Minor Major is a unique and important sound in jazz music. But it appears relatively infrequently, and doesn’t get as much discussion as many other sounds. Because of that, and because the name “minor major” is rather confusing, I think it’s high time we shine a spotlight on it.
The term “Minor Major”
Why “minor major” is deceptive
We know that some chords are minor and some are major. So what does leave minor major chords? Are they both? Or a third category altogether?
For instance, we speak of a minor seventh chord (Cm7), a major seventh chord (CMa7) and a minor major seventh chord (CmMa7, sometimes written as CmMaj7 or Cm7 or Cm△7). There would seem to be a parallelism in the terms, so that “minor”, “major” and “minor major” are three co-equal categories. But that’s just a notational mishap.
The way to understand “C minor major 7” is not as a C “minor major” chord that has a 7, but as a C minor chord that has a major 7. We could write this as:
C [minor major] 7 ✘ wrong
C minor [major 7] ✓ correct
So why do we speak of “minor major” if that’s the wrong way to think of it?
If I ask you, “would you like some delicious king salmon?” you know that I’m talking about king salmon that’s delicious, not salmon named after a delicious king. Minor major is a delicious king. If we’re on an Alaskan fishing trip we can say “would you like some delicious king?” and be easily understood. Similarly, we can say, “that chord is minor major” and make perfect sense.
Minor with a major seventh
The two words in “minor major” describe not one thing (the chord) but two separate things. The “minor” describes the chord… which is to say, it describes the third of the chord: A minor chord is a chord with a minor third instead of a major third. The “major” describes what kind of seventh the chord has: Not a minor seventh but a major seventh.
Whereas jazz musicians associate Cm7 by default with the Dorian scale, we associate CmMa7 with the ascending melodic minor scale which, in jazz, we call simply the melodic minor scale. (We call the descending melodic minor scale Aeolian or natural minor instead.) The melodic minor scale is simple a major scale with a lowered third or, equivalently, a Dorian scale with a raised seventh.
The Sound of Minor Major
Minor major has a very distinct sound, which you can hear in songs such as Harlem Nocturne, Nica’s Dream and Chelsea Bridge. Here it is on full display in a song called Calypso Minor by Abdullah Ibrahim:
Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Calypso Minor”.
Personally, I love the sound, and I’ve used it prominently it in a number of my compositions. For example: Slightly Off Course, Peace Dollar, Cumulonimbus, Flash Mob and my arrangement of Where or When.
Minor major is the sound of noir—the genre of film and the whole vibe it conveys. If you’re not familiar with film noir, here are some things associated with it:
- femme fatale
- “down and out”
- black & white
Minor major is a very distinct sound, and noir is a very distinct set of feelings and images, and if you can learn to associate the two you may find yourself able to instantly identify minor major whenever you hear it. And, better still, to hear and play minor major whenever you want to evoke those feelings!
The paradox of minor major
Listen and compare the CmMa7 sound to Cm7:
If you compare the two chords, the Cm7 has a minor 3rd and a minor 7th but the CmMa7 has just a minor 3rd; its 7th is major. So it would make sense that the one with more minor chord tones would sound more minor, right? But to most people the CmMa7 sounds more minor.
Likewise, if we associate Cm7 with the Dorian scale and CmMa7 with the melodic minor scale, the two scales are identical except for the seventh, which is minor for Dorian.
My instinct is that when we say the CmMa7 sounds more minor it’s not actually the minorness of the chord we’re reacting to but its dissonance. Whereas the minor seventh of a chord forms a perfect fifth with the minor third and a major second with the root, the major seventh forms an augmented fifth and semitone, respectively. These intervals are much more dissonant, giving rise to the cold, steely edge of the CmMa7… compared to the warmer, smoother quality of the Cm7.
Another way of looking at it: whereas the minor 7 fits nicely into the darkness of the minor 3, the brightness of the major 7 stands in stark contrast. Like the bright glistening of a dagger on an otherwise dark night—if you’ll excuse a bit of imagery, appropriately noir. :) The gleam of light doesn’t negate the darkness but somehow serves to amplify it.
In my experience it’s not unusual for students to confuse minor 7 chords for major chords. Think about it: the first inversion of a minor 7 chord is a major 6 chord (with the m3, 5 and m7 of the minor 7 chord forming a major triad). By contrast, students rarely mistake minor major chords for major.
Minor major chords are static rather than dynamic—a distinction I discussed in a prior blog post. It is a sound that can last indefinitely without any compulsion to resolve—unlike, say, the altered dominant chord. For that reason it is used as a minor tonic chord. It tends to serve as home rather than a quick stop on a journey.
The minor major chord is quite similar to the minor 6 chord, which is written as Cm6. Note that the 6 in the Cm6 is major but there is no reason to write CmMa6. That’s because unspecified degrees in a chord, such as 6 or 9 or 13, always default to major (or, in the case of the 4 or 11, to perfect). The one exception is 7, which defaults to minor as in C7 and Cm7—which is why we need to specify CMa7 and CmMa7.
Have a listen and compare the Cm6 sound to the Cm7 and CmMa7 sounds, above:
Pretty similar to CmMa7, no? It stands to reason because both chords are minor tonic sounds – in fact, they arise from the same scale: melodic minor. The only difference between Cm6 and CmMa7 is the presence of the 6th versus 7th note of the scale… both of which are color tones that do not impact functionality at all. The 6, being less bright than the 7, makes for less of a jarring contrast. As a result, you could say that the minor 6 sound is a bit more warm, a bit less steely than the minor major 7. For a technical discussion about brightness and darkness, check out Harmonic Brightness & Darkness.
Minor 6/9 and “Minor Major 9”
In practice, minor 6 and minor major 7 chords tend to be played with a major 9 in the voicing as well. (The 9 is the “upper structure” name for the 2—they refer to the same note.) The brightness of the 9 further juxtaposes the darkness of the minor 3… and the dissonance of the half step or major 7 interval, formed by the minor 3 and the 9 in the voicing, adds texture to the sound. The voicings you heard above include the 9.
Notating the nine
You’ll often see the 9 called out explicitly in a minor six chord—it’s written as Cm69 or Cm6/9 and called “minor six nine.” In the case of CmMa7 the 9 is more awkward to notate. Cm9(Ma7) is accurate but long. So you tend to see Cm△9 instead. It’s much shorter, but makes less sense. The triangle looks like a modifier of the 9, but really means “major seven”. In other cases it means “major” or “triad”. So use it if you like, because jazz musicians are used to it, but know that if someone tries to figure out what it means they may be out of luck. What’s even worse than the notation for a minor major 7 chord with a 9 is what we all call the chord: “minor major 9.” By shortening “minor major 7” to “minor major” and adding “9” we make it sound as though the “major” must be describing the “9”—which, of course, it isn’t. The 9 is already major by default. The only way to sensibly understand “minor major 9” is to think of it as an abbreviation of “minor major 7 add 9.” Sigh…
A last nod: if you want to get to know the minor major sound even better, check out the method I present in this post: Jazz Harmony – You Have the Answers. In fact, I address the minor major sound of Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream” as one of the examples in the post. As you’ll see, the idea of the post is that to learn the sound, you devise your own investigations. Which seems pretty fitting since we’re talking about the sound of detective movies! 😎