Relative Minor and Relative Major Scales

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The relative minor scale is widely used in improvisation because it allows more ideas for the solo. Every improviser who has learned how to use the major and minor scales must learn, right after that, how to use the relative minor scale.

Few concepts in music theory have provided me with an “aha” moment quite like learning about the relative minor and relative major scales. The understanding of the relationship between the two brings quite a bit of clarity to learning major and minor scale patterns and sets the groundwork for exploring the concept of modes.

What Are Relative Major and Minor Scales?

This is definitely something you should know. I always try to link any music theory idea with how it’s used in the real world of music. Some concepts are more useful than others and relative major and minor scales show up a lot. This video lesson explains what they are and how they are used in music.

You can create basslines and write your own music with this powerful tool. One cool thing about relative major and minor scales is that, if you know one scale already, you already know the other. Just shift position and play the same notes and you’ll have the other scale. Read on (or watch the video) for clarification.

Why is it Useful to Know Relative Major and Minor Scales?

The main reason to know the relation between major and minor scales is it makes memorizing a lot of essential things in music easier. You only have to memorize 12 scales to know all 24 keys used in music.

If you’ve studied the circle of fifths in the harmony section, you’ll notice the relative minor scales listed right beneath the major scales. They’re the same set of notes and have the same key signature.

Not only are the notes the same between relative scales, but so are the diatonic chords.

You’ll also see that many songs bounce back and forth between the major key and its relative minor or vice versa.

So, knowing the scale relations will really simplify memorizing a lot of essential stuff, and help you understand keys, chord progressions and songs better.

But what is the Relative Minor Scale?

Think of a major scale, for example, the C major scale. The C relative minor scale will be the A minor scale. As a rule, the relative minor scale of a major scale is the minor scale of the sixth degree of that tonality. Speaking like this seems confusing, but it is quite simple in practice. Since we were in C, the sixth degree is A, so just play A minor.

Note: if you are still a little lost on this subject of degrees, read the article “What are degrees?” again.

Well, as you can see, we are not learning any new scales here. This scale is nothing more than the natural minor scale we have seen; we are just creating a sixth degree link in relation to the first, and soon you will understand why.

If you take the C major scale and compare it with the A minor scale, you will see that they have exactly the same notes. That is, the major scale has a relative minor scale that is identical to it. Incredible, isn’t it? That is why the denomination “relative” is used. Compare below, for example, the C major x A minor and G major x E minor scales:

  • C major scale: C, D, E, F, G, A, B
  • A minor scale: A, B, C, D, E, F, G
  • G major scale: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#
  • E minor scale: E, F#, G, A, B, C, D

This is extremely useful! It means that we can use the A minor scale to solo a song whose tonality is C major. That is, whenever we have a major tonality, we can think of two scales: the major scale of that tonality and the relative minor scale of that tonality. This increases our options when thinking about the solo.

Overview of the Basic Theory of Scale

The major and minor scales are built on 7 intervals, or degrees, and both scales follow a given pattern of whole steps (2 semitones) and half steps (1 semitone).

Major Scale = W W H W W W H

Minor scale = W H W W H W W

Each degree of the scale creates a chord quality that is determined by the addition of thirds.

UPPERCASE = Basic

LOWERCASE = Secondary

Scale Degree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Major I ii Iii IV V vi vii?5
Minor i ii?5 III iv v VI VII

Relative Minor and Relative Major

Relative scales are major and minor scales that share the same notes and chords, and therefore the same key signature. Every major scale has a relative minor scale and every minor scale has a relative major scale.

Finding the Relative Minor Scale

The relative minor scale of any major scale is always the 6th degree of the major scale. To find the relative minor scale, we need to list the notes in the major scale and find the 6th interval of that scale. Let’s take a look at some examples.

Relative Minor of C Major

To find the relative minor of C major, let’s list the notes of the C major scale.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
C D E F G A B

From the table above we can see that the 6th degree of the C major scale is A, which means A minor is the relative minor of C major.

If we follow the whole-step/half-step pattern of the minor scale from above, you can see the notes of the A minor scale are the same as the notes for the C major scale.

Looking at a two-octave scale pattern for both C major and A minor on the fretboard helps drive this home.

