Everything You Need to Know About the C Minor Scale
Major and minor scales are the bedrock of Western music. Everything from chords to keys to harmonic progressions come from them.
As with other minor keys, the key of c minor is based on the c minor scale. In general, we hear minor keys as being sad and melancholy. In fact, composers historically used c minor to express lovesickness or longing.
If you’re a beginning musician, though, the c minor scale might be confusing. After all, there are three types to learn!
But, don’t worry! With practice, you’ll master the c minor scale. Then you’ll be performing music in the key of c minor in no time. Read on to find out how!
Some Music to Listen To In C Minor
Below, we’ll go over how to play and practice the c minor scale. It’s a good idea, though, to also train your ear to hear music in this key.
Classical Music in the Key of C Minor
We can’t talk about the key of c minor without discussing one of the most famous Classical compositions of all time: Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.
Beethoven wrote the first three movements in the brooding key of c minor. If you’ve ever heard the well-known opening motive, you’re familiar with its sense of strong, yet ominous and foreboding gloom.
When the fourth movement arrives, it’s joyful, triumphant, and glorious! In short, it feels like the exact opposite of c minor, and, no wonder. In this movement, Beethoven has switched to the happy, bright key of C Major.
Listen to the whole piece a few times, and see if you can hear the difference!
Jazz and C Minor
Jazz artists and composers also use this key for similar reasons. C minor has a tough, yet sad, sound that works well for blues songs. For instance, the jazz standard Footprints by Wayne Shorter is in c minor.
Now that you know some music based on the c minor scale, let’s see what it’s all about. Read on to learn about the different types of c minor scale!
What Is the C Minor Scale?
The c minor scale is a minor scale. Its tonic, or resting point, is C. Any c minor scale, then, will always begin and end on C.
The c minor scale has three versions:
- the natural minor scale
- the harmonic minor scale
- the melodic minor scale
In the next few sections, let’s take a look at each version individually.
The C Minor Natural Scale
As noted above, the c minor scale begins on its tonic: C. You can always find C on the keyboard by looking at the pattern of black keys. They come in groups of two’s and three’s, and the white key below each group of two black keys is always C.
The space, or interval, between each C is an octave. When playing any scale, you can play one octave (either ascending, descending, or both). Or, you can play multiple octaves.
For now, let’s stick with only one octave.
The notes of the c minor natural scale are:
Each pair of pitches is separated by the interval of either a whole step or half step:
C to D: whole step
D to E-flat: half step
E-flat to F: whole step
F to G: whole step
G to A-flat: half step
A-flat to B-flat: whole step
B-flat to C: whole step
Notice the half step between the second and third pitches, the D to E-flat. It’s that small interval that gives the minor scale and its associated key its special, sad sound.
How to Play This Scale
If you know your C Major scale, playing c minor will be simple. If not, that’s okay too!
Use the following fingerings for each hand:
Right Hand: 1-2-3-1-2-3-4-5
Left Hand: 5-4-3-2-1-3-2-1
For your right hand, 1 is your thumb. 2 your index finger, 3 your middle finger, 4 your ring finger, and 5 is your pinky.
The left hand is the opposite: 1 is your pinky, 4 is your ring finger, 3 is your middle finger, 2 your index finger, and 1 is your thumb.
It takes a little time to learn which numbers go with which fingers. It’s also challenging at first to play the two hands together. But, don’t worry, with a little practice these things can become second-nature.
Now let’s look at the second type of minor scale, the c minor harmonic scale.
The C Minor Harmonic Scale
The c minor harmonic scale is similar to the natural version above. You only have to change one pitch. Raise the B-flat by a half step, making it a B-natural instead:
This change means we now have a half step leading back to the tonic of C. Remember, the c natural minor scale had a whole step there.
A half step at the top of the scale drives home to the tonic more powerfully than a whole step. Any chord based on either the 5th or 7th note of the harmonic minor scale will make use of this movement for a firmer resolution.
In addition, look at the A-flat to B-natural. The interval between these two pitches is larger than a whole step. In fact, it has the complicated name of an augmented second!
For our purposes, it’s important to know that this larger interval gives the harmonic minor scale an exotic character. In fact, this scale is similar to ones used in the Middle East.
The C Melodic Minor Scale
The third and final version of the C minor scale has different ascending and descending forms.
Going up, you have the following pitches:
C, D, E-flat, F, G, A, B, C
Notice that both the A and B raises a half step. This removes the large interval between those pitches, but it keeps the driving half step between the top two notes.
Going down, however, we have this pattern:
C, B-flat, A-flat, G, F, E-flat, D, C
You’ll recognize the descending version as the C minor natural scale.
How To Learn the C Minor Scale
All these intervals and changes can be confusing to a beginner. That’s okay.
The best way to learn your C minor scales is to practice them. Every day.
Arpeggios and chords are also useful. They help train not only your fingers but also your ear in the sound of c minor.
With time, it won’t be long before you’re a pro at c minor!