MINOR CHORDS AND MINOR KEYS (or the m7 versus the m6...)

Yes, yes, some players are a little confused as to what they should play when they see a Minor chord symbol on a chart. The reason could be that some Real Books do not always consistently acknowledge those different types of Minor chords. For example, it is common on many lead-sheets (the Jamey Aebersold Play along charts come to mind...) to just find an Am or A- symbol, and we are basically supposed to guess if we should use a minor Triad, an Am7 or an Am6... and some players solve the problem by playing m7 chords everywhere-- which is not a good idea, as we are about to see !

There are however two very distinct families of Minor chords:

1) The "Tonic Family": those include mMaj7 chords and more commonly m6 chords. Basically, if the tune is in a Minor key, then the i chord will be a mMaj7 or a m6 chord. Note that there are exceptions to this rule, as we will see later.

2) The "Other Family": those other Minor chords are the m7 (found as a ii chord, iii chord , or vi chord in a Major key) and the m7b5 or half-diminished (found as a ii chord or a vi chord in a Minor key).

It is important to understand that in a Minor key we should generally not play a common m7 chord in the place of a i chord.

Yes, the i chord is a m7 chord if we harmonize the Natural Minor scale, but that scale does nor function well harmonically-- at least not in the context of our Jazz Standards. The i chord comes from either the Harmonic Minor scale or the Melodic Minor scale. In both cases then, the i chord is a mMaj7 and certainly not a m7. The problem though is that a mMaj7 chord usually sounds too "exotic" or completely out of place in the context of your average Standard tune... It is preferable then to play a m6 chord instead of a mMaj7. The m6 is a lot more stable, and basically sounds like "home"

Here are some tunes where the m6 is appropriate as a i chord :

"Alone Together"
"What Is This Thing Called Love" (first cadence)
"Golden Earrings"
"Angel Eyes"
"How Deep Is The Ocean?" (first chord)
"Besame Mucho"
"You Don't Know What Love Is"
Brazilian music is fond of m6 chords:
"Corcovado" (the first chord is sometimes written as D7/A but it still is an Am6)
"How Insensitive"
"Black Orpheus"
"A Felicidade"


There are many tunes that start in a Major key and then modulate to a Minor key at some point-- usually to the relative Minor. For example in the tune "There Is No Greater Love" (AABA form) the A section is in the key of Bb. For the B section (bridge) we modulate to the key of Gm. It is a temporary modulation of course, but we are clearly in a new key: the Gm chord is a i chord and not the vi chord in Bb. Therefore, we should play a Gm6 and not a Gm7.

In "Airegin" by Sonny Rollins the opposite process takes place: the tune starts in the key of Fm and after a series of unexpected temporary modulations, finally arrives to its relative Major, Ab (at the very end of the tune).

Many tunes start in a Minor key to arrive to the relative Major:

"In Walked Bud"
"You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To"
"You Don't Know What Love Is" (the bridge is in the relative Major)
"How Deep Is The Ocean ?"
"Cry Me A River"
"My Funny Valentine"

Some people would rather think that an entire tune is in a Major key and that the Minor segment is the vi chord. A ii7-V7 of vi should be a clear indication that we are gravitating around the relative Minor. There is a huge difference between the very first chord of "All The Things You Are" (vi7 of Ab) and the very first chord of "How Deep Is The Ocean ?" (i of Cm).

In "Autumn Leaves" (in Gm) or in "I Hear A Rhapsody" (in Eb) we are actually thrown back and forth between the relative Major and the relative Minor keys. When in the Minor section(s) of the tune, as brief as they may be, we should play a m6 chord on the i chord.

In "These Foolish Things" (in Eb) the bridge modulates to a Minor key (Gm) but that time it is not the relative minor, but the Mediant. There again, even if it is built on the iii chord in Eb, we are unequivocally in the key of Gm, and therefore a Gm7 would not be appropriate. Interestingly enough, the next section of the bridge modulates then to the relative Major of Gm which is Bb. Finally, we manage to go back to the original key of Eb for the last A section.

A modulation to the Mediant also happens in "My One And Only Love".