Both scales share the same seven notes. The only difference is the root note upon which the scale is built.

If we take this a step further and harmonize the scale, we see that the A minor scale consists of the same chords as the C major scale.

Scale Degree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
C Major C Dm Em F G Am Bm?5
A Minor Am Bm?5 C Dm Em F G

Tonal Center

So if these scales share the same notes, what’s the difference between playing in the key of C major and the key of A minor? The difference is the tonal center, or the tone which the music is centered around.

You can use the exact same chords, scales etc. for both keys, but the tonal center will determine the key.

If the music is centered around a C major chord progression or melody, you would consider the key to be C major. Conversely, if the music is centered around an A minor chord progression or melody, the key would be A minor.

Finding the Relative Minor on the Fretboard

There’s a quick and easy way to find the relative minor of a major scale using the guitar fretboard. Because the relative minor is always the 6th degree of the major scale, their intervalic relationship never changes.

To put this another way, the root note of the relative minor scale is always in the same location relative to the root of the major scale.

For example, the C relative minor chord is the sixth degree chord of the C major key, that is, Am (or Am7). Another example: suppose the tonality is G major. The relative minor of G will be Em (or Em7).

As the relative chords have an affinity with each other, they can be exchanged for one another.

On the guitar, you can find the root of the relative minor down three frets from the major root. We can confirm this using the C major pentatonic scale.

Now that we know how to find the relative minor of a major, let’s take a look at a few more examples.

Relative Minor of G Major

If we list out the notes of the G major scale and take the 6th degree, we see that the relative minor is E minor.

Scale 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
G Major G A B C D E F#
E Minor E F# G A B C D

Relative Minor of A Major

Listing out the notes of the A major, we find the relative minor is F#.

Scale 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
A Major A B C# D E F# G#
F# Minor F# G# A B C# D E

Finding the Relative Major Scale

Similar to taking the 6th degree of the major scale to find the relative minor, we can take the 3rd degree of the minor scale to get the relative major.

Relative Major of B Minor

For this example, we’ll find the relative major of B minor. Let’s start by listing the notes of the B minor scale.

Scale 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
B Minor B C# D E F# G A

From above, we can see that the third note of the B minor scale is D, which means D is the relative major of B minor.

Finding the Relative Major on the Fretboard

Since we know that the relative minor can be found by taking the major root and counting three frets down, we can find the relative major by taking the minor root and counting up three frets.

Using the B minor pentatonic scale, we can confirm.

Memorizing the Relative Scales

Part of your essential basic knowledge as a musician is memorizing all of the major and minor keys (scales). For more on this, study the harmony section. There are 12 major keys and 12 minor keys. If you memorize the 12 major keys well, you will be able to quickly figure out the relative minor keys.

Memorizing the keys takes some work. There aren’t many useful shortcuts. You just have to spend time reviewing them every chance you can. Pick a key or two and focus on them. Start with the keys you find yourself playing in most often. If you work with guitarists a lot, they tend to use a lot of sharp keys (G, D, A, E, B). Horn players favor flat keys (F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db).

Think about the note names as you practice your scales?don’t just think about finger patterns. Work on reading music. It’ll force you to concentrate on the note names, not fret numbers. Recite the note names of keys whenever you have down time standing in line somewhere, in the shower, etc. All of this will help you memorize the keys.

A few relative scales are easy to remember once you get going. If you already know G major and E minor are relative, you should notice Gb major and Eb minor are relative?they’re just a half-step down. Likewise, C major/A minor gives you Cb major and Ab minor and C# major and A# minor. They’re just offset by one note. See which others you can find.

Relative and Composing Using Relative Keys Chart

You can see that it is easy to work out what the relative major/minor of a key is.  However, you do need to know how many sharps/flats are in the related keys in order to be able to use them in your composition.

Changing key from the relative major to the relative minor is a great way of introducing contrast in a piece of music.  It can also provide a clear sense of structure to a piece.

Have a look/listen to this example.  It is a piano piece called Prelude 18 – The Lily.  You can see/hear how the piece starts in A major.  It then modulates to the relative minor – F sharp minor.

