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Help with majors and relative minors - dumb noob alert!

Posted by ulrichburke 
Help with majors and relative minors - dumb noob alert!
April 26, 2017 02:56AM
Dear Anyone.

OK, if this sounds confused it's because I am!

I know a major scale is T T S T T T S, in pattern. And that minor scales don't seem to follow any rules! BUT.... I've read about 'relative minors' and that's kinda thrown me because if you look at the actual NOTES in SOME relative minor scales, they're exactly the same as the notes in some major scales. I'm sure of it.

So if a major scale's notes are the same as a relative MINOR scale's notes, how do you make a piece sound minor or major? Or can you be writing in a major scale and make the piece sound minor (i.e., that little touch of sadness!) regardless? If that's a 'yes' - do you NEED to be writing in a minor scale to get t hat touch of sadness, can't you just write in a major scale and do the same thing as that major scale's probably the relative minor of something else? If you have to be writing in a minor scale to get that touch of sadness, but the notes in the given scale are actually also the same notes as in another scale that's major, how do you keep it SOUNDING minor?

If that sounds confused, it's not touching how I feel right now after reading about 6 websites on t his subject!

Yours hopefully

Re: Help with majors and relative minors - dumb noob alert!
April 26, 2017 06:47AM
Ok, first thing is to distinguish between minor scales and the minor key.

There are different types of minor scale:
The Harmonic Minor scale uses the pattern: T S T T S T+S S
For example: A-B-C-D-E-F-G#-A

The Natural Minor uses the pattern: T S T T S T T
For example: A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A

The Melodic Minor scale ascends using the pattern T S T T T T S, but descends the same as the natural minor.
For example: A-B-C-D-E-F#-G#-A -Gnatural-Fnatural-E-D-C-B-A.

The minor key uses the notes from all of these scales. So the key of A minor for example can contain both F natural and F#, as well as G natural and G#. - In other words, the sixth and seventh notes of the minor key are variables. This is often a point of confusion.

The key signature of piece in a minor key (that's the thing at the start of the printed music that lists the number of flats and sharps) essentially treats it as though it were the natural minor scale. So the key signature of A minor contains no flats or sharps, even though during the course of the piece you will almost certainly encounter F#s and G#s (these are accidentals and are indicated only as and when necessary).

So "relative" majors and minor refer to keys which share the same key signature. A minor and C major for example both contain no sharps or flats (the piece in A minor will likely feature F#s and G#s at some point but these are not indicated in the key signature).

So you're essentially correct; the "relative" keys contain the same notes (though minor keys will contain two extra as explained above). The difference of course is the tonic; the "home" of the piece around which the other pitches gravitate. This is the starting note of the scale; so C is the tonic of C major (and C minor) and A is the tonic of A minor (and A major). There is a tonal hierarchy of pitches with the tonic at the top (followed by dominant and subdominant). So a piece in C major will sound different to one in A minor because the former is centred around C, with C as the goal and the resting place, and the latter is centred around A.

People are taught that the major key sounds happy while the minor key sounds sad, but this is simplistic. There are many other things that affect the mood of the music (tempo, dynamics, instrumentation etc.) and it is perfectly possible for a piece in a major key to sound sad.

Check out this textbook on Four Part Harmony.
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