Relative Major and Minor Scales

One might think that since there are as many minor keys as major keys that it would be necessary to learn a new series key signatures. Nicely, this isn't the case. It turns out that every major scale shares its set of notes (also meaning the same set of accidentals) with a minor scale. This happens because the pattern of whole steps and half steps in the major scale (W-W-H-W-W-W-H) actually contains the minor scale whole and half step pattern (W-H-W-W-H-W-W). Let's look at the C major scale below. It's been written in two octaves (it's basically just been written twice). See if you can find the minor whole step and half step pattern there.  

Did you find it? It begins at the note A. If you clicked the button, you should see a pair of brackets showing the minor whole and half step pattern beginning at the 6th scale degree of the C scale, which is the A pure minor scale. We call this the relative minor of C major. The A minor and C major scale share the exact same set of notes, in this case no sharps or flats, and so you might imagine that they are both part of the same "family" of notes, and therefore "related." Furthermore, the relative minor scale of any major scale will always begin at the sixth scale degree. This means that you can always find the relative minor scale by looking at the sixth scale degree of a major scale.

Since we know there will always be a relative minor scale related to a major scale, we don't need additional key signatures. We simply use the same key signature for two keys, a major key and its relative minor. This also means that every time you look at a key signature, there will always be two possibilities, whether it is the major or minor key is up to the musician to figure out from the notes they see, although much of the time the title of the piece will give it away with something like, "Symphony in C minor." 

Determining a minor key signature takes just one step beyond finding the major. First, find the major scale that corresponds with the key signature by your preferred method. This may be looking at the circle of fifths or using one of the "tricks," like using the second to last flat in most flat keys, or going up a half step from the last sharp in sharp keys. Second, find the major key's relative minor by counting up the major scale to the sixth degree (be aware of any flats or sharps that degree might have on it), or by looking at a circle of fifths with the relative minor keys included (you'll find this in another lesson). Can you figure out the major and relative minor for this key signature? 

The example above shows a key signature with four sharps. First, find the major key: E major. Second, we can count up an E major scale until reaching the sixth degree: E, F-sharp, G-sharp, A, B, C-sharp. We have now found the relative minor for E major, it is C-sharp minor. This is the key signature for both E major and C-sharp minor.

Let's summarize our steps to finding minor key signatures:

  1. Find the major key using your preferred method
  2. Count up to the sixth degree of the major scale (be sure to include any accidentals that belong in the scale) to find its relative minor

Click the example button to see a key signature, then do your best to figure out the minor key, then click the answer button below it to reveal the correct answer. *Keep an eye on the clef!