Relative key

Last updated

In music, relative keys are the major and minor scales that have the same key signatures (enharmonically equivalent), meaning that they share all the same notes but are arranged in a different order of whole steps and half steps. A pair of major and minor scales sharing the same key signature are said to be in a relative relationship. [1] [2] The relative minor of a particular major key, or the relative major of a minor key, is the key which has the same key signature but a different tonic. (This is as opposed to parallel minor or major, which shares the same tonic.)


For example, G major and E minor both have a single sharp in their key signature at F; therefore, E minor is the relative minor of G major, and conversely G major is the relative major of E minor. The tonic of the relative minor is the sixth scale degree of the major scale, while the tonic of the relative major is the third degree of the minor scale. [1] The minor key starts three semitones below its relative major; for example, A minor is three semitones below its relative, C major.

Circle of fifths showing major and minor keys Circle of fifths deluxe 4.svg
Circle of fifths showing major and minor keys

The relative relationship may be visualized through the circle of fifths. [1]

Relative tonic chords on C and A (Play (help*info)
). Relative tonic chords on C and a.png
Relative tonic chords on C and A ( Loudspeaker.svg Play  ).
Chromatic modulation in Bach's Du grosser Schmerzensmann, BWV 300, m. 5-6 (Play (help*info)
with half cadence, Play (help*info)
with PAC) transitions from FM to its relative minor dm through the inflection of C to C# between the second and third chords. Note that this modulation does not require a change of key signature. Chromatic modulation in Bach BWV 300, m. 5-6.png
Chromatic modulation in Bach's Du grosser Schmerzensmann, BWV 300, m. 5-6 ( Loudspeaker.svg Play   with half cadence, Loudspeaker.svg Play   with PAC) transitions from FM to its relative minor dm through the inflection of C to C between the second and third chords. Note that this modulation does not require a change of key signature.
Relative major and minor scales on C and A with shared notes connected by lines. Relative major and minor scales on C and a.png
Relative major and minor scales on C and A with shared notes connected by lines.

Relative keys are a type of closely related keys, the keys between which most modulations occur, because they differ by no more than one accidental. Relative keys are the most closely related, as they share exactly the same notes. [3]

Distinguishing on the basis of melody

To distinguish a minor key from its relative major, one can look to the first note/chord of the melody, which usually is the tonic or the dominant (fifth note); The last note/chord also tends to be the tonic. A "raised 7th" is also a strong indication of a minor scale (instead of a major scale): For example, C major and A minor both have no sharps or flats in their key signatures, but if the note G (the seventh note in A minor raised by a semitone) occurs frequently in a melody, then this melody is likely in A minor, instead of C major.


A complete list of relative minor/major pairs in order of the circle of fifths is:

Key signatureMajor keyMinor key
B, E, A, D, G, C, F C major A minor
B, E, A, D, G, C G major E minor
B, E, A, D, G D major B minor
B, E, A, D A major F minor
B, E, A E major C minor
B, E B major G minor
B F major D minor
C major A minor
F G major E minor
F, C D major B minor
F, C, G A major F minor
F, C, G, D E major C minor
F, C, G, D, A B major G minor
F, C, G, D, A, E F major D minor
F, C, G, D, A, E, B C major A minor


The term for "relative key" in German is Paralleltonart, while parallel key is Varianttonart. Similar terminology is used in most Germanic and Slavic languages, but not Romance languages. This is not to be confused with the term parallel chord, which denotes chords derived from the relative key in English usage.

See also

Related Research Articles

Key signature Set of musical alterations

In Western musical notation, a key signature is a set of sharp, flat, or rarely, natural symbols placed on the staff at the beginning of a section of music. The initial key signature in a piece is placed immediately after the clef at the beginning of the first line. If the piece contains a section in a different key, the new key signature is placed at the beginning of that section.

Major scale Diatonic scale made of seven notes

The major scale is one of the most commonly used musical scales, especially in Western music. It is one of the diatonic scales. Like many musical scales, it is made up of seven notes: the eighth duplicates the first at double its frequency so that it is called a higher octave of the same note.

In music theory, the term minor scale refers to three scale patterns – the natural minor scale, the harmonic minor scale, and the melodic minor scale – rather than just one as with the major scale.

