Is there a single, succinct musical term for the relation 'has the same notes, but a different musical function' (with respect to a key)?

In other words, is there a term that completes these sentences:

  • Am is _____ to C major, but centered on A.
  • D Dorian is _____ to C major, but centered on D.
  • C major pentatonic is _____ to C major with notes F and B removed.

It's such a core concept, you would think there would be such a term, but I haven't encountered it yet.

  • I think the problem here is your final sentence. What you are describing is not a core concept, which is why there is not a single term.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Nov 29, 2016 at 13:28

3 Answers 3


The examples you give result in two very different ideas, so there is no one word for them all. There is however a word that describes each.

For your first two examples, you'll use the term relative to describe the scales as they contain the exact same notes, but the pattern used to create them is different. For example, A minor is the relative minor of C major. Typically this is only used for major and minor, but the idea can be extended to modes. Another option would be in this scenario would be to call it a mode of the parent scale. For example, D dorian is a mode of C major.

The last one is different as the information isn't really useful to convey because every scale has this relationship with the chromatic scale. Therefore the term used to describe it is subset as it only has some of the notes of the scale. For example, C major pentatonic is a subset of C major. The reason why this isn't really the most important relationship can be seen in your example of C major petnatonic. There are 4 other seven note scales that have the same 5 notes including C major, C Lydian, C Mixolydian, and C Lydian Dominant. So while yes it has a lot of overlap with C Major, it shares the same overlap with 3 other scales which is why we view the major petnatonic scale as different from just the major scale.

  • Using "mode" restricts the use to wwhwwwh-type 7-note scales, right? Would you ever say, for example, "A-minor pentatonic is a mode of C-major pentatonic"? (I should have used "A-minor pentatonic is a ___ of C-major pentatonic" in the original question as a third or fourth example of two scales with the same notes).
    – John C
    Nov 27, 2016 at 18:55
  • @JohnC the word mode itself is not restrictive unless you call them diatonic modes then yes, it only refers to patterns derived directly from the major scale. I would consider the major and minor pentatonic scales to be modes of each other.
    – Dom
    Nov 27, 2016 at 21:03
  • 1
    @JohnC - since Cmaj pent and Am pent have the exact same notes, they must be accepted as modes of each other.
    – Tim
    Nov 27, 2016 at 21:04

Am and C major are relative. C is the relative major to Am.Depending which Am scale notes are involved, it could be called A Aeolian - a mode of C.

D dorian is a mode of C major,centred on D.(Note, not C Dorian).

C pentatonic is C major with the tritone removed.

So, no, not one word or phrase for all.Not exactly your phrasing, but all true.

  • The problem with relative is that there are different degrees of relation. Compare "closely related" (many common tones) and "distantly related": [en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Closely_related_key]
    – John C
    Nov 28, 2016 at 17:50
  • @JohnC it's a very accurate term that is well defined in music. For example if you ask what is the relative minor of C major, there only is one valid answer.
    – Dom
    Nov 29, 2016 at 13:33

Relative and subset are the terms I'd use for your first and last examples.

For the second example, though, here's a new addition: D-dorian is a rotation of the C major collection. This term shows that it has the same pitch content, it is just "rotated" to begin/end/focus on a different member of that collection.

And with that in mind, assuming equivalence between the A minor and A Aeolian collections (which is what we do when we call Am and CM "relative" keys), A Aeolian is also a rotation of C major (or C Ionian, but these distinctions are a bit too nuanced for this question).


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