Instructor
Jonny May
Quick Tip
Level 1
Level 2
13:10

Learning Focus
  • Chords
  • Improvisation
Music Style
  • Contemporary
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Some of the most serene soundscapes on piano involve minor chords. In fact, with as little as 3 minor chords, you can improvise a beautiful, introspective piano solo. In today’s Quick Tip, you’ll learn the most beautiful minor chord progression on piano and how add a pensive, improvised melody. This lesson covers:

Piano students of all levels will find the minor chord progression in this lesson accessible and inspiring to play, whether for personal enjoyment or for an impressive piano performance.

Intro to Piano Improv With Minor Chords

If you are relatively new to the piano, perhaps you’ve never played a minor chord progression before. In today’s lesson, not only will you learn 3 minor chords; you’ll also play in a minor key. Today’s lesson sheet is in the key of C minor, which contains 3 flats (B♭, E♭, A♭). In fact, you can download the lesson sheet PDF and backing track from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily transpose this lesson to any other key using our Smart Sheet Music.

Before we get into the details, however, we need to dispel a few myths up front…

3 Myths Piano Students Believe About Minor Chord Progressions

Would you say that you are as comfortable and confident playing in minor keys as you are in major? If not, why do you suppose that is? Hopefully, you have not believed one of these common myths about minor chords and progressions.

Myth 1: Minor Piano Chords Are More Complicated

In traditional piano methods, major chords are generally introduced before minor chords in the learning sequence. This is just a matter of sequencing— not everything cannot be taught at once. However, this sequencing should not cause you to assume that minor chords are “more complicated.” They are just different. In fact, basic minor triads have 3 notes, just like major triads. Compare the following examples of major and minor triads and you’ll quickly agree that minor chords are not more complicated. However, they do sound different. You can explore these differences in sound below.

[Tap or click on each chord below to hear its sound.👆🖱🎹🔊]

Major Triads

Minor Triads

If you want to learn more about how to build different types of triads, including major and minor chords, visit the Triads—Foundational Piano Chords section of our Piano Chords—The Definitive Guide.

Myth 2: Minor Piano Chord Progressions Are More Difficult

You may be starting to agree that minor chords themselves are not more complicated than major chords. However, what about playing a minor chord progression on piano? It must be difficult if it’s not in my level one piano method book, right? The most honest answer would be that some minor chord progressions are more difficult than others. On the other hand, some major chord progressions are difficult too. However, you’ll find that the minor chord progression in today’s piano lesson is both accessible and captivating. Specifically, this progression is a i→iv→v→i progression in C minor. Here’s how this progression sounds with root position triads.

C Minor Chord Progression

basic minor chord progression for piano
The piano chord progression i→iv→v→i in C minor is both accessible and captivating.

Later on in this lesson, you’ll learn how to transform the sound of this basic minor chord progression in to a much more arresting piano texture. However, as you can see, there is nothing inherently more difficult about this progression than a comparable progression with major chords, for example I→IV→V→I in C major (C major→F major→G major→C major).

Myth 3: Minor Keys Are For Advanced Piano Students

Sometimes, beginner pianists are mentally closed off to exploring minor tonality because they believe that “playing in minor keys is only for advanced students.” This mindset, when held persistently, will inhibit musical growth and understanding. Ultimately, you should seek your piano teacher’s guidance in determining when to begin exploring minor keys.  They may have good reasons to accelerate or delay this material. At PianoWithJonny, we believe that beginners have much to gain by exploring minor sounds early on. In fact, in our Beginner Piano Foundations Learning Track—Part 1, the first course covers C major and the very next course is A minor. The success of PJW students confirms that piano students of all levels can play in minor keys. In fact, learning to play in a minor key is a lot like learning to drive—very little of the information is useful until you get behind the wheel!

Now that we’ve dispelled these common myths about playing minor chord progressions on piano, let’s get you behind the wheel of The Most Beautiful Minor Chord Progression on Piano.

