Relative Minors (lesson)

Jump to: navigation, search

Hi All,

By special request from Radarlove1984, here is a lesson on relative minors.

Relative minors, what are they? First I'll give you a woolly description and then a more technical one.

A relative minor is a scale that is "related" to a major scale. You can regard them as being in the same family in that harmonically they work together well. Use of relative minors is a powerful tool in songwriting, as they provide a great way to move from a major to a minor key without too much of a jump or use of complex chord sequences. Some examples of major keys and their relative minors are:

C -> Am G -> Em D -> Bm E -> C#m

Try playing these as pairs of chords and you will see that they fit well together.

So much for woolliness, here is a more technical description:

The relative minor of a particular major scale is a scale that shares all of the same notes, but starts 6 intervals up. Firstly, what is an interval? That's tricky to answer exactly, and there will be a lesson on it shortly, but for now just treat an interval as a note in a scale. An example will make this a little easier to understand.

Let's look at the scale of C - a particular favorite of mine because it has no sharps or flats. It has the notes


An example of the scale on open strings looks like this:


Going up 6 notes, (C-D-E-F-G-A), we find that A is the relative minor of C. So the notes we will use for A minor are A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A. Let's look at that scale:


As you can see, although we start on the note of A, all of the notes also exist in the C major scale.

Taking it a step further, looking at the scale in terms of half and whole notes, as in the Major Scale 101 lesson, for a relative minor we would use the formula:

W H W W H W W, or

2 1 2 2 1 2 2

You can use this formula to work out the relative minor scale for any major scale by starting at the 6th note and applying it.

Now, to wrap up, we will briefly mention a couple of fascinating facts about Relative Minors. Firstly, in western music there are actually three different minor scales - they differ slightly in the formula they use. The scale above is actually a "Natural Minor" or "Pure Minor" scale - two names for the same thing. In case you are wondering, the other two are called "Harmonic" and "Melodic". Since these two differ in their formulae, they do not share the same notes as the associated relative major scale and are harmonically speaking not such a good match as the Natural Minor.

And finally, the Natural Minor (or Relative Minor) scale of a particular major scale, is also known as the "Aeolian Mode". Modes are a concept that we will discuss in a future lesson, but for now, you can tell everyone that you now understand Relative Minors, Pure Minors, Natural Minors, and the Aeolian mode - not bad for one short lesson!

Enjoy relative minors, and as ever, all and any feedback is welcome!