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A book I'm reading Alfred's Essentials of Music Theory Minor Scales (pg 90-91) says

  • Every major key has a RELATIVE MINOR KEY that has the same key signature.

  • Each relative minor scale begins on the 6th note of the relative major scale.

  • The 6th note is the keynote of the minor scale and the note from which the scale gets its name.

  • the NATURAL MINOR scale uses only the tones of the relative major scale.

My question is this: Is there such a thing as a relative minor scale? The book doesn't answer this directly but (to me says) the term relative minor requires a major scale to which it refers to. And the scale associated with the relative minor Key is called the Natural Minor Scale.

For example, given the key of C major, the relative minor key is A.

Would you ever say,

  • play the relative minor scale A? Or play the A relative minor scale? To me this is ambiguous, because I could treat this as "play the A Natural Minor scale", or "play the scale that is the relative minor scale to A major", which would be the F♯ Natural Minor Scale.
  • Or would you instead say play the relative minor scale of C major?
  • Or is it more common to say play the A natural minor scale?
  • Or are all of them OK?

So my question is: Is there a scale called the relative minor scale?
Hopefully the above example provides context for the question.

Several questions surround this topic but I didn't find one that asked this specifically.

And several others

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6 Answers 6

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Is there a scale called relative minor?

No, not in the sense of scales called major, minor, chromatic, dorian, etc. Those terms are the names of the scales, and they provide a name to associate with the unique sounds of those scales. Major scales all share a certain quality of sound — a certain mood — that is distinct from, say, minor scales.

One can think of major, natural minor, harmonic minor, and other scales as the "proper name" of the scale, just as @Aaron is my name here and @PatS is yours.

Relative, and another term, parallel, describe relationships between scales. I am a sibling in one context ("relative" to my brother or sister), an employee in another ("relative" to my boss), and "parallel" to other people named "Aaron" (if you'll forgive a tortured attempt at an analogy).

  • Scales are relative when they share the same pitches (i.e., the same key signature), but have different starting notes. C Major and A (natural) Minor are relative scales. C major is the relative major scale to A minor. A minor is the relative minor scale to C major.

  • Scales are parallel when they share the same starting note but have different pitches (i.e., different key signatures). C Major and C minor are parallel scale, as are A major and A minor. C major is the parallel major to C minor; A minor is the parallel minor to A major.

Would you ever say ...?

  1. play the relative minor scale A? Or play the A relative minor scale? No.
  2. play the relative minor scale of C major? Yes.
  3. play the A natural minor scale? Yes.
  4. are all of them OK? Only (2) and (3).

If you want someone to play a scale, you'd just name the scale: (3). "Play A natural minor." (Unless it's a test of someone's knowledge of scale relationships.)

You'd most likely use (2) when describing a piece of music. "The piece starts out in major, but then moves to the relative minor before returning to major at the end."

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  • 'Parallel' isn't a relationship between you and boss - parallel means both major and minor use the same root. There must be a better analogy!
    – Tim
    Jan 17 at 8:48
  • @Tim Fix try #1.
    – Aaron
    Jan 18 at 4:17
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No, 'Relative minor' is not a type of scale any more that 'Next Door' is a type of house.

So you would never 'Play the A relative minor scale'. You might 'play the relative minor scale of C major' though.

Don't assume the 'relative minor' will always be a Natural Minor scale. Yes, the literal transformation of C major - the same notes as C major but feeling A as the tonic - is A Natural Minor. All the white notes, starting on A. But A Harmonic Minor (with G♯ instead of G♮) and A Melodic Minor (with F♯ and G♯ going up, all white notes coming down) are also relative minor scales of C major.

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  • As a piano student I learned the majors and harmonic minors first, so if I were asked to play a minor scale (without any other detail) I would default to playing the harmonic minor.
    – Peter
    Jan 17 at 11:03
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    Yes. When I started my musical journey in the 1950s, the Harmonic Minor was the standard form, with the Melodic Minor considered a modification of the True Scale! Natural Minor was barely mentioned. Did it have something to do with that 'wrong' note in 'Greensleeves'? :-) Jan 17 at 21:24
  • It's good that you pointed out relative minor doesn't always mean the Natural Minor. Thanks for sharing that.
    – PatS
    Jan 21 at 21:10
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Intuitively, of your suggestions, only play the relative minor scale of C major and play the A natural minor scale make any sense - play the relative minor scale A and play the A relative minor scale do not.

