What Is A Relative Key In Music?

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Written by Samuel Chase
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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.

G major scale

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.

E minor scale

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 MajorKey SignatureRelative Minor
C Maj0 sharps or flatsA min
C#/Db Maj7 sharps / 5 flatsA#/Bb min
D Maj2 sharpsB min
Eb Maj3 flatsC min
E Maj4 sharpsC# min
F Maj1 flatD min
F#/Gb Maj6 sharps / 6 flatsD#/Eb min
G Maj1 sharpE min
Ab Maj4 flatsF min
A Maj3 sharpsF# min
Bb Maj2 flatsG min
B Maj5 sharpsG# 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.

“Hallelujah”, by John Cale

Another example is “Buffalo Soldier” by Bob Marley.

The guitar accompaniment during the verse alternates A Maj ⇨ F# min ⇨ A Maj ⇨ F# min.

“Buffalo Soldier” by Bob Marley

In Summary

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!

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Samuel Chase has been playing music since he was 5 years old, and teaching music since he was 13. He has a PhD in Music from the University of Surrey, and he has composed music that has been played in three different countries. He is currently working as a film composer and writing a book on film music.