How to Transform Minor Chords for Piano

Admittedly, the i→iv→v→i minor piano chord progression as presented above was not necessarily breathtaking when demonstrated with root position triads. These are just the raw materials. In this section, you’ll learn how to spread out the chord tones and include additional notes that add harmonic color.

Play Minor 7th Chords Instead of Minor Triads

Earlier, we showed you 3-note minor chords for Cm, Fm and Gm. Remember, these 3-note chords are the most basic type of chords and are called triads. One way to beautify minor triads is to add a fourth note called the 7th. This added note should be a minor 7th interval above the root. Or, it is the same note you get when you stack an additional 3rd interval above the 5th of the chord. The resulting 4-note chord is called a minor 7th chord. The chord suffix for a minor 7th chord is “m7” or “-7” (ie: Cm7 or C-7).

3 Ways to Find a Minor 7th Interval

Perhaps you’re not 100% sure how to build a minor 7th interval yet. This skill is becomes rather easy once you have learned your major and minor scales. In that case, the minor 7th is the seventh note of the natural minor scale beginning on the root of the chord. Or, you can just think of the major scale built on the root of the chord and simply lower the seventh tone by a ½ step. However, if you’re not there yet, here are 3 quick methods you can use to be sure you are adding the right note when transforming a minor triad into a minor 7th chord.

    1. Add the note 10 ½ steps above the root of the chord.
    2. Add the note 3 ½ steps above the 5th of the chord.
    3. Go down a whole step below the root and take that note up an octave.

Take a moment to try each of these methods to determine which note needs to be added to C minor to get C minor 7. You can also repeat this process for Fm7 and Gm7. Then, check your answers below.

[Tap or click on each chord below to hear its sound.👆🖱🎹🔊]

Minor 7th Chords

minor piano chord progression: Replace Cm with Cm7

minor piano chord progression: Replace Fm with Fm7

Replace Gm with Gm7

Want to master minor 7th chords? Check out our Minor 7th Chord Theory and Application (Level 2) course where you’ll learn all 12 minor 7th chords, 4 tunes to practice them with, and the most common progressions using minor 7th chords.

Add 9th & 11th Chord Extensions

We can create even more beautiful colors on minor chords by adding a few additional notes beyond the 7th. We call these additional notes chord extensions. If we continue to build the chord upward by stacking 3rds, the next note is called the 9th because it is 9th scale tone above the root. The resulting chord is a minor 9th chord. Just be sure that that 9th is 1 whole step + 1 octave above the root. For example, Gm9 will require an A♮. Next, we can stack another 3rd above that and get the 11th scale tone above the root. The result is a gorgeous 6-note minor chord. In fact, an easy way to think of a minor 11 chord is that it contains 2 triads—a minor triad built on the root and a major triad built on the ♭7th. The diagram below illustrates Cm9 and Cm11 chord constructions.

Add 9th and 11th Chord Extensions for minor piano chord progression
Adding chord extensions of the 9th and the 11th gives your minor piano chord progression rich harmonic colors.

A note about compound intervals: a compound interval is any interval larger than an octave—such as a 9th or an 11th. Some students find it easier to “reduce” compound intervals to smaller intervals within the span of an octave. You can get the same notes for any compound interval by subtracting 7 from the compound interval. For example, the note that is a 9th above C is also a 2nd above C—the note D. Similarly, the 11th above C is the same note as the 4th above C—the note F.

The minor 9 and minor 11 chords we can use for the 1-chord, 4-chord and 5-chord in C minor are shown below.

[Tap or click on each chord below to hear its sound.👆🖱🎹🔊]

Minor 9th Chords

C minor 11 minor chord piano

F minor 11 minor chord piano

G minor 9 minor chord piano

Minor 11th Chords

C minor 11 minor chord piano

F minor 11 minor chord piano

G minor 11

Now that you’ve learned how to build minor chords up to the 11th, let’s discover how to apply these sounds to a beautiful left hand piano accompaniment pattern for our minor chord progression.

