Chord Progressions: Relative Major-Minor Keys

The Concept || Solfege || Ear Training || Real-World Examples || Pairings in 12 Keys ||

Study Aids: Teaching Quiz: Relative Major-Minor Keys



The Concept

A commonly-used harmonic device is to shift the key center back and forth between pairs of closely-related major and minor keys. An example of such a closely-related key pairing is C major and A minor (see Special Note below). This harmonic device is used so extensively -- in classical, ragtime, pop, blues, rock, jazz -- that it is a very valuable skill to recognize it by sight in written music and by sound when you hear it.

The harmonic shift between key centers can be...

In classical practice, the prepared shift (modulation) is usually accomplished by using a dominant cadence:

Relative Major-Minor Keys

From C major to A minor...
From A minor to C major...

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In jazz practice, the prepared shift (modulation) is usually accomplished by using a ii-V-I chord progression...

Relative Major-Minor Keys

From C major to A minor...
From A minor to C major...

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Special Note: Almost every music theory academician considers C major and A minor to be relative keys -- relative because they share the same key signature - no sharps or flats. But this is not quite true. They really don't quite share all the same notes. The reason: The V chord of A minor is E, which contains the leading tone G# (Ti), clearly not in the C major key siganature. The goal here is not to quibble about the definition of "relative". It is to avoid confusion and to point out the practical reality. Enough said.

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Solfege

When shifting from C major to A minor...

When shifting from A minor to C major...

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Ear Training

Listen... and notice the power of these chord progressions. The harmonic tension of the dominant chords coupled witht the harmonic release of the tonic chords are strong enough to lead the ear to each new key center almost seamlessly. Prove this to yourself by stopping on either the major I chord or minor i chord. Sing Do and notice that the key center is the root of the chord you stopped on!

Stop on C major...
Stop on A minor...

Ear Training Tip: Play these chord progressions in a variety of voicings and registers. Simply listen to the overall sound-feeling of these changes. It is not a difficult matter to recognize this unique sound. Combine this sound recognition with your knowledge of the theory (notes, Roman numeral analysis, solfege) and you have made a huge addition to your ability to play by ear.

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Real-World Examples

Moonlight Sonata (Beethoven)

Relative Major-Minor Key Pair: C# minor & E major...

Relative Major-Minor Keys

 

Autumn Leaves (Johnny Mercer)

Relative Major-Minor Key Pair: G major & E minor...

Relative Major-Minor Keys

 

Other Examples: Europa, Still Got the Blues, Windmills of Your Mind, Georgia, My Funny Valentine, God Bless the Child, countless Jazz standards and classical pieces!

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Major-Minor Pairings in 12 Keys

Relative Major

Cadence
(ii7-V7-I)

Relative Minor
Cadence
(ii7b5-V7->i)
B major
C#m7-F#7-B
G# minor
A#m7b5-D#7-G#m
E major
F#m7-B7-E
C# minor
D#m7b5-G#7-C#m
A major
Bm7-E7-A
F# minor
G#m7b5-C#7-F#m
D major
Em7-A7-D
B minor
C#m7b5-F#7-Bm
G major
Am7-D7-G
E minor
F#m7b5-B7-Em
C major
Dm7-G7-C
A minor
Bm7b5-E7-Am
F major
Gm7-C7-F
D minor
Em7b5-A7-Dm
Bb major
Cm7-F7-Bb
G minor
Am7b5-DE7-Gm
Eb major
Fm7-Bb7-Eb
C minor
Dm7b5-G7-Cm
Ab major
Bbm7-Eb7-Ab
F minor
Gm7b5-C7-Fm
Db major
Ebm7-Ab7-Db
Bb minor
Cm7b5-F7-Bbm
Gb major
Abm7-Db7-Gb
Eb minor
Fm7b5-Bb7-Ebm

Homework: Learn each pairing as well as the associated classical or jazz cadences for all keys you expect to play in... Study Aid: Teaching Quiz: Relative Major-Minor Keys

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