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Beginner Daft question regarding scales


Can somebody explain the principle around relative minor scales? I mean, I understand that every major scale has a relative minor scales that has the same key signature, so A minor is the same as C major etc. My question is, What's the point? I know that the harmonic minor scales have a raised seventh note but other than that, if you want to write a melody that uses certain notes, why not just use the appropriate major scale rather than the equivalent minor?
A scale is not just a collection of notes - that way major and relative minor tunes would be in the same key. Think of a scale as a "ladder" (what the word means). Where you start and end on the ladder matters as well as what rungs you step on.

If you are playing in A minor, the melody will tend to move around A, C, D and E (the first, third, fourth and fifth of the scale) while if you play in C major the melody will tend to move around C, E, F and G. Try noodling around these and the sound and mood are very different, even though both sets of notes are in both scales.

As the great explorers (people like Miles Davis and John Coltrane) realised is that you can use "scales" of many kinds to explore melody - for example, if you work in the key of C, you can start the "ladder" on any note in the scale and create a "mode". Again, same notes but very different mood and feel in the melody.
There is also a connection with way classical muisc was composed.

In the days of Beethoven and Mozart music had a form that was followed. When the key of a piece modulated from one to another it was expected to move in a certain direction. So if the piece moved from major to minor the composer would only use certain minor keys. The relative being one of them.

If the composer moved away from a major into a minor key that did not comply with the norm (ie a minor key that was not related to ther major) the reception by the listening public might not be good.
You all have hit upon the ideas around relative minor, but let me take a stab at it.

Semiquaver brought the reason for this concept most to light. The formal organization of music. But, this is not just classical. In fact the concept of relative minor played little importance until the Romantic period.

Scales present 3 relationships -- Melodic, Harmonic, and Formal. Relative minor (Relative Major) is more important in the formal sense than in either of the other two.

First, music that we say is in a particular key, called "tonic", except for the most basic music, will change for a while to a key that is "not tonic."

Starting in Baroque music (probably earlier), the common "not tonic" key when a piece was in Major was the key of the Dominant (the 5th note up from the key in a major or minor scale.) A piece in C major would spend time in G major.

When the piece was in minor, that key was often the "Relative Major" (just the reverse of "Relative Minor" -- they are related to each other). A piece in A minor would most often go to C major, NOT E anything. It was just a more comfortable combination in many ways. It still happens today.

If we look carefully, C major and G major (or just C and G) are related by the interval of the perfect 5th (5th note of the scale or 7 half-steps). The other important note is F, a perfect below C. And this creates a common key relationship.

From C to "relatives" we have its relative minor, A minor, a minor 3rd (3 half steps) below C. and for C minor we have its relative major, Eb, a minor 3rd above. And, as bizarrely related as a minor and eb major are related, this creates a relationship (one I must admit has been seldom used exactly that way.

But you will find, in earlier classic pieces, music that have sections related by 5ths.

Starting with Beethoven particularly, the 3rd relationship became important. A piece in C major may use E major and A major (relative relationships, whether or not relative major and minor), or it may use Eb major and Ab major.

To be honest, I would worry more about the parallel relationships between keys and scales (How does C major relate to C melodic minor or C mixolydian) vs. the relative relationship. You know about it because you asked the question, but, unless you are dealing with form (and then you need to know more about it) you need to learn the relations with the keynote, tonic, root.
This is really helpful and interesting. But what do the three relationships, Melodic, Harmonic and Formal mean?

I think you wanted to say that F was a perfect fifth below C - or have I got it wrong?

First, yes, I meant that F was a P5 below.

As far as the three common forms of minor -- Melodic, Harmonic, and Natural (Aeolian mode), those are basically inflections of the minor idea. Minor has always been less stable and more chromatic than Major.

The basis of keyness in tonal music has been the two 5th relationships to "tonic" -- the 5th above called "dominant" and the 5th below called "sub-dominant" (the names are mired in the murkiness of Medieval modal chant theory). To establish that we are in the key of C (major or minor) music often establishes either or both of the 5ths (F and G) as temporary or large scale tonal areas. This is true whether we are in major or minor.

These two 5ths are often called the "Tonal Degrees" of the scale because they are constant regardless of most modes (Major, Mixolydian, or most of the minors.)

the other scale degrees are much more flexible, particularly the 3rd above and below tonic.

The 3rd above tonic is the one that determines major or minor -- a major 3rd above (E nat. in C) makes the key major (as long as the two 5ths remain perfect), and a minor 3rd above (Eb in C) makes it minor. Thus

C major: C D E F G A B C
C minor: C D Eb F G A B C (melodic minor [ascending in classical use])

For the key of C -- as long as we have C F G and E nat., it is major; and as lon as we have C F G and Eb, it is minor.

Now if we lower the 3rd below (Ab here) we get:

C minor: C D Eb F G Ab B C (Harmonic minor).

If we lower the 7th degree to Bb, we get "natural minor" or Aeolian mode. This, by the way, has been used much less (regardless of what the old theory books say -- its importance was a figment of Rameau's imagination) -- than the Dorian minor or even phrygian (which I'll get to in a minute.)

C minor: C D Eb F G Ab Bb C (Aeolian minor or "Natural minor")

It does happen to be the "descending form" of classical Melodic Minor, but I have come to realize that that is possibly a false premise, but that's for a different discussion.

The next common minor scale (even Bach used it and identified it's basis in the preface to the "Well-Tempered Clavier") is Dorian minor. This keeps the maj 6th of major, but lowers the 7th (Bb here)

C minor: C D Eb F G A Bb C (Dorian minor)

This scale actually occurs frequently in pieces that are said to be in "Melodic Minor" as well as one of the common modern modal areas for improvisation and is the most common scale to use for the II in a II - V progression.

Finally, we can take the "Natural minor" and lower the 2nd step (Db in C) and we get the Phrygian mode:

C minor: C Db Eb F G Ab Bb C (Phrygian minor).

While phrygian is not often used classically, the lowered 2nd step has often been borrowed in other modes (major or minor). Classically it was the "Neapolitan" and some refer to it as the "phrygian 2".

In any case, All of these can be referred to as minor, and, while some more than others, they have all been used as a tonal basis for a piece or section.

We can almost say that a minor key is:

C Db D Eb F G Ab A Bb B C (not too far from a chromatic scale) (only C, F, and G can not be altered.)

In reality, "borrowing" between Major and minor became commonplace starting at least with Beethoven.

As I said at the beginning, Major is more stable and it has had little variation -- the most common being Mixolydian (Major with a b7 - C D E F G A Bb C), which is found frequently in folk music and, as a cross with Dorian (giving E and Eb), is related to Blues.

I hope that this gives you some food for thought.

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