Also, be sure to check out Piano Chord Extensions (Level 2) for more examples on how to use chord extensions with major, dominant and minor chords.

Minor Piano Chord Progression Accompaniment

In the opening segment of today’s Quick Tip, Jonny demonstrates two beautiful left hand accompaniment patterns drawing on each color of a minor 11 chord. The first example features a luscious 16th note groove while the second example uses a flowing 8th note pattern.

16th Note Minor Accompaniment Groove

The example below shows the 16th note accompaniment pattern for Cm11 with blue labels indicating each chord tone and extension. (Note: R= root,♭3= minor 3rd , 5= perfect 5th, ♭7=minor 7th, 9=major 9th and 11=perfect 11th…aka perfect 4th.)

Cm11 Left Hand Piano Accompaniment
This beautiful accompaniment pattern draws on each of the rich colors of Cm11.

As we play through our minor piano chord progression of i→iv→v→i, we’ll use the same chord tones and extensions in our accompaniment for each chord. Since you now know how to build exquisite Fm11 and Gm11 chords, you can replace the notes below each blue label with the appropriate notes that corresponde to Fm11 and Gm11. Here are the patterns you should come up with:

Left Hand Accompaniment Pattern Fm11

Left Hand Accompaniment Pattern Gm11

8th Note Minor Accompaniment Groove

As an alternative, you can also play a flowing 8th note accompaniment pattern, which can be easier to execute while improvising. This pattern also uses each tone color of a minor 11 chord. Here are the 8th note patterns for Cm11, Fm11 and Gm11:

Cm11 8th Note Groove for minor piano chord progression

Fm11 LH 8th Note Piano Accomp Groove

Gm11 LH 8th Note Piano Accomp Groove

Great job! In the next section, you’ll learn beginner and intermediate piano improv techniques for soloing over this minor chord progression.

How to Improvise Over a Minor Chord Progression on Piano

Players of all levels can improvise amazing piano soundscapes with this minor chord progression using just one scale! The C natural minor scale sounds fantastic over Cm11 and Fm11. And for Gm11, we’ll just need to modify one note. Continue reading to find out which one…or perhaps you might already have a hunch?

C Natural Minor Scale

C Natural Minor Scale
Use the C natural minor scale to improvise placid piano melodies over the i→iv→v→i minor chord progression.

Note: when improvising over Gm11, change the A♭to an A♮ to better match the chord.

Now, let’s explore some beginner piano improv techniques using the C natural minor scale that will have you sounding great right from the start! Also, be sure to check out our Scales for Improv on Major and Minor Chords (Level 1–2) course for more tips, tools and techniques for soloing over major and minor chords.

Beginner Piano Improv Techniques

While you could simply meander up and down the C natural minor scale, there’s a much better way to get started improvising as a beginner. We use an improv technique called grips to help draw out your most creative ideas. Grips are fixed hand positions that contain only 3–5 notes only. By deliberate limiting the note choices up front, you free up you mind to focus more clearly on rhythm and phrasing. This almost always results in much more expressive ideas than someone who is constantly chasing too many notes. Another label for this approach is restrictive practice. However, don’t let that fool you…restrictive practice is liberating!

The first grip to explore is a “C Grip” containing the first 5 notes of the C natural minor scale: C-D-Eb-F-G. These five notes will work over each chord in our i→iv→v→i progression.

C Grip

C Grip for beginner piano improv
Grips are fixed hand positions that contain only a few notes—like this C Grip. Limiting the note choices frees beginners to focus on rhythm and phrasing which results in better sounding lines.

Next, try improvising in an “F Grip” containing the notes F-G-A♭-B♭-C. However, when you get to the Gm11 chord, you’ll need to swap out the A♭ for an A♮.

F Grip

F Grip for beginner piano improv
F-Grip for beginner piano improv on a i→iv→v→i C minor chord progression.

Now, let’s check out how you might uses grips to improvise a solo. The excerpt below from today’s Quick Tip video uses the notes of the C-Grip exclusively.

