Have you ever heard someone use the term “relative key” and wondered what it meant? Or maybe they said something like “that was the relative minor scale!” These terms refer to something very specific in music theory. In this guide I will teach you everything you need to know about it in plain English!
The term “relative key” in music most often refers to a minor key that has the same key signature as a major key (or vice versa). Every major key has a minor key with the same amount of sharps or flats, and in fact, the same exact notes! Because of this similarity, these two keys or scales are considered to be in the same family. For example, the key of C major has no sharps or flats. Likewise, the key of A minor also has no sharps are flats. These two keys are relatives!
That is the basic definition of a relative key or scale. But now, let’s delve deeper to see them in practice.
Note: if you are teaching this concept to a child, definitely hone in on the family analogy! You can bring home that these keys are similar yet different, just like a family.
Relative Key vs. relative scale
Before we continue, let’s talk about the difference between a relative key and a relative scale. I tend to use the terms interchaneably, because they are pretty much the same thing.
A relative key is just a bit broader of a term, referring to a key as a whole. But a scale in this context refers to the 7 notes that make up any given key. So there really is no difference between the two when we are talking about finding the relative major or minor.
How do you find relative minor scales?
If you are in a major key and you want to find the relative minor, it is super simple.
All you have to do is go down 3 half steps from the root of the key.
For example, if I’m in G major, I would start on the note G. Then I would go down to F# (half step #1) then down to F (half step #2) and finally down to E (half step #3). Now that I’ve arrived on E, I know that the relative minor key is E minor!
You can see this visually in the photo below!
Here’s another example, this time with a harder key: B flat. Once again, count down 3 half steps to find the relative minor key.
Here is another way to think of it: the relative minor can be found on the 6th note of any major scale! So if you know your major scales well, you can simply count up to the 6th note and start there for the relative minor scale.
Below is an example of this using the G scale. You can see this way you don’t count in half steps anymore, you simply count up to the 6th note of the scale.
Note: I highly recommend figuring this out on a piano, because you can see the visual. You can do it by just thinking about it, but it is a little harder.
How do you find relative major Scales?
Now what about if you are in a minor key and you want to find the relative major? Lucky for you, this is pretty easy—it is just the opposite of what we did above.
This time, start on the tonic of the minor key, and go 3 half steps UP. The note you land on is your relative major key!
OR, again, you can use the minor scale. The relative major can be found on the 3rd note of any minor scale.
Chart of Relative Major & Minor Keys/Scales
Of course, if you want to cheat, I’ve made a little chart just for you! 😉 Here are ALL of the relative major and minor keys that there are. (Save the image farther down to Pinterest if you want to keep this handy!)
|C major||A minor|
|C#/Db Major||A#/Bb minor|
|D major||B minor|
|Eb major||C minor|
|E major||C# minor|
|F major||D minor|
|F#/Gb major||D#/Eb minor|
|G major||E minor|
|Ab major||F minor|
|A major||F# minor|
|Bb major||G minor|
|B/Cb major||G#/Ab minor|
Note that the chart above is in chromatic order; C, C#, D, etc. But it can also be helpful to think of these in order of how many flats/sharps they have (C & A minor have 0 sharps, G and E minor have 1 sharp, etc.)
That is the order I organized the list in below. Be sure to save it for later!
How Relative Keys are different
As we have already discussed, relative keys are considered family because they share the same notes and the same key signature.
But if they share the same notes, how are they different from each other?
Although relative keys are made up of the same notes, they have a different tonic. For example, the tonic of G major is G, while the tonic of E minor is E.
So they start on different notes. And interestingly, they sound pretty different too. Play a G major scale and you will think it sounds jolly and happy. But play an E minor scale and it will undoubtedly sound sad.
What about chords?
This whole concept of relatives can be applied to chords as well as scales! And you find them in the same way that we talked about above. Find the relative minor chord of C major by going to the 6th degree of the C major scale (so A minor).
Using Relative Scales and chords in music
Like the name suggests, relative major and minor scales work super well together. When you are improvising or composing on the piano, for example, you can easily switch to the relative minor for a quick and easy modulation.
For composing this is especially helpful because you usually have to add many accidentals, but you still get a great contrasting sound (happy to sad)!
How do you remember relative minor keys?
I have found that the best way to memorize your relative minor keys is to learn all your minor scales well.
Once you know your minor scales, you can practice them strategically to memorize the relatives.
When you warm up at the beginning of a practice session, start with a major scale, then play the relative minor scale. Repeat this processs as you do your scales, and make sure to take note of the name of each scale and the number of sharps or flats as you play!
What is the difference between parallel and relative keys?
Parallel keys are a completely different concept than relative keys! While relative keys have the same notes but a different tonic, parallel keys are the same tonic with different notes. Here are some examples of parallel keys:
- C and C minor
- D and D minor
- E and E minor
Relative major and minor keys are easy to find, especially when using a piano. Relatives have the same key signature, same amount of sharps or flats, and in fact the same exact notes as well! Once you have this concept down, you will see it everywhere, both in classical and modern music. You can even use it in your own compositions. I hope you enjoyed this article and learned something new; if you did, make sure to share it so others can find it too!