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I am confused on the difference on the actual notes between a relative minor and major key - Are the notes (as in the accidentals of the key signature that tell us which notes are sharp or flat) the same? (i.e., do we just play the notes of the natural minor/major scale?)

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Yes the notes are the same. The relative minor starts on the 6th degree of the corresponding major scale, and conversely, the relative major starts on the 3rd degree of the corresponding minor scale. This is true in all keys.

Dave Jacoby provided an example in C. Another would be G♭ Major and E♭ minor. Regardless of how complex the key signature is they are the same for each mode.

Now, playing in a minor key is not the same as playing a natural minor scale relative to a key. In the key of A minor we typically play harmonic or melodic minor to create proper cadences from V7 to the minor tonic (i). The harmonic minor has a sharp 7, A hm would be

{A, B, C, D, E, F, G♯, A}.

Melodic minor has a sharp 6 and 7 degree ascending and a natural set of intervals descending. In A this would be

(A, B, C, D, E, F♯, G♯, a) --> (a, G, F, E, D, C, B, A).

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    I think this is the best answer because it points out that keys and scales are not the same thing. Whether the scale is A natural, melodic, or harmonic minor, it's all in the key of A minor. – Peter Dec 15 '20 at 22:27
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Yes, the relative minor uses the same notes. E.g. relative minor to C major key with no accidentals in the signature, is A minor, with no accidentals as well. The corresponding scale is called natural minor, or aeolian.

There is however something interesting about minor key. If you use all diatonic notes (e.g. all notes without accidentals in A-minor), the chord on the fifth step, the dominant is a minor chord (e.g. e-g-b, Em chord in the key of A-minor). As the sound of major dominant chord is often preferred, the 7th step of the minor scale is often occasionally raised (g# in A-minor), which results in harmonic minor scale.

For further education you may want to learn about melodic minor, dorian and phrygian scales, all quite commonly used in minor keys.

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Please do not fall into the trap of thinking keys and scales are synonymous. They certainly aren't. And it appears this question assumes they are.

A key has a tonal centre - somewhere identifiable as 'home'. In major and minor keys, as well as modes, this is apparent in a lot of genres of music.

A scale is simply a set of notes put into order. That could be a set of five notes, often played as the pentatonic scale, up to all the notes, played as the chromatic scale - with lots in between. Those scales will usually have a root, which is the start and finish point used when playing them - for practice or exams, for instance.

Minor scales are confusing - as you find. There isn't just one set, like in the majors, but several. We talk about the relative minor, which is the one which contains at least its first five notes from the relative major. For example, C major scale - C D E F G A B C; relative Am - A B C D E * * A. IF we use the F and G from the relative major, then the scale gets labelled natural minor, for fairly obvious reasons.

However, from practical and musical points of view, those mystery * can be, and sometimes are, altered. In the harmonic minor, lacking a leading note one semitone below the root, means the G is changed to G♯. And that creates a jump between notes 6 and 7, so sometimes, note 6 (F) gets raised as well, to F♯. Making the melodic minor scale notes.

So, now, there are three distinct sets of notes for the minor, making three separate minor scales. All are relative to their relative major. All are legitimate to play, and often, all the notes are used in compositions. I suppose you could say that a 'composite' minor scale could be A B C D E F F♯ G G♯ A !

Those changed notes are never shown in the key signature though, so maybe, to be faithful, playing the relative minor should entail strictly using only those notes from the relative minor. But we find it's better to regard the relative minor, when played as a scale, to be three separate incarnations. At least, that's what is used for exam purposes, and most of us accept it as so.

Footnote: the melodic minor scale notes can vary! Classical use sharp 6 and 7 ascending, but revert to natural minor notes descending, whereas jazzers tend to use the ascending notes either way. Confusing? Certainly!

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Take the key of C major: C D E F G A B.

The relative minor is A minor: A B C D E F G

All the same notes. You'll anchor in on A more than C, because that's your new home, but no accidentals.

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  • 'the relative minor is A minor' - true, but why only A natural minor? Other notes, particularly G#, are often used in A minor. – Tim Dec 17 '20 at 8:11
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Sort of. C major - A natural minor. Same key signature, same notes.

