Relative Minor vs Major Keys

When I started playing guitar, it was all so overwhelming. I couldn’t figure out where to start, or what I needed to know. Somewhere along the line, someone showed me something called the “pentatonic scale”. You probably already know it, at least its first position. It looks like this:

Pentatonic 1st Position

If I had a dime for everyone who told me that the pentatonic scale is neither major nor minor I’de have a lot of dimes. Here’s the thing about that statement. It’s right, and it’s wrong at the same time.

Why it is a minor scale:

Let’s pretend we’re starting at the lowest note of this scale, and starting on the 5th fret of your guitar. That’s an A. This is a pentatonic formed scale, which means that the 2nd not of this scale, isn’t the 2nd not of an octave scale, it’s the 2nd note of a pentatonic scale – or the 3rd note of an octave scale. When we look at that 2nd note, it’s 3 frets above that A we just played. In a guitar, every fret is a half step. This means that the second note of this scale is one full step and one half step above the first note. The pattern for the minor scale goes root-whole-half-whole-whole-half-whole-whole.  The second note in the pentatonic scale is the third note of an octal scale, which means this third note is a half step lower than it would be if it were a major scale. That makes this scale A minor pentatonic .
This is what it looks like, if we add the rest of the notes of the minor scale to this pentatonic scale, making this a full minor scale:

 

 

 

Why it’s not a minor scale:

This is where this gets a bit more tricky. The reason this is a minor scale, is because we started out saying this is an “A” scale. If we claim this is an A scale, and we start on A, then it contains a flatted 3rd in relation to that A, which makes it a minor scale. However, the only reason we say it’s an “A” scale, is because we decided to name it based on this particular pattern, starting with the lowest note on A.
However, what happens if instead of starting with the lowest note on A, instead we start with the 2nd note in the scale, which if we’re still pretending we’re playing this pattern “rooted” on the 5th fret, means we’re starting on a C – and calling this a C scale?  The pattern we then see emerge is root-whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half. This is a C major scale!

What is going on here?

What you’re seeing here, are scale modes. When you start on that A note, and you play the whole scale , that is called the Aeolian mode – also known as “natural minor” in relation to that A. When you start that same pattern on the C note, you’re playing in Ionian mode – also known as “natural major” in relation to that C. You see, scales are just convenient ways to describe intervals that have specific relationships to each other. When we describe a scale, we need to tell you which “key” it’s in, what pattern mostly fits what we’re trying to describe, and fits the chords that are either played or implied. As it turns out, “A minor” is often called the relative minor of “C major”. They both describe the exact same set of notes, but the relationship between those notes is different depending on which “key” we’re playing in.  When you play in A minor, most often you’re going to hear the song want to “resolve” itself on an A minor chord. Similarly, when you play in C major, the song will want to resolve itself on the C major chord. This is, of course, not a hard and fast rule, but typically the first chord of any phrase – tells you the key of the song. Since both A minor and C major have the same notes, you can use those scale patterns interchangeably, but the phrasing of your melody will likely change.

What else does that mean?

This is really good news for you. It means you don’t have to learn separate patterns for both major and minor. If you learn the pentatonic scale, in all of it’s positions, you can move that around the neck and literally play in any major or minor key – especially if you learn to add the additional notes missing from the pentatonic scale. Using the first position of the pentatonic scale as a guide, if the key is minor, then starting with your first note on the name of the key will result in notes consistent with the minor scale in that key. For instance,  if the song is in A minor, then start your pentatonic scale with the first note on the fifth fret. However, here’s the trick. If the song is A major, then you need to start your pentatonic scale where 2nd note of the scale lands on A – which is 3 frets lower than A on your guitar.  This will mean that the first note of the pentatonic scale will be F#. F#minor, is the relative minor of A major – so the F# pentatonic/minor scale will contain all of the same notes as the A major scale!

Tom

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