A tune can start in a Minor key and eventually end with a Major Tonic chord--either at the very end of the tune, or just at the end of a section. It is what the French call the "Tierce de Picardie" or "Picardy Third".

In the Jazz literature the device is found in:

"You And The Night and The Music"
"Alone Together"
"Round Midnight"
"Close Your Eyes"

In Pop Music, we have:

"Killing Me Softly With His Song"
"Michelle" (by The Beatles)

The Minor Major Seventh Chord (mMaj7)

Some compositions do call for a mMaj7 in the place of the tonic. There are not very many though, and the chord will always be used to convey a particular feeling.

For instance, let's take a look at the tune "Solar" by Miles Davis. There is a B natural note in the first measure of the melody. We certainly could play a Cm6 there, but the mMaj7 will add that special effect, contributing effectively to the unusual mood of the piece. In the original version of 1954, both Miles and Horace Silver (on the piano) make sure they hit the M7 of the chord a few times.

Other tunes making great use of the mMaj7 chord would be:

"Nica's Dream" (Horace Silver again...)
"Chelsea Bridge"
"Invitation" (very last chord: EbmMaj7)

The m7 as a i7 chord

Now, In the context of some more modern tunes, we may find a m7 used as a i chord. The scale associated with the chord will then be generally the Dorian mode, but it can also be the Natural Minor/Aeolian. Some tunes falling in that category are:

"So What/Impressions"
"Blue Bossa"
"Song For My Father" (Aeolian)
"Sugar" (Aeolian or Phrygian ?)
"Minor Blues"

Some tunes like "Summertime" or "Invitation" may be played either modally or more traditionally. John Coltrane of course gave us amazingly refreshing versions of those two songs. The Modal approach will bring a more modern and more open sound with the use of the Dorian mode along with the m7 chord. Quartal voicings (stacked-up 4ths) work especially well there.

"Blue Bossa" can use either a m6 chord or a m7 chord as its first chord too. One way to look at the first two measures of the tune would be:

| Cm6 | Cm6 C7 |

The C7 accommodates the Bb in the melody and sets up the Fm7 coming in the third measure.

When deciding what kind of Minor chord to play over a i chord, it is a good idea to check if there are any 7ths in the melody-- and if so, are they Major 7ths or Minor 7ths ?

For instance, in "This Can't Be Love" which has an AABA form, the A sections are in the key of F. The bridge then modulates to the relative minor (Dm) but the melody note over that chord is a C Natural (it also happens to be a whole note...). Our Dm chord then needs to be played as a Dm7.

Movement Within A Tonic Minor Chord:

If we stay on a Tonic Minor chord for a few measures, it is nice to create some movement within the chord with a chromatic line. We have the choice between 2 options:

Option A: The line goes down chromatically from the Root. This is the "My Funny Valentine" effect (at least, that's what I call it). The chords become:

| Cm | Cm/B | Cm/Bb | Cm/A |

Some tunes using that option are:

"My Funny Valentine"
"In Walked Bud/Blue Skies"
"All Or Nothing At All"
"'Round Midnight"

Option B: The line goes up chromatically from the 5th. This is known as the "James Bond " effect. Now the chords are:

| Cm | Cm+ | Cm6 | Cm+ |

(in case you are wondering, Cm+ is a Cm triad with a raised 5th. It is sometimes written as Ab/C or even as AbMaj7/C)

Some tunes using that option are:

"Cry Me A River"
"Out Of This World"

Some tunes handle both directions well: in "My Heart Belongs To Daddy" I like to play option A during the first half of the song, and then option B for the second half. The tune finally climaxes when it modulates to the parallel Major key (C Major) to ultimately resolve back to the original key of Cm in the last few bars.

We should not forget that there are some situations when a plain Minor Triad will work just fine as a i chord. I would stay away from the close voicings which can sound too plain and simple, but the open ones (in various inversions) generally blend in well with the rest of the progression.

Minor add9 and minor add11 chords should be explored too.

Those are R, m3, P5, M9 and R, m3, P5, P11 respectively.

To sum it all up, we should refrain from being too dogmatic, and use our ears: they should have the final word in deciding what to play ! (Mmm... maybe I should rephrase that...)



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