Within music, there are certain keys that are considered relative to others. But what really does this mean? How can keys be more closely related to some than others?
This post will help us learn more about Relative Keys in music. First, however, let’s recap what a key is in general.
What is a Key in Music?
In music, a key is what we call a collection of notes that are all in the same scale and are centered around a specific note, called the tonic or key note.
For instance, if a song only used notes that could be found in the G Major scale – G A B C D E F# – then the song would be in the key of G Maj, with the G being the tonic note.
A key can be major or minor, but each song predominantly has only one.
Definition of Relative Keys
In music, relative keys are two different keys in which one is major and one is minor, and they share a common set of notes.
For example, with the G Major scale above, those notes are also functional for the E minor scale, if you start and end on E instead of G – E F# G A B C D E.
So, it wouldn’t be totally correct to say a song with only those notes would be in G Major because it could also be in E minor.
In this way, G Major and E minor are relative keys.
We say that E minor is the relative minor of G Major, and vice versa – G Major is the relative major of E minor.
Relative keys are the most closely related keys in music, because they share the exact same notes.
How to Work Out a Relative Key
To find a Relative key, first determine if the key you are currently in is major or minor.
If you’re in a major key, you move DOWN three semitones to find the relative minor.
If you’re in a minor key, you move UP three semitones to find the relative major.
Here is a list of all of the relative keys:
|Relative Major||Key Signature||Relative Minor|
|C Maj||0 sharps or flats||A min|
|C#/Db Maj||7 sharps / 5 flats||A#/Bb min|
|D Maj||2 sharps||B min|
|Eb Maj||3 flats||C min|
|E Maj||4 sharps||C# min|
|F Maj||1 flat||D min|
|F#/Gb Maj||6 sharps / 6 flats||D#/Eb min|
|G Maj||1 sharp||E min|
|Ab Maj||4 flats||F min|
|A Maj||3 sharps||F# min|
|Bb Maj||2 flats||G min|
|B Maj||5 sharps||G# min|
Examples of Relative Keys
One example of a song that alternates between relative major and minor is “Hallelujah”, played in this version by John Cale.
The piano part at the beginning goes C Maj ⇨ A min ⇨ C Maj ⇨ A min.
Another example is “Buffalo Soldier” by Bob Marley.
The guitar accompaniment during the verse alternates A Maj ⇨ F# min ⇨ A Maj ⇨ F# min.
That’s all of the main information on relative keys.
They are closely related because they share the same amount of flats or sharps in their key signature, and are always separated by 3 semitones.
Usually, you will come across the term Relative Key when also talking about parallel keys, which we also have a post on if you want to learn about them!