Few concepts in music theory have provided me with an “aha” moment quite like learning about the relative minor and relative major keys. The realization of the relationship between the two brings quite a bit of clarity to the learning major and minor scale patterns and sets the groundwork for exploring the concept of modes.
If you don’t know the major and minor scales, you should check out the following lessons prior to going through this one:
Basic Scale Theory Review
Major and minor scales are built upon 7 intervals, or degrees, with both scales following a set 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 produces a chord quality that is determined by stacking thirds.
UPPERCASE = Major
lowercase = Minor
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 of a given major 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.
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.
As you can see, 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.
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.
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.
Relative Minor of A Major
Listing out the notes of the A major, we find the relative minor is F#.
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.
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.
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.
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