Musicians will know that there is a close relationship between some keys and scales. But they might not completely understand what that relationship is. One of those relationships can be described as Relative or Parallel keys and scales.
They are different, of course. But what is the difference between Relative minor and Parallel minor, and how do they work? Let’s take a look at Relative vs Parallel Minor.
An Instinctive Link
Some keys and scales are related. An example of this is when you have a parallel key and a relative key. Maybe as a musician, your music theory is a bit sketchy, but still, you will be familiar with these.
There is an instinctive link between chords that we all just seem to know exists. It is common in all forms of music. To use an example, if you play a ‘C’ chord, how easy does it feel to move to an ‘A minor’? Or possibly if you play ‘F’ and then go to a ‘D minor’?
And what about a ‘G’ to an ‘E minor.’ These are what are known as Relative minors. Minors that ‘relate’ to a major key or scale. There are, of course, also Parallel minors. We are going to look at both. But before we do, let’s just remind ourselves about the major and minor keys and scales.
How Strange, the Change, from Major to Minor
A scale is simply a number of pitches or notes that are played in a fixed order. That order can be descending or ascending. For example, the scale of ‘C major’ ascending has the notes of C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and C. Descending they simply follow the reverse order.
In that scale, the ‘keynote is C,’ also known as the ‘Tonic.’ A “Musical Key” is the use of those notes but not necessarily played in the fixed order of the scale.
Major to Minor
A Major scale differs from a Minor scale in the way it is constructed. That is, the tones, or whole steps, and the semitones or half steps between the notes.
As an example, the major scale ascending will follow a pattern of going up by Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, and Semitone. The natural minor scale incorporates a minor or flattened third. Thus the pattern for the ascending scale is Tone, Semitone (the flattened or minor 3rd), Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, and Tone.
Furthermore, every Minor key has a Relative and a Parallel key, and likewise, so does every major key. Let’s look first at a Relative Minor.
The Relative Minor
The number of flats or sharps in the key signature will allow us to determine the key the piece of music is written in. We will find this at the beginning of every barline (unless there is a key change).
Let’s look at an example. We will steer clear of using ‘C’ as it has no sharps or flats. Let’s use the key of ‘E major.’ The key signature of ‘E major’ is four sharps. For each major key and scale, there will be a minor scale with the same key signature. That is what we call the relative minor in music.
If we are aware of the key signature for the major scale, we can work out the Relative minor. There are two ways to identify the relative minor.
The First Way
The first way is that if you are aware of the notes in a major scale, just count up to the sixth note. That will be the keynote or tonic of the relative minor.
In the scale of ‘E,’ the scale notes are E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#, and E. The sixth note is C#. Therefore, the relative minor of ‘E’ is ‘C#.’
The Second Way
This is probably a little easier. Just go to the keynote, or tonic note and count down three semitones or half steps. Taking the ‘E’ as the keynote, three semitones down is again the ’C#.’ That gives you C# as the Relative minor to E major.
The Parallel Minor
In some ways, this is an easier scale to get to grips with. But as usual with music theory, there is always something. The Parallel minor has the same keynote or tonic as the Parallel major.
There is, therefore, no need to start counting semitones to work out what the parallel minor is from the major. The Parallel Minor of E Major is E Minor. Easy.
The Sting in the Tail
Unfortunately, very little in music is extremely easy. The Parallel key does not operate like the Relative key. In the Relative, they share the same key signature. In Parallel, obviously, they don’t.
The key signature for E major has four sharps. The Parallel is E minor which only has one sharp. As with the relative, there are two ways to work out the key signatures of a Parallel minor key.
The First way
Count up the number of flats or sharps in the key signature for the Major key you are looking at. Then take away three sharps or add three flats. That will give you the key of the Parallel minor.
A practical example shows that E major with its four sharps becomes a parallel E minor with only one sharp. Three sharps were taken away. Likewise, if you take a C major with no flats or sharps, it becomes C Minor which has three flats.
The Second Way
It’s the opposite action to finding the Relative. With the Relative, you will remember to find the key from E; we moved down three semitones to get a C#. To find the parallel, you do the opposite, and instead of moving three down, you move three semitones up.
To Sum Up
The Relative Minor will keep the same key signature that it has in the major key. It is just the keynote, or tonic note, where you start that changes.
The Parallel Minor, on the other hand, keeps the same keynote or starting note as its major counterpart. It is the key signature that changes.
I know this is a quick and dirty summary of Relative vs Parallel Minor scale and keys in music. So, if you need a bit of extra help, here are some music theory options to assist you.
- Music Theory 101: From keys and scales to rhythm and melody
- Scale Exercises in All Major and Minor Keys for Daily Study
- Music Lesson (How to Memorize Key Signatures) [Major Scale – Sharps]
Want to be a Better Musician?
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Relative vs Parallel Minor – Final Thoughts
It is a way of changing the mood of the music very quickly and easily. You can go from quite sad to happy almost instantly. This is a big asset for the composer. It also helps the progressions of the chords through the music. And it delivers a recognizable pattern and movement of the chords, which is often a good thing.
Until next time, let your music play.