Relative Major / Minor Key Change

So far in this lesson block on extending the diatonic chord system we have discussed the use of secondary dominant chords.

Another common occurrence in song chord progressions is changing between the relative major and minor key. That is, one part of the song revolves around the major key while another revolves around the minor key.

Relative Major and Minor

We have discussed relative major and minor scales and keys a couple of times in the StudyBass lessons already. You will remember that relative major and minor scales are major and minor scales which share the same set of notes.

For instance, C major ( C D E F G A B ) and A minor ( A B C D E F G ) are the same seven notes. The difference between the relative keys is the starting note and “center” of the scale. A song in a major key comes to rest on the tonic of the major scale; a song in a minor key comes to rest on the tonic of the minor scale.

Changing Between Relative Major and Minor

Since relative scales share the same notes, their diatonic chords are the same as well. A very easy way to change the mood of a song is to change the harmony's center between major and minor. It's the most subtle of key changes.

For example, a song's verse may center heavily around the key of A minor while the chorus revolves around C major.

How Do You Know?

Sometimes the relative key change is very obvious and well-defined. If a song's verse went Am-Dm-Am-Em and the chorus went C-F-G-G, the verse will sound decidedly minor and the chorus major.

Other times, it may be too temporary to call it a key change. There can be a lot of gray area.

In the end, if you are playing the chords as written, it won't matter if you recognize this relative key change or not.

But remember, music theory is there to help you organize your hearing and musical imagination. If you don't know where your tools are in the workshop, building something is more difficult.

It may help you to understand one part of a song as major and the other part as minor. Depending on your knowledge of the keys and fingerings for the diatonic chords, it may lead you to choose one fingering position over another. Recognizing the major/minor shift may influence your approach to playing the different parts of the music.

Related Major and Minor Key Positions

Since we are discussing relative major and minor keys and their diatonic chords, I am going to diverge a little and point something out to you.

You may or may not have tied this together yet, but the diatonic chord positions we have studied so far can be linked together very powerfully.

By connecting the four diatonic chord positions (two major and two minor) in relative keys, you cover the chords for both keys across the entire fretboard.

Here is a PDF with a diagram laying out the four related diatonic chord positions.

Notice the C major position with the tonic on the 3rd fret of the A-string. Next is the related A minor position on the fifth fret of the E-string. Next is the C major position with the tonic on the 8th fret of the E-string. Lastly, you see the A minor scale position with its tonic on the 12th fret of the A-string.

You now have diatonic chord positions in the keys of C major and A minor from the first fret to the fifteenth fret! And, the same patterns repeat up the fretboard until you run out of frets.

This works for every key as you might imagine.

(Tip: you can see and print complete scale diagrams with the fretboard printer in the tools section.)

Many of you may not be ready for this giant full-fretboard position yet. These connected positions are not the purpose of this lesson, but I like to give you glimpses of your bass-playing future.

Imagine the creative possibilities if you were fluent in these four diatonic chord positions and learn to connect them into one larger idea. Ultimately, this fluency is where we are headed in the StudyBass lessons.

With practice, these positions—which are currently independent and separate in your mind, ears and fingers—will blend into one large musical idea on the fretboard. Keep practicing and reviewing these diatonic chords!

Back to our relative major and minor key changes...

Exercises and Song Examples

To help you hear and understand the common musical shift between relative major and minor keys, I've added a few exercises, and I have also listed some songs for you to listen to, play and analyze.

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