We have discussed the idea of relative major and minor scales—major and minor scales which share the same seven notes. For example, C major (C, D, E, F, G, A and B) and A minor (A, B, C, D, E, F and G) both share the same notes; they are relative scales, or relative keys. We have also looked at how the diatonic chords of the relative keys overlap, connect and relate.
Another important musical relationship to know is parallel keys.
What Are Parallel Major and Parallel Minor?
Parallel major keys and parallel minor keys share the same tonic note. They are built on the same starting note.
For example, the keys of C major and C minor both have a C tonic note and are considered "parallel." Likewise, F major and F minor are parallel. Every major key will have a parallel minor key and vice-versa.
Parallel major and minor keys run side-by-side.
Parallel major and minor keys differ by three notes—their 3rd, 6th and 7th. The natural minor scale, compared to the major scale, has a flatted third, sixth and seventh.
It's a very simple idea, isn't it? I don't think you even need a quiz on this topic! If you know the tonic note, you know the parallel—side-by-side—scale.
How Are Parallel Major and Minor Scales Used?
While the idea of parallel keys is simple, applying them in music introduces a layer of complexity and harmonic richness you don't get from one key alone.
Parallel Key Changes
It's not extremely common, but some songs will change from a major key to their parallel minor key or vice-versa.
The Police - Synchronicity II
Leave it to Sting to use the idea of parallel major and minor keys in a song about parallel worlds and inter-connectivity. In The Police song Synchronicity II the chords switch between the key of A major and A minor. Listen to the contrast of the major key (“Another suburban family morning”) and the parallel minor key (“Many miles away...”).
The Beatles - While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Another instance is The Beatles' song While My Guitar Gently Weeps which changes from A minor in the verses to A major in the bridges (0:50). Listen and you can hear the song shift from dark to bright.
The Miracles - (Come 'Round Here) I'm the One You Need
One more example I'll give you is Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' (Come 'Round Here) I'm the One You Need (with our friend James Jamerson on bass). This song in G major sneaks into the key of G minor right before going into each verse and chorus. Listen around (0:11) and (0:36) for the shift from major to minor back to major.
A key change between parallel keys is a similar idea to our last lesson on changing keys between relative major and minor keys. The difference is that a relative key change is very subtle. Since relative keys share the same notes and chords, changing between them is a matter of shifting the major/minor center, or sense of “home.”
Changing between parallel keys is much more dramatic. Our ear hears the same tonic, but suddenly there are different notes and chords. The major I chord turns to minor i; it's quite a harmonic shift.
Even More with Parallel Keys
There is another way parallel keys are used: sharing a few diatonic chords between each other. This is much more common than a full key change from parallel major to minor, and it is the main reason why I am introducing you the concept of parallel keys.
Since this is an important and deep topic, we'll look at it all by itself in the next lesson.