In music theory, a scale is any set of musical notes ordered by fundamental frequency or pitch. A scale ordered by increasing pitch is an ascending scale, and a scale ordered by decreasing pitch is a descending scale.

In music, the tonic is the first scale degree of the diatonic scale and the tonal center or final resolution tone that is commonly used in the final cadence in tonal classical music, popular music, and traditional music. In the movable do solfège system, the tonic note is sung as do. More generally, the tonic is the note upon which all other notes of a piece are hierarchically referenced. Scales are named after their tonics: for instance, the tonic of the C major scale is the note C.

In music theory, a leading-tone is a note or pitch which resolves or "leads" to a note one semitone higher or lower, being a lower and upper leading-tone, respectively. Typically, the leading tone refers to the seventh scale degree of a major scale, a major seventh above the tonic. In the movable do solfège system, the leading-tone is sung as ti.

In music theory, the key of a piece is the group of pitches, or scale, that forms the basis of a music composition in classical, Western art, and Western pop music.


In modern musical notation and tuning, an enharmonic equivalent is a note, interval, or key signature that is equivalent to some other note, interval, or key signature but "spelled", or named differently. Thus, the enharmonic spelling of a written note, interval, or chord is an alternative way to write that note, interval, or chord. The term is derived from Latin enharmonicus, from Late Latin enarmonius, from Ancient Greek ἐναρμόνιος (enarmónios), from ἐν (en)+ἁρμονία (harmonía).

In a musical composition, a chord progression or harmonic progression is a succession of chords. Chord progressions are the foundation of harmony in Western musical tradition from the common practice era of Classical music to the 21st century. Chord progressions are the foundation of Western popular music styles and traditional music. In these genres, chord progressions are the defining feature on which melody and rhythm are built.

Chord (music) Harmonic set of three or more notes

A chord, in music, is any harmonic set of pitches/frequencies consisting of multiple notes that are heard as if sounding simultaneously. For many practical and theoretical purposes, arpeggios and broken chords, or sequences of chord tones, may also be considered as chords in the right musical context.

Modulation (music) change from one tonality (tonic, or tonal center) to another

In music, modulation is the change from one tonality to another. This may or may not be accompanied by a change in key signature. Modulations articulate or create the structure or form of many pieces, as well as add interest. Treatment of a chord as the tonic for less than a phrase is considered tonicization.

Modulation is the essential part of the art. Without it there is little music, for a piece derives its true beauty not from the large number of fixed modes which it embraces but rather from the subtle fabric of its modulation.

Circle of fifths Relationship among the 12 tones of the chromatic scale, their corresponding key signatures, and the associated major and minor keys;geometrical representation of relationships among the 12 pitch classes of the chromatic scale in pitch class space

In music theory, the circle of fifths is a way of organizing the 12 chromatic pitches as a sequence of perfect fifths. If C is chosen as a starting point, the sequence is: C, G, D, A, E, B, F, C, A, E, B, F. Continuing the pattern from F returns the sequence to its starting point of C. This order places the most closely related key signatures adjacent to one another. It is usually illustrated in the form of a circle.

In music theory, a diminished triad is a triad consisting of two minor thirds above the root. It is a minor triad with a lowered (flattened) fifth. When using chord symbols, it may be indicated by the symbols "dim", "o", "m5", or "MI(5)". However, in most popular-music chord books, the symbol "dim" and "o" represents a diminished seventh chord, which in some modern jazz books and music theory books is represented by the "dim7" or "o7" symbols.

Augmented sixth chord

In music theory, an augmented sixth chord contains the interval of an augmented sixth, usually above its bass tone. This chord has its origins in the Renaissance, was further developed in the Baroque, and became a distinctive part of the musical style of the Classical and Romantic periods.

In music, the mediant is the third scale degree of a diatonic scale, being the note halfway between the tonic and the dominant. In the movable do solfège system, the mediant note is sung as mi. While the fifth scale degree is almost always a perfect fifth, the mediant can be a major or minor third.

In music, the submediant is the sixth degree of the diatonic scale, the lower mediant—halfway between the tonic and the subdominant. In the movable do solfège system, the submediant note is sung as la in major, as fa in minor. It is occasionally called superdominant, as the degree above the dominant. This is its normal name (sus-dominante) in French.

