Major and minor scales are some of the first concepts you’ll learn if you study music theory.

The reason why is simple—the majority of western music is built on them. But do you really know how they’re related? The link between the two is called the relative minor.

It’s a music theory term as well as a technique for remembering the notes in a minor scale.

In this article I’ll explain the relative minor and show why it’s helpful to learn it as you write songs, produce tracks and learn music.

Let’s get started.

What is the relative minor

The relative minor is a minor scale that shares its key signature with a related major scale.

If you start with a major scale, the relative minor is the scale that begins on the sixth degree.

It shares the same key signature, so you can build it using the same notes, just in a different order.

Here’s how it works using C major.

Counting up the scale, the relative minor minor begins on scale degree six. In C major, that’s A. So the relative minor of C major is A minor.

Just like C major, the basic form of A minor contains no sharps or flats.

Of course, if you modify the minor scale with accidentals to form the harmonic minor scale or melodic minor scale, some notes will change.

But the pure relative minor scale is called the natural minor, or the aeolian mode. As long as you remember which notes are altered to create the other forms, the technique works.

The relative minor is a minor scale that shares its key signature with a related major scale.

In fact, this trick also works in reverse with the relative major. The relative major is the major scale that shares its key signature with a minor key. Simply count back three scale steps from the tonic to find the relative major of a minor scale—the inverse of the relative minor!

Why learn the relative minor?

Many musicians use the relative minor as a quick way of remembering the minor scales.

Of course, you can always learn them by heart or use the circle of fifths. But most find remembering a single set of keys easier than committing them all to memory.

But on top of that, the relative minor helps reinforce how so many structures in music theory are connected.

Once you realize that major and minor scales aren’t too different, you can start playing with more advanced concepts like modes and unique scales.

And the more you link your theory knowledge with what you play or write, the more fluent you’ll become in the language of music.

Here’s a few examples that show how you can build on the relative minor to grow your songwriting skills:

How to use the relative minor in your music

1. Key change

Changing keys during a song is a great way to freshen up your sound and keep listeners interested.

But creating a smooth modulation can be a theoretical workout. Luckily, the relative minor is one of the simplest and most natural keys to change to mid-song.

If you need to explore a new harmonic area and you’re not sure where to go, the relative minor should be first on your list.

2. Aeolian mode

As I mentioned, the relative minor scale without any alterations is equivalent to the natural minor, or aeolian mode. It comes from the modes of the major scale.

Aeolian is a unique sound on its own to try in your songs.

This scale sounds more neutral and static than harmonic minor or melodic minor due to its whole step intervals and lack of leading tone.

It also contains some characteristic chords that can help you play with listener’s expectations and create interest.

The relative minor scale without any alterations is equivalent to the natural minor, or aeolian mode.

Here’s an example of how the minor V chord found in the Aeolian mode can bring a different feel to a song. Listen for it in the chorus of this classic hit.

3. Borrowed chords

It’s important to play chords from the home key for your song to sound pleasing and harmonious.

But only writing songs using the diatonic chords can get a bit stale after a while.

Some of the best chord progressions actually use chords taken from a different key.

One especially common technique is to borrow chords from minor scales in a major home key.

As I’ve shown, chords from the relative minor are equivalent to the diatonic chords in the home key.

But there are plenty of other interesting minor options out there! For example, the parallel minor—or the minor key with the same letter name as the home key—offers some convenient options.

The most common choice is the minor IV chord, but you can experiment with others as long as you know the chords the key. Just pick any from the related major key to know which to use!

Theory of relativity

The relative minor is a basic concept in music theory, but it’s worth taking the time to learn well.

If you’ve ever struggled to remember minor keys or you find other methods more difficult, this simple trick can unlock it for you.

Now that you have the basics of relative minor down you can apply the concept in your songwriting and production.