Music Theory Part 4 – Relative Major/Minor Scales

Welcome to part 4 in our series on Music Theory.  So far we’ve covered tones and semitones, the major scale and the minor scale.
Today’s post is about relative major and minor scales.

This is a way of grouping scales in pairs of one major and one minor.  Thus we’re left with a pairing of a major scale and its relative minor, or a minor scale and its relative major.  (Depending on which way you look at it, ie. the 2 scales are relatives of each other)

  • To find a major’s relative minor, go to the 6th step of that major scale.  (Which also happens to be the note 3 semitones down from your major root).
  • To find a minor’s relative major. go the the 3rd step of that minor scale.  (Which also happens to be the note 3 semitones up from your minor root)

eg.1 Starting from C Major to find its relative minor : 

I        II        III        IV        V        VI        VII
C       D        E         F         G        A         B

So C major’s relative minor is A minor,  and equally therefore A minor’s relative major is C major, as we’ll see below.

eg.2 Starting from A minor to find its relative major :

I        II        III        IV        V        VI       VII
B        C         D        E        F         G

So A minor’s relative major is C major, and equally therefore C major’s relative minor is A minor, as we’ve already discovered.

So what we’re left with is the following system of pairings, shown in the table below:

Relative Major                                          Relative Minor

C                                                                A
C#/Db                                                        A#/Bb
D                                                                B
D#/Eb                                                        C
E                                                                C#/Db
F                                                                D
F#/Gb                                                        D#/Eb
G                                                               E
G#/Ab                                                        F
A                                                                F#/Gb
A#/Bb                                                        G
B                                                                G#/Ab

Whether you learn this systematically like times tables, or let it assimilate naturally as you gradually learn and improve, or just rely on working a relative out on the spot by moving up or down the right number of semitones or scale steps, doesn’t really matter.  What’s important is that you understand the core of this :

  • Scales are grouped in pairs of one major and one minor
  • The two in each pairing are said to be “relatives” of each other
  • To find a relative minor, go to step 6 of the major scale, or down 3 semitones
  • To find a relative major, go to step 3 of the minor scale, or up 3 semitones

Finally on this subject, let’s just touch on what exactly makes the relatives related, and why that might be useful to us, taking the pairing of C major and A minor as an example again.

C major scale – C  D  E  F  G  A  B

A minor scale – A  B  C  D  E  F  G

The notes in the two scales are the same.  The A minor scale is essentially the C major scale, but starting on A.  Equally, the C major scale is the A minor scale, starting from C.

So all that differentiates between something being “in” C major or being “in” A minor, is whether it is “C” or “A” that is perceived to be the “root” or “tonic”.  A song may have a very minor, sad feel, with heavy emphasis on an A minor chord, so you’d say that is in A minor, rather than C major.  And vice versa.

What’s important to understand, as it’s something that keeps coming up in the study of music theory, is that these two things are just different versions of the same thing.

If you have any questions,  find our teachers on twitter and ask away!

Next time, building chords and understanding “keys”

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