Parallel key Major and minor scales with same tonic

In music, a major scale and a minor scale that have the same tonic are called parallel keys and are said to be in a parallel relationship. The parallel minor or tonic minor of a particular major key is the minor key based on the same tonic; similarly the parallel major has the same tonic as the minor key. For example, G major and G minor have different modes but both have the same tonic, G; so G minor is said to be the parallel minor of G major. In contrast, a major scale and a minor scale that have the same key signature are called relative keys.

Chromaticism is a compositional technique interspersing the primary diatonic pitches and chords with other pitches of the chromatic scale. Chromaticism is in contrast or addition to tonality or diatonicism and modality. Chromatic elements are considered, "elaborations of or substitutions for diatonic scale members".

Not only at the beginning of a composition but also in the midst of it, each scale-step [degree] manifests an irresistible urge to attain the value of the tonic for itself as that of the strongest scale-step. If the composer yields to this urge of the scale-step within the diatonic system of which this scale-step forms part, I call this process tonicalization and the phenomenon itself chromatic.

Chromaticism is almost by definition an alteration of, an interpolation in or deviation from this basic diatonic organization.

Throughout the nineteenth century, composers felt free to alter any or all chord members of a given tertian structure [chord built from thirds] according to their compositional needs and dictates. Pronounced or continuous chordal alteration [and 'extension'] resulted in chromaticism. Chromaticism, together with frequent modulations and an abundance of non-harmonicism [non-chord tones], initially effected an expansion of the tertian system; the overuse of the procedures late in the century forewarned the decline and near collapse [atonality] of the system [tonality].

Chromaticism is the name given to the use of tones outside the major or minor scales. Chromatic tones began to appear in music long before the common-practice period, and by the beginning of that period were an important part of its melodic and harmonic resources. Chromatic tones arise in music partly from inflection [alteration] of scale degrees in the major and minor modes, partly from secondary dominant harmony, from a special vocabulary of altered chords, and from certain nonharmonic tones.... Notes outside the scale do not necessarily affect the tonality....tonality is established by the progression of roots and the tonal functions of the chords, even though the details of the music may contain all the tones of the chromatic scale.

Sometimes...a melody based on a regular diatonic scale is laced with many accidentals, and although all 12 tones of the chromatic scale may appear, the tonal characteristics of the diatonic scale are maintained. ... Chromaticism [is t]he introduction of some pitches of the chromatic scale into music that is basically diatonic in orientation, or music that is based on the chromatic scale instead of the diatonic scales.


In music, tonicization is the treatment of a pitch other than the overall tonic as a temporary tonic in a composition. In Western music that is tonal, the piece is heard by the listener as being in a certain key. A tonic chord has a dominant chord; in the key of C major, the tonic chord is C major and the dominant chord is G major or G dominant seventh. The dominant chord, especially if it is a dominant seventh, is heard by Western composers and listeners familiar with music as resolving to the tonic, due to the use of the leading note in the dominant chord. A tonicized chord is a chord other than the tonic chord to which a dominant or dominant seventh chord progresses. When a dominant chord or dominant seventh chord is used before a chord other than the tonic, this dominant or dominant seventh chord is called a secondary dominant. When a chord is tonicized, this makes this non-tonic chord sound temporarily like a tonic chord.

Closely related key

In music, a closely related key is one sharing many common tones with an original key, as opposed to a distantly related key. In music harmony, there are five of them: they share all, or all except one, pitches with a key with which it is being compared, and is adjacent to it on the circle of fifths and its relative major or minor.


  1. 1 2 3 Benward; Saker (2003). Music in Theory and Practice. Vol. I. pp. 33–35. ISBN   978-0-07-294262-0. D flat major and a minor scale that have the same key signature are said to be in a relative relationship.|volume= has extra text (help)
  2. Forte, Allen (1979). Tonal Harmony (3rd ed.). Holt, Rinehart, and Wilson. p. 9. ISBN   0-03-020756-8. The key which shares the same key signature but not the same first degree with another scale is called relative. Thus, the relative of C major is A minor (no sharps or flats in either key signature); the relative major of A minor is C major.
  3. Benward & Saker 2003, p. 243.