply switch scales from a major to a minor one or vice versa! There are a number of ways to do this, but the most common ones are by either using a relative or a parallel scale.

Parallel scales are scales that start on the same root note (or tonic) but have different intervals. For instance, a C major scale and a C minor scale.

A major scale can be transformed to its parallel minor by flattening the third, sixth, and seventh scale degrees, and a minor scale can be transformed to its parallel major by sharpening those same scale degrees. (In the image below, the lines represent notes that are the same in both scales.)

So if you decided to alter a song that has the chords C major, F major, and G major in it using a parallel minor scale (let’s say the natural minor again), you’d use the chords C minor, F minor, and G minor instead. Boom! Done!

The other way to do this is to use a relative major or minor scale. A relative scale has the same key signature but a different root note. For instance, the relative minor to a C major scale would be A natural minor since both scales use only white keys.

Let’s take a song like “Let it Be” by the Beatles — a simple I V VI- IV progression. In the key of C, those chords would spell out C, G, Amin, and F, but if we transfer this progression to it’s relative minor, the chords would spell out Amin, Emin, F, and Dmin. It’s a very different feeling, indeed.

While the original melodies will work over their relative minor or major counterparts, try experimenting and seeing if exploring some different options might bring out new emotional textures, as the different melody notes will have a different weight per each chord.

This exercise will help you further develop your knowledge of diatonic chord structure — or chords that all lie within a single key. Understanding how to use chords build on a scale is a crucial first step for all beginner composers, and anyone looking to widen their understanding of music theory. An exercise like this is fun and can reveal new truths about songs you may never had considered, while maybe even giving you some cool new ideas for your own music.

Go ahead and play around with major and minor tonalities — and let us know what you come up with!

Share your work with us via email or on social media with the hashtag #quicktracks (and tagging us @learntosoundfly) for 40% off your next course! 

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Elyadeen Anbar
Elyadeen Anbar

Elyadeen Anbar is a guitarist, writer and educator residing in Los Angeles, CA. He has had the pleasure of contributing music and production to some of his favorite artists, and graced stages the world over. His work can be found at elyadeenanbar.com, soundcloud.com/mrs-walrus, and selfesteemmusic.tumblr.com.