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Relative minor and major scales

If you have any experience with music theory, you’re probably familiar with the concept of scales. You may even understand the difference between a major and a minor scale. But do you understand how the scales relate to each other? Relative minor and major scales are pairs of scales that share the same key signature. The relative minor begins on the sixth degree of the major scale, while the relative major starts on the third degree of the minor scale. That may sound like a lot of technical talk, but we’ll break it down. In order to understand how it works, we need to start by explaining majors and minors.

At the most basic distinction, major and minor scales produce a different tone and feeling by using different starting points in the key signature. Major chords tend to be brighter, compared to the more subdued minor scales. Each scale has seven notes, but uses different intervals between the notes. Let’s use the example of a C major scale. C major would be the first note, or root note, with each subsequent note being a certain interval higher than the one before. Major and minor scales use different patterns of whole and half steps to progress through the notes. A C major scale contains the pitches C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. In order to find the relative minor scale for a C major scale, you begin at the sixth note—in this case, A. In the case of relative major scales, you would begin at the third degree of the minor scale. For example, A minor has a relative major of C. 

How to use them in real life

Illustration showing piano key layouts for different major and minor scales labeled with their respective keys

Understanding the technical definition of relative minor and major scales is one thing; knowing how to use them in music is another. When it comes to how to use relative minor scales, one of the main applications is infusing a piece with a certain mood or emotion. Relative minors are associated with a more somber mood, allowing the composer to imbue a range of emotion into a piece while maintaining a consistent key signature. Using chord progressions that move between the major and relative minor chords can also provide contrast to a composition. You can move from happy to sad within one piece of music while still retaining a core consistency. Relative majors and minors can also be used to build out harmonies and melodies. 

To come full circle

A common visual used in music theory to illustrate the relationship between minor and major scales is called the circle of 5ths. Moving clockwise around the circle adds sharps to the key signature while moving counterclockwise adds flats. Keys to the left and right of the key signature are the dominant and subdominant, respectively. Moving three positions to the right will indicate each major key’s relative minor. This too is used by musicians to easily understand chord progressions and modulations and is a great resource for anyone struggling to understand relative majors and minors. Whether you play violin, cello, or other stringed instruments, understanding the relationship between different chords and scales will help you bring new depth and range to your music.

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