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The way I have parallel keys in my head is that a major key is always three half-steps higher than a minor key. I was trying to evaluate this on the circle of fifths and also during an exam, but I realized that at some point this can actually fail, namely when enharmonic spellings are at work.

For example, during an exam I was given the two following keys and was asked to write their parallels;

  • C minor
  • D♭ Major

What I did was to follow the principle I had in my head:

  • C minor + 3 half-steps gives the parallel major key = D♯ major
  • D♭ Major - 3 half-steps gives the parallel minor key = B♭ minor

So I failed in the first case. The correct answer is actually E♭ major.

But in the second case, did I succeed? B♭ minor is their on the circle of fifths, but A♯ is there too!!

I do not understand how this works. Why is D♯ major wrong but E♭ major instead correct? So why is the enharmonic spelling NOT there in case of E♭ major but it's there in case of B♭/A♯ minor?!

  • Just to be clear are you asking about relative or parallel minor keys here, they are different and based on your question it seems it is actually relative minors you are asking about. – Rockwell Rice Jan 13 '17 at 14:14
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    D# is not Eb. Similarly, an augmented second is not a minor third. Also, the relative major key to a minor key isn't three half steps up, it's the major key starting on the third note of the minor scale - D# is not in the key of C minor. – Tin Man Jan 13 '17 at 17:58
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    @Walt - thanks for that. But on all of my keyboards, it is.And if I move up an aug 2nd, I end on the same key (note) as I do for a minor 3rd.. But I know what you're saying. – Tim Jan 13 '17 at 21:35
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    @Tim Theory != practice, which is why this site specifies that it's for both. In practice, with most instruments, you press the same buttons for D# and Eb and they make the same sound. When discussing music theory you need an slightly more abstract mindset than "which button on my instrument makes this sound" or even "what does this sound like". That was my point. – Tin Man Jan 13 '17 at 21:53
  • "D#-major" is not a key. – Maika Sakuranomiya Feb 11 at 2:49
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It has to do with the idea of "Enharmonic equivalents".

You should have arrived at Eb flat major when you counted up in your head because that was the key you were in. Had the note you were given been B#, you would have counted up to D# and it would have worked.

An enharmonic equivalent is when two notes are the same, that is played at the same spot, but have different names.

For example, D# and E-flat are enharmonic equivalents.

So, in your example, The key of E flat has the following notes

Eb - F- G - Ab - Bb - C - D

And so the relative minor is C minor because (among other ways) you find the parallel minor by locating the sixth scale degree.

The relative minor C minor would have

C - D - Eb - F- G - Ab - Bb

The notes in the key of D# will contain notes which are the enharmonic equivalent to the notes in Eb.

D# - E# - Fx - G# - A# - B# - Cx

So the relative minor would be called B# minor. So if you had been given the note B# you should have arrived at D# like you did.

If you spelled both these minor scales out you would be able to adjust the labels for the notes in a way that they both used the same notes. They are spelled differently though just as is.

When you counted up you switched flats and sharps and that is why you arrived at D# instead of Eb. Counting up in C minor you should have used flats, if the note had been B# you would have used sharps.

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    It might be worth adding that while there's nothing technically incorrect about using the D# major scale, it should be clear why the enharmonic equivalent of Eb is preferred: three flats in the key signature instead of five sharps and two double sharps (!!). – Todd Wilcox Jan 13 '17 at 14:55
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    @ToddWilcox: Aren't you missing the point? By your logic, the preferred relative major for B# minor would also be Eb. – TonyK Jan 13 '17 at 23:19
  • @TonyK The problem is the double sharps, not the raw number of symbols in the key signature. Double sharps are exclusively restricted to accidentals in standard classical harmony. – Kyle Strand Jan 14 '17 at 0:31
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    Also, I think you should put stronger emphasis on the fact that the tonic of a relative key is always a scale degree in the original key. – Kyle Strand Jan 14 '17 at 0:33
  • @TonyK Maybe we are making two different points. My point is the preferred enharmonic spelling for B# minor is C minor because there are fewer accidentals in the key signature. – Todd Wilcox Jan 14 '17 at 1:35
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These are NOT parallel, they're relative. Parallel keys both start on the same note/root.

The problem stems from not knowing the key sigs. C minor has the same key sig as Eb major. 3 flats. Not a sharp in sight, so D# couldn't be a good answer. Every key has 7 different letter names for the 7 different notes. Using your idea, go through C minor scale. C, D, D#, F, G. That is wrong - there's two 'D' names, and no 'E' name. So, we use Eb in preference. Much easier when stuff has to be written on staves.

