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How Music Works - Understanding Relative Minor

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

Greetings dear reader!

Whenever I receive questions from beginner/intermediate students regarding songwriting, I usually start by explaining the concept of the use of the relative minor in a major key to building contrast within the song structure.

In other words, if you have a major sounding chorus, try writing a minor sounding verse. This is one of my go to’s if I’m trying to break writer’s block.

A good example of this is the song "Mr. Jones" by Counting Crows

(We'll get back to them later)

Not sure what relative minor is?

Let’s discuss

In essence, the relative minor can be looked at in a couple of different ways depending on if we’re talking about scales or chords. I’ll start with scales first.


So inside every natural major scale lives a natural minor scale.


Because they’re made of the same notes.

Take a C major scale for example.

If we spell it out, you’ll see we have the notes C D E F G A B, and C.

Seeing as C is the root note, we have the following scale degrees.


What’s interesting is that if we spell out an A minor scale, we wind up with the same notes.

Let’s start on the 6th note in that C major scale


Now let’s pretend that’s our new root note and write out a scale using all the same notes but this time, starting on an A and ending on an A.

You now have the A natural minor scale complete with a different set of scale degrees altogether.



Of course, the notes occurring in this particular order sound far different from the C major scale but they’re the same notes nonetheless. Because we’ve changed the order that these notes occur in, we change the sound of the scale completely.

In other words, the C major and A minor scale share the exact same notes. They just have different starting and ending points. The fact that they share the same notes is what makes them relative to each other.

Also, an important thing to know about the relative minor is that it can ALWAYS be found at the 6th degree (6th note) of every natural major scale no matter what key it’s in.

So. If you know your major scale. Play up to the 6th note then shift gears and play the relative minor scale to stretch out on your fretboard. You’ll need to know the notes in the scale and trust your ear but it’ll be great for your understanding of this concept and fretboard knowledge.

Make sense?

Okay moving on to chords.


So as I said before, this concept of relative minor applies to chords as much as it does scales, and it's actually really simple.

The one chord of the parent key and its relative minor chord both share 2 notes.

That’s it.

And if you think about it, it makes sense right? They share 2 of the same notes so they’re relative to each other.

Here’s an example

The notes found in a C major chord are C - E and G as shown here

The notes found in an A minor chord (the relative minor chord in the key of C major) contain the notes A-C and E

So if you look at both chords, you’ll see that they share the notes C and E

Why does this matter?

Well for starters, it can lead to some really interesting musical development in your songs.

For example, let’s say you’re jamming with a bass player and you’re playing an ostinato based in C major while he (or she) is supporting underneath by playing a line based in C. He (or she) can change the mood drastically by switching from C to its relative minor of A.

A dead-simple way for you to hear this is to record yourself playing a C major chord, then overdub it with a droning root note of C. From there, switch that droning C to an A and listen to how things sound.

Use of the Relative Minor In Songwriting

The use of the relative minor is also a great way to introduce some interesting contrast in your songwriting.

I use this reference all the time with my students because I can’t think of anything better off the top of my head but check out “Mr. Jones” from Counting Crows. (See! We're back here!)

The verses are kind of somber with a yearning dramatic feel that is later contrasted with this big bright shiny chorus. This is a great example of using the concept of relative Major and Minor. The song is simple yet undeniably memorable and catchy.

Here’s a look at the chords in Mr. Jones



So right away, you can hear all the chords revolving around that Am right? That is the tonal center of this verse. It’s very somber, kind of melancholy, and is an interesting bit of interplay switching between a 6-4-2-5 and a 6-4-5 progression.

Things get a bit brighter with the chorus which just jumps to a 1-4-5 in C.


So we have, in essence, modulated from the key of Am to the relative major key of C.

Make sense? Feeling overwhelmed?

If it's the latter and you're still feeling confused, I have some more audible examples in this video I put out a little while ago. Feel free to check it out and let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Thanks for reading!


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