Even then, there are multiple relative minor scales of C major - the A natural minor scale, the A harmonic minor scale, and the A melodic minor scale all fit.

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Major and minor are types of scales. Relative minor is an association – the minor key with the same key signature as the relative major.

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Harmonic minor, natural minor, melodic minor just tell you how the ^6 and ^7 scale degrees are treated. In terms of relationships, it's the relationship between ^6 and ^7 to ^1.

If requested to play the harmonic minor scale, the follow up question would be: what tonic?

Terms like relative keys, relative major/minor tell you the relationship between two tonics and their key signatures, the tonics are separated by a minor third and have the same key signature.

If requested to play the relative minor scale A, the follow up question would be: which kind of minor scale, natural, harmonic, or melodic?

Relative minor is telling you something about tonic A and tonic C and their key signatures, but it's not telling you what specific form of minor scale to play.

...And the scale associated with the relative minor Key is called the Natural Minor Scale.

No.

This is where the trouble starts.

The thing associated with the relative minor will be the key signature.

Relative major/minor is a relationship between key signatures, not scales.

Key signatures and scale are not the same thing.

The key A minor is the relative minor of the key C major.

Even if while playing in A minor, and using the occasional sharps on F# or G#, it's still the relative minor of C major, even though F# and G# are not in the key signature of C major.

This is critically important.

Playing in the relative minor does not mean you are playing the natural minor scale.

In fact with most common practice music, you will definitely not be playing just the natural minor scale.

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  • Thanks for clarifying this. I did (incorrectly) think that the relative minor was only the Natural Minor. This also answers the question I had on the answer from aparente001.
    – PatS
    Jan 21 at 21:20
  • IMO, the common textbook description of three minor scales - natural, harmonic, melodic - leads to confusion that minor key music works discretely in just one of those and not the others. Minor key music just doesn't work like that. Rather than three separate scales, there is one minor key mode with fluid sixth and seventh scale degrees. Jan 21 at 21:34
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Usually you would get asked, or think about, what is the relative minor [key]? I was never asked the four bulleted questions in your question when I was in music school.

(The quote from the Alfred book sounds a bit unusual but people would understand it.)

I suppose you have figured this out, but an easy way to think about the relative minor is to realize that for any major key, there is an associated major scale, which has all the same notes as the major scale / key (with perhaps flats or sharps depending on which one you chose), BUT you would start on the 6th degree and play or sing eight consecutive notes to land once again on the 6th degree.

Note that to be in a certain key includes relationships among notes, and expectations. Once the key has been set up in your ear, you feel a strong pull to go from a V chord to a I chord, and there's an even stronger pull to go from the 7th degree ("leading tone") to the 8th degree ("tonic"). There are others -- those are examples.

Also as I suppose you probably know, there's only one version of the scale that goes along with a particular major key, but there are different flavors of minor scales that could go along with a particular minor key. But there's only one "relative minor" associated with a particular major key because when we talk about "relative minor," we are talking about a relationship between two keys. See what I mean, that the scale aspect isn't really the main thing?

If you are a physical science sort of person, I guess you might draw a very loose analogy with the duality of light being a wave and/or a particle.

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  • You say when we talk about "relative minor", we are talking about a relationship between two keys. I'm not sure what the key signature is for A harmonic minor and A melodic minor. If they are the same key signature as C major (no sharps or flats), then are those scales also relative minor scales to the key of C? Another answer states that this is so, and so I'm asking just to make sure I understand it correctly.
    – PatS
    Jan 21 at 21:17
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    @PatS - it's the same key signature as for the relative major, i.e., no sharps or flats in this case, as you said. The notes that depart from that will be written in the part, or the score. There's a word for this -- enharmonic. If there's anything unclear please write again. Jan 24 at 0:34

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