But the natural minor scale isn't the only form. In modern jazz styles it might be considered the 'normal' form. In more traditional styles - including most of the vast heritage of Western music - the 'normal' minor scale is the harmonic minor, with a sharpened 7th note. That's G♯ in A minor. It happens as an accidental, it doesn't appear in the key signature.

I strongly suggest you don't try to learn music 'by numbers'. Get a repertoire. Embrace notation, read and play lots of existing music. Look at the melodies, not just the chords. Play the notes the composer wrote! It's his job to decide which, not yours.

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  • +1 The full context of all of the notes within a passage/phrase will ultimately determine whether natural/harmonic/melodic minor sounds the most appropriate. – Charlton Provatas Dec 16 '20 at 23:09
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This is a fascinating area and the more time you spend with it, the more variety you can explore.

[Disclaimer: My musical education is patchy, gained more from working with better musicians than myself, rather than formal study, so please excuse occasional stumbles]

One way to start looking at this is to consider modes. Modes are diatonic scales with different intervals, and a good way to look at the fundamental modes is to consider the white keys on a piano - the notes of the C major scale, if you like (but there's a couple of twists...). [Note: The names are related to a historical (mis)understanding of ancient Greek music, I believe, but I'm open to correction!]

Your "standard" C major scale is the white notes starting at C

C D E F G A B C

This can be called the 1st mode or Ionian mode.

If you start at D, you get the 2nd Mode or Dorian mode - it's the same notes, but a different "home" note. Here's the D Dorian mode

D E F G A B C D

Dorian mode is a minor mode, as the interval between the home note and the 3rd is a minor third. It occurs in some folk music, for example and is a favourite for Carlos Santana...

If you start at E you get the 3rd, Phrygian, mode. Here's E Phrygian

E F G A B C D E

Again this is a minor mode. It's fairly uncommon, in my experience.

If you start at F, you get the 4, Lydian, mode. Here's F Lydian

F G A B C D E F

Note that this is a major mode - from F to A is a major third. Some modern "melodic" guitarists, like Joe Satriani I believe, are fond of Lydian.

If you start at G, you get the 5th, Mixolydian, mode. Here's G Mixolydian

G A B C D E F G

Again this is a major mode. It's common in folk music and used a lot in Rock and Pop music. (There is a perennial debate about whether "Sweet Home Alabama" is in G Ionian or D Mixolydian...).

If you start at A, you get the 6th, Aeolian, mode.

A B C D E F G A

This is also termed the "natural" minor.

If you start from B, you get the 7th, Locrian, mode.

B C D E F G A B

This is a difficult mode and, in my experience, rarely used. The interval from B to F here is a flattened fifth (also termed tritone and the "devil's interval") which makes for uneasy listening, I think.

So you can see from the modes built on the white keys of the piano, we get 3 minor modes (Aeolian, Dorian, Phrygian), 3 major modes (Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian) and an oddity (Locrian - it's sort of minor, I guess).

Then we get into the harmonic minor and melodic minor - both of which build on the idea that the final interval in a scale seems more consonant if it's a half-step. Harmonic minor takes the natural minor (Aeolian) mode and sharpens the 7th, while melodic minor sharpens both 6th and 7th. As @Tim points out, the classical melodic minor only sharpens 6th and 7th on ascending, whereas jazz melodic minor stays sharp when descending as well.

Then we can get even more interesting! Harmonic and (jazz) melodic minors can also be the basis of modes [Note: I'm writing from my experience not decades of music theory education, so I'm not commenting on whether classical melodic minor could do the same!].

I've written quite a lot already, so I'll just give two examples.

  1. The "Altered Scale" referred to in Jazz terminology can be regarded as the seventh mode of a melodic minor scale. [Note: It can also be called "Super-Locrian", as it's the same as the Locrian mode, but with a flattened 4th].1
  2. The scale termed "Freygish" in Klezmer music (used in "Hava Nagila" and "Miserlou", among others) is the 5th mode of the Harmonic Minor. So for example, E Freygish would have the same notes as A Harmonic Minor - E F G# A B C D E. 2

Hope this brief(ish) overview helps a little.

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