relative major / relative minor scales

The idea of there being a relative major key to each of the minor keys, and vice versa, is one of the very cool properties created by the equal temperament system. So each of the 12 major keys has a relative minor? Yes. Pentatonic color too? Yep. Any scale? Well ... sorta yep. Anyway, how are the major / minor groups related? Any guesses? Right, they are related because they contain exactly the same pitches and thus in music notation, the same key signatures. Really? For sure. Check out the following idea. Example 1.

     C major   A minor

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Same exact pitches, two different tonalities. How? Well, creating both the major and minor tonalities from the same group of pitches is done by reshuffling the same intervalic configuration ( whole steps and half steps ) to create these two distinct and important colors. Here is a chart comparing the interval structure of the C major and A natural minor scale. Example 1a.

intervals   1 1 1 / 2 1 1 1 1 / 2
C major C D E F G A B C
intervals   1 1 / 2 1 1 1 / 2 1 1
A natural minor A B C D E F G A

Cool with this? Look familiar? This ability to create different colors based on reshuffling the intervals with one scale formula is a key aspect of our theoretical system. Remember your theories on the church modes? Is there a handy way to quickly find a groups relative major or minor color? Of course, were theorists, we can do anything. The rule of thumb for finding a major scale's relative minor is simply to locate the 6th scale degree of the major scale, the pitch of which becomes the root of it's relative minor. Example 1b.

scale degree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
C major scale C D E F G A B C

So, to find the relative minor of C major, we simply locate the 6th scale degree of the major scale, in this case the pitch A, and build our minor scale using the exact same group of pitches. Example 1c.

scale degree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
A natural minor scale A B C D E F G A

To find the natural minor scale's relative major, we simply find the 3rd scale degree, C in the above example, and build our scale using the same pitches. Example 1d.

C major scale


Cool? Like so much of the theory of equal temper, can we apply this concept to all of the 12 major / natural minor groups of pitches, i.e., we project the same theory from any and all of the 12 pitches of the chromatic scale? Exactly. Perhaps an idea so very hip and crucially important for the emerging, creative jazz musical artist. Why jazz? Well, tunes written in the other popular American styles for the most part use just one key, no modulation of tonal centers within the piece. Oh well.

As done so often with other musical resources in this text, we can arrange both of the 12 major and natural minor scales around the cycle of fifths / fourths. In this next graphic, we simply pair up major and minor keys and include their key signatures. Example 2.

cycle of fifths / 12 major keys cycle of fifths / 12 minor keys


With this in mind, lets combine the two graphics into one, show each of the 12 keys' relative major and minor pairings. Example 2a.

See the mistake in the graphic above ...? So why is understanding this relationship between relative major and minor keys potentially so important? Simply because the pairing of tonal environments is commonly found in the musical literature of what has come before us. In the world of American music and especially in the jazz style, using multiple key centers in one musical composition is very common. The reverse is also true, as say in the 12 bar blues form, but the vast majority of jazz tunes written in either of the structural forms of 32 bar A / B or A / A / B / A format generally go "somewhere" and "do something" keywise. Composers choose combinations of tonal centers to best create the perfect musical environment for their emotional statement. This pairing of keys is nothing new, as we saw when examining the melody of "Greensleeves", which dates as early as the 15th century.

Here is a brief list of standard jazz compositions whose thematic construction employs the emotional relationships created by pairing the relative major / relative minor tonal centers within one musical composition. Nearly all of these tunes are callable at most jazz sessions. Example 3.

"Autumn Leaves" "My Favorite Things"
"Blue Bossa" "Nica’s Dream"
"God Bless the Child" "Round About Midnight"
"Here's That Rainy Day" "Summertime"
"My Funny Valentine" "Take Five"

Most of these titles are contained within many commercially published real books and callable at jazz jam sessions. Been "sittin in" much?

With this in mind, lets get back to the theory of relative keys. Here is a quick reference chart pairing up the 12 major and natural minor keys including their # of accidentals. We'll use the cycle of fifths here to organize the chart. Example 3.

relative major relative minor relative major relative minor
C A Gb / 6 b's Eb / 6 b's
G / 1 # E / 1 # Db / 5 b's Bb / 5 b's
D / 2 #'s B / 2 #'s Ab / 4 b's F / 4 b's
A / 3 #'s F# / 3 #'s Eb / 3 b's C / 3 b's
E / 4 #'s C# / 4 #'s Bb / 2 b's G / 2 b's
B / 5 #'s G# / 5 #'s F / 1 b D / 1 b

Lets place these keys back on the cycle of fifths, this time including their key signatures. Example 3a.

           relative minor   relative major


Here is the sound of pairing the relative minor and relative major keys from the above charts into an 8 bar phrase. Use the extended midi file times to jamm along. Example 3b.

  A minor looping with it's relative C major

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  E minor looping with it's relative G major

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  B minor looping with it's relative D major

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  F# minor looping with it's relative A major

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  C# minor looping with it's relative E major

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  G# minor looping with it's relative B major

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  Eb minor looping with it's relative Gb major

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  Bb minor looping with it's relative Db major

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  F minor looping with it's relative Ab major

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  C minor looping with it's relative Eb major

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  G minor looping with it's relative Bb major

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  D minor looping with it's relative F major

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Like the idea? Possible melodic shape for scale studies? The range of pitches is oftentimes pretty extreme, the idea perhaps is to simply get as many as you can and look to expand if necessary for your music.

Where to next?
review new ideas
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"Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens." Jimi Hendrix