When it comes to writing songs with a minor scale, you have 3 minor scales to choose from: the natural, harmonic or melodic minor scale. And you can use chords from any of the 3 minor scales.
In this article, I show examples of songs that use only 1 of the scales for harmony. I also have examples that use a combination of the 3 scales. Finally, I have notes on things to consider when writing a song in a minor key.
Songwriting with minor scales
The fact that there are 3 minor scales can confuse beginner songwriters, but don’t make it more complicated than it actually is. When it comes to writing songs, most people start out by playing chords (harmony) from a particular scale.
Your first choice is the natural minor scale which is also called the relative minor or Aeolian mode. It has the same notes and builds the same chords s the major scale a minor 3rd above the tonic. Of you can look at it as the major scale built on the minor 3rd of the minor triad.
So for A natural minor, that would be C major. I wrote articles on the chords built from each scale degree in C major where I also created open guitar chords for each chord. Also, check out my Chords From Scales article to see all the chord types built from the major scale.
In those articles, I list ALL the possible chords and whittle that list down to the most important chords to use to write a song in just those minor scales.
Below I analyze 48 popular songs that use the various minor scales for the chords of the song. I list the chords used in each section used for all the songs so you know what you have to work with. But first, let me cover the basic chords that can be built from all 3 scales.
Minor scale chords
There are certain chord types I did not see in the popular minor key songs I analyzed. None of the songs used a diminished chord with the exception of one song with a dim7 on the 7th scale degree. I also only saw one augmented chord (augmented triad) on the vii.
Here is a list of the only 7th chords and adds/extensions used in the songs below:
Sevenths: m7, m-maj7, 7, 7sus, maj7, dim7
Adds/Extensions: m6, m9, m11, 6 add9, 9, 7#9, maj9
Some of those chords only occur in one song.
Here is my list of chords you want to consider using the tonic (1st) of the minor scale as a reference and expressing all other chords as intervals away from the tonic. These are chords available from all 3 minor scales.
Tonic minor: minor triad, m add9, m7, m-maj7, sus, sus2
M2, Major 2nd: minor triad, m6, m7
m3, Minor 3rd: major, maj7, +
P4, Perfect 4th: m, m add9, m7, major, 6, 7
P5, Perfect 5th: m, m7, 7, 9, 7#9, 7♭9, sus, 7sus, aug, 7#5
m6, Minor 6th: major, maj7, minor triad
m7, Minor 7th: major, add9
M7, Major 7th: dim, dim7, +, 7alt
There are many other chords that you could use if you want to but stick to the basics until you have more experience with songs in a minor key.
Also, NO ONE seems to use the minor triad version of the flat 6 chord. That’s a totally missed opportunity if you ask me. Normally that chord is expressed as a major or major 7th chord. The major 7th of the harmonic & melodic minor scale turns it into a minor chord. The minor 3rd of the flat 6 is the leading tone and it has a slight resolve tendency to the tonic minor.
Natural minor scale songs & notes on the chord progressions
Eight of the 28 songs use the natural minor scale as the source for the chords which beats out the natural minor & melodic minor combination by 1 song. So using chords just from the natural minor seems to be the most popular source for songs in a minor key.
I think I have the actual chord progressions with a few exceptions. This is for all the songs in this article. I did not include any repeats such as playing the first set of chords 2 or more times, I just list the chords in order as they appear in the songs.
Also, I briefly played all of them and they sounded correct, but there may be some small errors. Let me know and I’ll make changes. This is just a guideline source of potential minor chord progressions. Finally, I use the symbol “|” as a separator of verse to chorus to bridge, so look for that change.
Natural Minor Progressions
Here are the 8 popular songs, that I like, that use chords ONLY from the natural minor scale.
All Along the watchtower, Bob Dylan:
Am > G > F > G
I Shot the Sheriff, Bob Marley:
Gm > Cm | E♭maj7 > Dm7 > Gm
Jolene, Dolly Parton:
C#m > E > B > C#m > B > C#m | C#m > E > B > C#m > B > G#m > C#m
Heart Of Gold, Neil Young:
Em > C > D > G | Em > G > C > G | Em > D
Ain’t No Sunshine, Bill Withers:
Am > Em > G > Em > Dm
Sound of Silence, Simon & Garfunkel:
Dm > C > Dm > F > B♭ > F > Dm > F > C
Hurricane, Bob Dylan:
Am > F > C > Dm > Em > G
The Night They Drove old Dixie Down, The Band:
Am > C/G > F-F/E > Dm > Am| Am > F > C > Dm
| Am > F > C > Dm > D > | C > Fmaj7 > C > Am > Gsus > F > C
The only chords used in the songs above are tonic minor, ♭III, iv, v, ♭VI, ♭VI maj7, and ♭VII. I think you could also try add9, m add9 and sus chords on the degrees that build them. Just keep the tonic minor chord the main focus.
Harmonic minor & Melodic minor only songs
There are only 3 songs in this list which means that using just the harmonic or melodic minor scale is the least common method of writing songs in a minor key.
The Thrill Is Gone, B.B. King:
Bm > Em > Bm > G > F#7 > Bm
Black Magic Woman, Santana:
Dm > A7 > Gm6
Oye Como Va, Santana:
Am7 > D9
There are not a lot of chords used here. The B.B. King song is a really nice blues progression in B harmonic minor. Oye Como Va by Carlos Santana is a two-chord song which I should have include in my Two-Chord Songs article but it is technically A melodic minor.
