In music, some scales and keys are closely related to other scales and keys.
If you’ve studied music theory, you may have heard the terms relative and parallel. These are two of the most common ways to show a relationship between two different keys, especially minor keys.
What is a relative key? What is a parallel key? And how do we figure out which is which? In today’s post, we’re going to take a closer look at the differences between relative and parallel keys.
Before we get started, let’s review the major and minor scales and keys.
Scales and Keys
In music, a scale is a series of notes that are played in order of pitch. This scale could be ascending (going higher) or descending (going lower).
For example, here is a C major scale written in music:
The notes in a C major scale are C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and C.
In C Major, the C is called the tonic. It’s the starting note in the scale, and it is “doh” in the solfege.
A scale starts at the tonic note and goes up or down from there.
The difference between a scale and a key is that a key uses the notes from a scale, but in a different order.
If the notes are in order, it’s a scale. If the notes are not in order (like in a song, for example), it’s a key.
The song “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham! is a good example of a song in the C major key. Notice how most of the notes fit on the C major scale, but they aren’t sung in order.
Now that we’ve reviewed the difference between scales and keys, let’s talk about major and minor scales.
What’s the Difference Between Major and Minor Scales?
Scales and keys can be either major or minor. So how do we tell if a scale is major or minor?
Major and minor scales have different patterns of whole steps and half steps (tones and semitones).
In a major scale, this pattern of whole steps (W) and half steps (H) goes like this:
W – W – H – W – W – W – H.
Using tones (T) and semitones (S), that looks like:
T – T – S – T – T – T – S.
With minor scales, it gets a bit tricky, because there’s more than one type of minor scale. The most common minor scale, the natural minor scale, follows this pattern:
W – H – W – W – H – W – W.
Or in tones and semitones, T – S – T – T – S – T – T.
Every major or minor key has a corresponding relative and parallel key, that’s the opposite kind. A major key has a minor relative key, and a minor parallel key. A minor key has major relative and parallel keys.
So what is a relative key?
Relative Key Definition
When we’re looking at a page of sheet music, we usually figure out the key by looking at the key signature.
The key signature is found in the space to the right of the treble clef. Here, you might see either sharps or flats. This tells you what key that the music is in.
(The A minor key signature and C major key signature do not have any sharps or flats.)
Here’s an example of an A major key signature, with three sharps:
Every time signature stands for two different keys. For example, this key signature with three sharps could stand for A major, but it could also stand for F# minor.
Out of the two scales that share a time signature, one is always major and one is always minor. These are the relative scales (or relative keys) of each other.
F# minor has a relative major key of A major. A major has a relative minor key of F# minor.
How to Find Relative Minor Keys
So how do you figure out which keys share the same time signature?
Starting with your original chord, find the tonic. In A major, the tonic is A.
Once you find your tonic, count down three half steps, or semitones.
In our example with A major, we count down three semitones from A. So we go from A, to G#, G, and F#.
So our relative minor is F# minor.
Also, if you happen to know all the notes in your chosen scale, the 6th note will always be the root of the relative scale.
In the A major scale, we have A – B – C# – D – E – F# – G# – A. The 6th note here is F#.
Or if we do another example, D major is D – E – F# – G – A – B – C# – D. As you can see, the 6th note is B. So the D major relative minor is B minor.
Table of Relative Keys
For your reference, here’s a table of the different key signatures and their related scales:
|7 flats||Cb Major||Ab Minor|
|6 flats||Gb Major||Eb Minor|
|5 flats||Db Major||Bb Minor|
|4 flats||Ab Major||F Minor|
|3 flats||Eb Major||C Minor|
|2 flats||Bb Major||G Minor|
|1 flat||F Major||D Minor|
|No flats or sharps||C Major||A Minor|
|1 sharp||G Major||E Minor|
|2 sharps||D Major||B Minor|
|3 sharps||A Major||F# Minor|
|4 sharps||E Major||C# Minor|
|5 sharps||B Major||G# Minor|
|6 sharps||F# Major||D# Minor|
|7 sharps||C# Major||A# Minor|
Hopefully this table is helpful to you. Now let’s go over how to find a parallel scale.
What is a Parallel Scale?
Thankfully, parallel scales are super easy to find.
The parallel key shares the same tonic note as the original key. This means that all you have to do is change the word “major” into “minor.”
If we start with E major, the parallel minor is E minor.
With A minor, the parallel major is A major.
Easy, right? The tonic note stays the same, so we literally just change it from the major to the minor scale.
That’s how to find the parallel minor or major of a scale.
However, it’s important to know that once you find the parallel key, the key signature will be different than the one you started with.
For example, let’s say you start out with C major. The parallel scale of C major is C minor.
But if you take a look at our chart in the section above, you’ll see that C major and C minor have different key signatures. C major has no sharps or flats, while C minor has three flats.
How do we find the key signatures for our parallel keys?
Key Signatures for Parallel Keys
There are two different ways to find the key signature of a parallel key.
The first method is to count three semitones up from the tonic.
So if we start with E minor, the tonic is E, and we count up three semitones (half steps), F, F#, and G. E minor has the same key signature as G major.
The second method is to count and subtract the sharps/flats in the key signature.
First, count the sharps/flats in your major key signature. Then subtract three sharps/flats, and that’s your parallel minor key signature.
Here’s an example. E major has 4 sharps. Subtract 3 of them, and that’s your key signature for E minor.
C major has 0 flats. Since we started with 0, we now add 3 flats (instead of the normal subtraction), and now we know that C minor has 3 flats.
Practice using both of these methods (counting up 3 semitones or subtracting 3 sharps/flats), so you can learn both of them.
Summarizing Relative and Parallel Minors
To summarize, here’s a one-sentence summary of relative and parallel minor keys.
The Relative Minor keeps the same key signature as the starting key, but with a different letter name and tonic. (C major -> A minor)
The Parallel Minor keeps the starting note (tonic), but changes the key signature. (C major -> C minor)
I hope this article helps you learn more about the differences between relative minors and parallel minors! If you have any questions, leave a comment and let me know.