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Relative Key vs Parallel Key



Greetings dear reader!


I was working with a private student last week who was writing a song with her band but had become stuck in a couple places. Namely, the 2nd verse and the bridge. I thought we’d give some attention to the bridge first during our lesson as it's primary function is to see things both musically and lyrically from a different perspective (generally speaking if we’re talking about contemporary music.)


I thought this would be a great opportunity to explore all of the harmonic variety that a given key signature has to offer. Whenever I'm messing around with my guitar on the couch and I come up with a nice bundle of chords, I'm not necessarily thinking about a parent key as much as I am a specific feeling. That said, when hitting a wall in the songwriting process, exploring all the chords contained within a chord progression's parent key can lead to some interesting discoveries.

Seeing as my student was in a similar situation, I thought this would be a great exercise to take advantage of. This led into a jam and some exploration of an exercise where the challenge was to write a bridge using up to 4 chords in the key we’re currently in. (In this case, it was the key of Eb). More on that later.


This led to some interesting discoveries around the use of parallel and relative minor. Tons of geeking out ensued. (My day was officially made at this point.)



Here's the song idea which consisted of the following chords:


Verse: Eb Maj7, Gm7, Cm7, Ab, Abm,


Chorus: Eb, Bb, Cm7, Ab, Abm,


As you can see, there's all kinds of stuff going on here. The verses have a tonal center of Eb major while the choruses of C major. What's going on?! AGGGGGGHHHHH


Well in a nutshell, this song idea is using both relative AND parallel key concepts within. (It's sounds awesome by the way. My student's musical sensibilities are epic!!!)


Let's discuss.




Okay so before we get into the nuts and bolts of the song idea itself, I need to explain the difference between relative key and parallel key.




Relative key in essence, means two different sounding scales that share the same notes. This also means that two different sounding keys that share the same chords are also relative to each other. For the purposes of this writing, I'm going to talk specifically about relative minor.


Here we go.



Relative Minor



Simply put, the relative minor is a minor key found inside every major key.



This can be found by finding the 6th note in a major scale.


From there, use that as the root note and spell out the rest of the scale using all the remaining notes.


For example, take C major.




Now go to the 6th note






Now spell out a new scale using all of the notes in C major in alphabetical order starting on A


A w B h C w D w E h F w G w A





This scale is relative to C major because both scales are using the EXACT same notes. They just occur in a different sequence.


Make sense? Cool.


Moving on.





Now parallel key in essence means that two scales in same key but reverses the major or minor orientation. In other words, they share the same root note but other than that, one is a natural major scale while the other is a natural minor scale.


Here's an example of parallel key using C major once again.





As you can see, these are two completely different scales with only the root note, major 2nd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th being shared amongst them.


So any time you're playing a natural major scale, just know that it has a natural minor counterpart to it.



How does this pertain to songwriting?



So glad you asked! Let's go back to my students song idea.



Verse: Eb Maj7, Gm7, Cm7, Ab, Abm,


Chorus: Eb, Bb, Cm7, Ab, Abm,



If we first look at the verses, the tonic is the Eb Maj7 with all the chords (save for Abm) are found in the key of Eb Major.


Eb, Fm, Gm, Ab, Bb, Cm, Dº, Eb


Now like I said, the tonic in this progression is an Eb Maj7 chord which just so happens to be the 1 chord in the key of Eb Major. The Gm7 is the 3 chord, the Cm7 is the 6 chord, and the Ab is 4 chord. All of these occur naturally within the key of Eb Major.


But what's up with the Abm?


This is where parallel key comes into play.




Notice the first four chords in the progression. We have a 1, 3, 6, and then a 4 chord.


(1 ) Eb Maj7, (3) Gm7, (6) Cm7, (4)Ab


This leads the ear to believing we're going to hear what's known as a plagal cadence. A traditional 4 to 1 resolution which is commonly heard at the end of any hymn you might hear in a church. That "AH-MEN" is sung over a 4 chord then resolving down to the 1 chord.


What's interesting is that my student used this 4 chord to briefly pivot to Eb major's parallel minor key to borrow the 4 chord from the key of Eb minor.





If we look at Eb Major’s parallel minor key (Eb minor) we’ll find a whole different set of chords.





By ending the first four chords in the progression on the 4 chord in a major key, we can then briefly jump to that parent key's parallel minor using it's 4 chord before resolving back down to the 1 of our original major key.


This is what's known as a minor plagal cadence




Based on this and a handful of other private lessons I've given over the years, I'm noticing that some of my older students tend to confuse the concept of relative key vs parallel key.


These are two very different concepts but can work together to come up with some very simple, yet interesting changes in your songwriting.


Anyway, I hope that all makes sense. If you're still stuck and find video content to be your fancy, I go a bit more in depth on these topics with some audio examples of everything I've discussed here and more. Feel free to check it out here.




Thanks so much for reading!


-Aaron-



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