I don’t have to use any pivot chord or modulating section of music as the two keys have the same key signature.  This creates a contrasting section with a more melancholic feel before modulating back to the relative major for the concluding section.

How to Use Relative Minor in Your Music

1. Key change

Changing keys during a song is a great way to freshen up your sound and keep listeners interested.

But creating a smooth modulation can be a theoretical workout. Luckily, the relative minor is one of the simplest and most natural keys to change to mid-song.

If you need to explore a new harmonic area and you’re not sure where to go, the relative minor should be first on your list.

3. Aeolian mode

As I mentioned, the relative minor scale without any alterations is equivalent to the natural minor, or aeolian mode. It comes from the modes of the major scale.

Aeolian is a unique sound on its own to try in your songs.

This scale sounds more neutral and static than harmonic minor or melodic minor due to its whole step intervals and lack of leading tone.

It also contains some characteristic chords that can help you play with listener’s expectations and create interest.

The relative minor scale without any alterations is equivalent to the natural minor, or aeolian mode.

Here’s an example of how the minor V chord found in the Aeolian mode can bring a different feel to a song. Listen for it in the chorus of this classic hit.

3. Borrowed chords

It’s important to play chords from the home key for your song to sound pleasing and harmonious.

But only writing songs using the diatonic chords can get a bit stale after a while.

Some of the best chord progressions actually use chords taken from a different key. One especially common technique is to borrow chords from minor scales in a major home key.

As I’ve shown, chords from the relative minor are equivalent to the diatonic chords in the home key.

But there are plenty of other interesting minor options out there! For example, the parallel minor—or the minor key with the same letter name as the home key—offers some convenient options.

The most common choice is the minor IV chord, but you can experiment with others as long as you know the chords the key. Just pick any from the related major key to know which to use!

Conclusion

To summarize, the relative major/minor are scales contain the same notes and chords and thereby share the same key signature. The relative minor is the 6th degree of the major scale and the relative major is the 3rd degree of the natural minor scale.

The key of a piece of music is determined by the tonal center, the predominate tonality of the music. This is an important point to remember when learning about modes. All modes contain the same notes/chords of their parent scale and the tonal center will determine the mode that is being played.

FAQ for Relative Minor and Relative Major Scales

What is a relative minor scale?

A relative minor scale is a minor scale that starts on the sixth degree of the major scale. It is also called a relative natural minor scale.

The relative minor key is the key in which the corresponding major key’s relative minor has its tonic note.

For example, if C is the tonic note of a C major scale, then A-flat would be the tonic note of an A-flat major scale.

What is a relative major scale?

A relative major scale is a major scale that has the same tonic as a given minor scale.

For example, if we have a C minor scale, then the relative major is C major.

How are relative major and minor scales different from each other?

The major scale is a series of notes that are based on the sound of a major chord. The minor scale is a series of notes that are based on the sound of a minor chord.

The major scale is made up of seven different notes, while the minor scale consists of six different notes. The difference in these two scales is that the third note in the major scale is one semitone higher than the third note in the minor scale.

How are relative scales different from major scales?

Major scales are based on the major scale pattern of WWHWWWH. Relative scales are based on the major scale pattern of W-W-H-W-W-H. Relative scales and major scales are used to play melodies in Western music.

What are the steps for constructing a relative minor scale?

There are a few steps to constructing a relative minor scale.

1) Determine the root note of the scale.

2) Determine the interval for the first note of the scale.

3) Determine which key signature to use.

4) Follow these steps for all other notes in the scale:

a) Find the note on a piano keyboard, starting on C and going up one octave (C-D-E-F-G-A).

b) Find that note’s corresponding number on your list of intervals (1, 2, 3, 4).

c) Add that number to your root note and find its relative minor key signature.

Why is it important to know the difference between relative minor scale one relative major scale?

In music, the term “key” identifies a particular set of notes that can be used to form chords and scales. It is important to know the difference between them because one scale might sound better than another. For example, if you are playing in the key of C major, and you want to play a C minor chord, you need to know which relative minor scale is used in that key.

The relative minor scale is the same as the major scale but with a lowered 3rd and 7th note. This means that if you are playing in C major, then A minor is your relative minor.

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