In a similar manner to the way that we use "sex" to differentiate male and female, I want to find the best word to differentiate major and minor.

The Wikipedia page on the subject did not use any such word in its explanation. Nor did anything in the search engine results I looked through. That doesn't sound promising, but at the same time, I would be surprised if there was truly no word for this, as music is filled with so much terminology. It seems to have a word for every teeny tiny little nuance of the subject, if there is no word to refer to whether something is major or minor, it wouldn't seem characteristic of itself.

Here is a sentence to work with:

This composition's ______________ is minor.

Much like:

This person's sex is male.

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    Incidentally, the German word for this is actually Tongeschlecht (“tone gender”). May 8, 2018 at 13:45
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    This question might be more appropriate for Music: Practice & Theory.
    – Barmar
    May 8, 2018 at 19:45
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    The word gender is defined: the state of being male or female. It was used appropriately by the OP as he was not asking a question about biology. I just thought I'd throw that in, I have nothing against "sex" per se, and think it also fits.
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 9, 2018 at 6:39
  • I believe it's actually quite common to use French, German, or Italian words within English-language writing about music. I would be inclined to use the word Tongeschlecht as defined in the comment above. You might have to define the word for the benefit of many of your readers first; but if you cannot make it worthwhile to define the word you put in the blank, maybe it's better to just reword the entire passage to avoid this construction.
    – David K
    May 10, 2018 at 3:40
  • Obviously, this question is about the English language. However, you're asking about a technical term within a particular field and it would make more sense to ask the question on Music: Practice & Theory: you want answers from experts on musical terminology, not answers from experts on the English language. May 10, 2018 at 17:31

9 Answers 9


It's called a tonality.

Every tonality has its own special group of notes called a scale. The scale is a specific arrangement of notes. The arrangement of these notes is how we're able to identify a scale, both aurally and visually. The two most common tonalities in Western music are the major tonality and the minor tonality. You may think that 'major' and 'minor' are just words that go at the beginning of classical music pieces, but these words can help us describe the emotions we hear within the music.

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    Excellent answer, but see my comment below on why this general term might be too general depending on the intended audience. May 8, 2018 at 19:03
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    Interesting: the French work for 'key' in this situation is - 'tonalite'... Yes, I'm aware it's an English language site!
    – Tim
    May 9, 2018 at 11:26

It's "mode." Major and minor are two modes, others are Phrygian (e.g., Symphony of Psalms mvmt I), myxolidian and others.

"Tonality" is an historically valid description, it's just not what's needed here.

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    Great answer! To further prove your point, and to increase the reliability of the answer, ensure to include relevant links like definitions, to support your response! May 8, 2018 at 13:35
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    I'm not sure I agree with this. Mode is specifically a property of a melodic scale, whereas tonality is a more general description of the music as a whole, including harmonies. Folk tunes often use Mixolydian mode whilst being in major tonality, or Dorian mode with minor tonality. Blues could be said to have major tonality but use a minor scale. May 8, 2018 at 13:42
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    Modality and tonality are different concepts; major and minor are not modes as such. True, the ionian mode looks a lot like a major scale, and aeolian looks something like minor, but they're different animals and come with different sets of implications.
    – Théophile
    May 8, 2018 at 20:39
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    @Jules Who are “most people”? I reckon most people don't actually know what they mean by either major or minor (even if they read tunes they sing e.g. in church). They'll perhaps just notice “this sounds sad, it must be minor”. Then there are many who can play a few chords on guitar or piano; what they mean by “the piece is major” is that it uses mainly major chords – tonality, not mode. Next, there are amateurs who play a classical melody instrument. For them, major vs minor is defined by what the piece says in its title (the actual scales usually vary a lot over the course of the piece). May 9, 2018 at 9:49
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    This is inaccurate, as there is no mode in this context called "major" or "minor". There are major/minor sounding modes, but none actually named as such. The modes that typically represent what western society interprets as major or minor are Ionian and Aeolian modes. I do not have enough cred here to downvote this answer, otherwise I would.
    – gtr1971
    May 10, 2018 at 13:26

Normally you would say: "The composition is in a minor key". In theory you could say "The composition's key is minor", but this is not idiomatic and sounds clumsy.


I believe the word is Key. Although it includes more than just major or minor, it also includes the pitch, such as C minor, D minor, which are different keys and are usually specified together with whether it's major or minor. I'm fairly certain that more generally it can be used to refer to just major or minor.

"A minor key"

"The composition's key is minor."

Edit: just saw the answer above mine, tonality is the right word, it's more precise than key.

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    I think 'key' is used far more by musos. 'It's in a minor key' is more common when discussing songs. Although technically, tonality is the better word.
    – Tim
    May 8, 2018 at 9:20
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    @NickL. That is wrong. In English "key" and "tonality" are synonyms.
    – fdb
    May 8, 2018 at 12:48
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    It would be proper to say "The composition is in a minor key", but "The composition's key is minor" sounds a tad stilted ... or naive, to the trained musician at least. May 8, 2018 at 19:02
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    We are looking for a word that can be substituted for X in the question "What X is this piece written in", such that the possible answers include "major" and "minor". "Key" doesn't fit the bill, because the answers would then be "B minor" etc. May 9, 2018 at 22:24

Since the question asks for precision, I think the answer really depends on the level of precision needed for the descriptive task at hand.

For the context of a whole composition, I agree with samgak's answer that tonality best expresses the idea. (For something less precise, you could use mood.)

For the context of analyzing a composition more deeply, you would then proceed to identify the key (or keys if the piece undergoes modulation). And if the piece made use of a mode other than Ionian or Aeolian, that would certainly be relevant at this level. The specific note of the key is usually known at this level, otherwise the indefinite a major/minor key achieves the same level of detail as modality sort of by subtraction IMO.

In the smaller context of a single chord, you might say that it had a major or minor character or mood.

In the still smaller context of an interval between two notes, such as major/minor seconds, thirds, sixths and sevenths, I think mode comes around again as a candidate. Also, disposition or even flavor.


The composition's TIATR is minor.

Where "TIATR" is pronounced a bit like "theatre" and stands for "third interval above the root".

Because, like, that's what is minor: the third interval from the root note of the key that the thing is in.

Other degrees of the scale may be minor. If the sixth and seventh are minor, we have the Aeolian mode. If we raise the sixth, then we have Dorian. Both are minor flavors. In the harmonic and melodic minors, we find a major seventh (leading tone). What the minors have in common is that flat TIATR.

Yes, this is a joke; there aren't any references.


schema.org use musicalKey and it's describe as:

The key, mode, or scale this composition uses.

IMHO, it's more "large" term than you need.

musicbrainz.org and musicontology.com give me unsatisfactory answers.


In the context you're using the term "minor", the appropriate word to fill in the blank would be "key", or possibly "tonality" - but not "mode" or "scale" - as complete works are never described as being in a "scale", and there is no mode actually named "Minor". The modes westerners think of as major or minor are the Ionian and Aeolian modes, but there are caveats as to how they are used which brings us back to "tonality" instead of "modality". Tonality implies a "tonal center", and "key" implies a tonal center along with harmonic rules that reinforce that tonal center.


It is 'mode' and there are 7 of them: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian.. Ionian is MAJOR. Aeolian is MINOR.

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