In the Db case, you would succeed if the question asked for relative keys. Count up the scale - Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb C. 6th one up is Bb. Where was A#? Got knocked out by the A being Ab, so the B needed to be Bb. Pretty straightforward!

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    But note that, in German, one calls the relative key (that shares the same key signature) the Paralleltonart, whereas the parallel key (with the same tonic) is the Varianttonart. – Richard Jan 14 '17 at 0:00
  • @Richard - that's good information! And confusing! Possibly, if people used their profile space, we may be able to 'read between the lines' and help even more. But the OP writes really good English, so don't think that's the problem here. Seems to have thrown the question in, and not returned yet! – Tim Jan 14 '17 at 8:33
  • It's interesting how languages seem to be split between ones where it's "parallel" and ones where it's "relative". en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relative_key#Terminology – piiperi Dec 23 '18 at 16:19
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The basic answer is that standard keys do not have any double sharps or flats in them.

  • The scale in D# major would be D#, E#, Fx, G#, A#, B#, Cx -- which contains two double sharps. Therefore, only the enharmonic equivalent of Eb major, which contains no double flats or sharps, is allowed.
  • The reason A# minor is allowed is that the natural minor scale for A# minor is A#, B#, C#, D#, E#, F#, G#, A# -- so seven sharps (!), but no double sharps or double flats.

A better rule than "three half steps" might be "a minor third". This should always work -- for example, C minor -> Eb major, Bb minor -> Db major.

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    Trouble is, to a lot of folk, a min.3rd is synonymous with 3 half steps. – Tim Jan 13 '17 at 15:53
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    Well, then 'a lot of folk' need to up their game a bit! The reason is not to avoid double sharps, but to maintain the 'minor third' relationship. D# major is the relative major of B# minor. There's no getting out of that from a music theory perspective. Having said that, any composer who did find himself in that situation for more than a few notes would doubtless make an enharmonic 'leap of faith' and spell the notes less correctly but more conveniently! – Laurence Payne Jan 13 '17 at 15:55
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    While there may be strong imperatives to avoid double sharps or double flats in key signatures because such things will make performance difficult, from a music-theory perspective it would seem less icky to say that the parallel minor to Db major is Db minor (even though it would have eight flats) than to say that it's C# minor (which would require everything to be written a staff note lower) or that Db minor has no parallel minor key. – supercat Jan 13 '17 at 17:30
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'Three half steps' is correct, as far as it goes. The rest of the story is 'a minor third'. Any interval of a third includes three letter-names. So C, D, Eb rather than C, D, D#.

If you want more reasons, think what notes are in C minor scale, and in Eb major. Plenty of identical spellings, yes? So we spell it that way, not as D# minor.

Your 'Circle of 5ths' chart shows C# major as relative to A# minor, Db major as relative to Bb minor. Though the layout might not make this completely clear, the two are not interchangable. C# goes with A#, Db goes with Bb.

Want a way to remember it? A Major in the army retires with a bit of loot and buys a diamond mine. Of course, he needs to employ a Miner to do the digging. When the Major needs to visit the Miner he goes DOWN three half-steps (it's a shallow mine). Another name for this distance is a Minor Third. Three notes, three letters.

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any scales should be in CDEFGAB form,

c minor is theoretically written as: C,D,(Eb),F,G,(Ab),(Bb)

and not as: C,D,(D#),F,G,(Ab),(Bb)

in the wrong case you will have an extra D; D and D#.

the key is right but in theory the presentation is wrong.

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The simple reason is that if D# Major were a key, it would have nine sharps. Meanwhile, D# Minor actually exists, and has six sharps.

You'll always get the right answer if you remember that one parallel key can't have sharps while the other has flats. C Minor has three flats, so its parallel major is also a flat key. D# Minor uses the same piano keys as both Gb Major and F# Major, but it is only parallel to F# Major, while Gb Major is parallel to Eb Minor.

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You got the answer right the first time. Only change that I would do, to be 100% theoretically correct is to only use notes within given scale.

Cminor (in this scale you don't have D# note but you do Eb).

It all comes down to circle of Fifths and Fourths. Cminor comes from Circle of Fourths and within this circle we can Eb scale or chord.

So next time just follow this logic.

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