Definitely check my two D minor articles linked above because I think you can use either one of those scales to write a full song. There are great chords from each scale if you want a more complex harmony.
Natural & harmonic minor scale songs
I could only find 3 examples of minor songs (that I like) that use chords from the natural minor and harmonic minor scales.
Jack-A-Roe, Traditional (Grateful Dead version):
Am > C > E | Am > C > F > C | Am > E > Am > Am
I’m only Sleeping, Beatles:
Em > Am > G > C > G > B7 | G > Am > Bm | Am > Cmaj7
California Dreamin’, The Mamas & The Papas:
Am > G > F > G > E7sus > E7 | C > E7 > Am > F > E7sus > E
Finally, a sus4 chord in California Dreamin’ – don’t forget about those suspended chords!
Natural & melodic minor scale songs
The combination of natural and melodic minor seems to be the 2nd most common method of writing songs in a minor key. Take a look at these songs to get some good ideas.
While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Beatles:
Am > Am7 > D9 > F > Am > G > D > E > A > C#m > F#m > Bm > E
Hotel California, Eagles:
Bm > F#7 > A > E > G > D > Em > F# | G > D > F#7 > Bm > | G > D > Em > F#
Summertime, Janis Joplin version:
Am > Dm6 > Am > Dm > E7 > F > Em > Am > Dm6 > | C > Dm > E7
Babe, I’m gonna leave you, Led Zeppelin:
Am > Am7 > D7 > F6 > E > | F > E | Am > Dm
Another Brick in the Wall, Pink Floyd:
Dm > G | F > C > Dm
Paint it Black, The Rolling Stones:
Em > B7 | Em > D > G > D > Em | Em > D > G > D > A7 > B7
Stairway to Heaven, Led Zeppelin:
Am > G#+ > C > D > Fmaj7 > G-Am| Am7 > Dsus > D > Am7 > Em > D-C | C > G > Am > C > G-F > Am
The chord types used in these songs are i, i7, ♭III, iv, iv6, IV, IV7, IV9, IVsus, v, V, V7, ♭VI, ♭VI maj7, ♭VII, and VII+.
Using chords from all 3 minor scales
These 4 songs use chords from all 3 minor scales. I would skip the Dylan and Beatles tunes as there are a lot of chords and chord changes in them – keep it simple.
House of the Risin Sun, Animals:
Am > C > D > F > E > E7
I, Me, Mine, Beatles:
Am > D > G > E > Dm > Em > Dm7 > G#dim7 > F > Am-maj7 > C > Am6 > Fmaj7 > A7 > D7 > E7
Subterranean Homesick Blues, Bob Dylan:
Am > F > Am6 > Am7 > Am6 > F > Am > C… > E > Dm6 > Am > F7
| Am > F > Am6 > E > Dm6 > E > Dm6 > Am > F7 > Am
Moondance, Van Morrison:
Am7 > Bm7 | Dm7 > Am7 > E7 | Am > Dm7 > E7
These songs use the following chord types: tonic minors (m, m-maj7, m6, m7), ii m7, ♭III, iv, iv6, iv7, IV, v, V, V7, ♭VI, ♭VImaj7, ♭VI7, and vii dim7.
Songs with minor scale & minor mode chords
These songs are a little difficult to peg down as to the scales used.
Horse With No Name seems to be in Natural minor and Dorian mode. The Allman Brothers version of Elizabeth Reed is a combination of natural, melodic and “I-don’t-know”. Heard it Thru the Grapevine is either Dm melodic minor with a key change to Bm harmonic, or Dm melodic to Bm Phrygian.
Horse With No Name, America:
Em > D6/9 | Em9 > Dmaj9
In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, Allman Brothers version:
Am9 > Am7 > Am9 > D | Am > D > Bm > C > Am7 > Dm > Em > C > E7#9 >
| Adim7 | Am7 > Cm7 | G#m > Am > Am > Bm > B > C
Heard it thru the grapevine, Marvin Gaye (CCR version):
Dm > A > G | Bm > G | Dm > G | Dm > G
Other minor key songs
I did not look at the chord progression for the following songs. If you like any of them, then check them out for additional ideas.
Beatles: Glass Onion, I Want You
Grateful Dead: Estimated Prophet
Folk Song Encyclopedia (Nirvana): In the Pines
The Searchers: Love Potion #9
Traffic: Low Spark of High Heeled Boys
The Commodores: Brickhouse
Things to consider when writing a minor key song
Here are a handful of points to keep in mind:
1. Consider changing to a major key for the chorus and/or bridge section. Use either the relative or parallel major for that.
2. Only use diminished chords built on the 7th scale degree. The same goes for 7alt chords with the exception of the 7♭9 or 7#9 on the 5th. Hopefully, you know that a 7#9 chord is the combination of a 7 and m7 chord (v7 & V7).
3. You are most likely going to use a minor 1 chord and either a minor or major 4 & 5 chord. That leaves the chords built on the 2, 3, 6 and 7. Just try various chord combinations to see what sounds good to you.
4. For minor blues, you could use the ♭6 to 5 move in The Thrill Is Gone which I believe is common in minor blues. Or just do a minor for the 1 & 4 and go with a dominant 7th on the 5 chord.
If you can’t write a song using any of the minor scales after all the information in this article, then consider switching to painting or creative writing. Seriously, just slap together 3 -7 chords and try writing a song in a minor key song. You now have plenty of song examples and chords to choose from so just try something.
If you want sheet music for any of the songs listed, then check out Music Notes. Their sheet music is pretty good but I’ve noticed songs are not in the correct keys.