Sample Beginner Solo

Beginner Piano Improv on Minor Chord Progression
This beautiful sample improv from today’s Quick Tip draws exclusively on the notes from the C-Grip.

Intermediate Piano Improv Techniques

This section contains additional improv techniques for intermediate piano students. First, we’ll explore how you can use parallel 6ths to create beautiful harmonized improv melodies. Then, we’ll explore improv lines based on chord shapes.

Parallel 6ths

The technique of playing melodic fills and fragments with parallel 6ths is a popular contemporary piano sound. The examples in this section feature an overall descending shape because this sound is particularly common. However, you can play parallel 6ths in any direction.

The example below shows descending parallel 6ths over a Cm11 chord symbol. Note that the melody notes are the 7th, 5th, 3rd, 9th, and root of a Cm9 chord. Each of these intervals results in a colorful and consonant harmonic sound. (Note: The labels in each example use 2nd instead of 9th because the focus is melodic rather than harmonic. However, either label is correct.)

Descending Parallel 6ths Over Cm11
Parallel 6ths are useful for short piano fills in contemporary pop music.

The exercise  below will help you become proficient in navigating various common melodic shapes using parallel 6ths. Try to visualize the repeating pattern, which features melodic movement through various tones of Cm9 in the following manner:

  • Down to next adjacent tone
  • Downward leap skipping 1 adjacent tone
  • Up to next adjacent tone

Since there are five consonant 6ths intervals over Cm11, the pattern resets after 5 measures. However, you will most often use parallel 6ths in short melodic fragments of 2 to 4 notes.

Parallel 6ths Exercise on Cm11

Great job! Now, let’s explore another intermediate improv technique—chord shapes!

Chord Shapes

Professional pianists frequently improvise beautiful lines and fills using chord shapes. This approach to improvisation is similar to how we used grips in that both techniques draw on a limited number of notes. However, the difference is that chord shapes typically use groups of notes that would feel unnatural in the hand of a beginner pianist. Professional pianists are particularly fond of chord shapes containing tone clusters. A cluster is two or more adjacent tones in a chord shape that are either a ½ step or a whole step apart.

For example, you can use the various inversions of an E♭▵ 7 chord to generate melodic material over Cm11. This chord shape includes the 3rd, 5th, 7th and 9th of Cm11. To begin, practice blocking each inversion up and down the keyboard.

3-5-7-9 Chord Shapes

Intermediate Improv Using 3-5-7-9 Chord Shape
Chord shapes are clustery groups of curated chord tones used by professional pianists to create interesting melodic lines.

Next, try playing the following 16th note exercise that uses the 3-5-7-9 chord shape inversions over a flowing 8th note accompaniment.

16th Chord Shape 1 Exercise

Nice work! You’ll find that having these shapes under your fingers leads to improv lines that are creative and intriguing. Now, let’s try a slightly different chord shape.

7-9-3-11 Chord Shapes

Intermediate Improv Using 7-9-3-11 Chord Shape

The chord shape above is based on a B♭(add4) chord and includes the 7th, 9th, 3rd and 11th of Cm11. Once you’ve practiced blocking these shapes up and down the piano, try the following 16th note exercise.

16th Chord Shape 2 Exercise

Now, let’s examine how you might uses parallel 6ths and chord shapes to improvise a piano solo over our i→iv→v→i minor chord progression. Here is one possibility.

Sample Intermediate Solo

Intermediate Piano Improv Minor Chord Progression
Sample intermediate piano improv over i-iv-v-i minor chord progression using parallel 6ths and chord shapes techniques.

Conclusion

Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on The Most Beautiful Minor Chord Progression On Piano! Now that you have debunked the myths that beginner piano students believe about minor chord progressions, be sure to encourage others by sharing what you’ve learned.

Additional Minor Chord Progressions for Piano

Check out the following resources for more great piano content exploring minor chords and progressions:

Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.

 

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Writer
Michael LaDisa

Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...

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