This is part VII (seven) of the Heart and Soul series. Before you try this at home, make sure you’ve covered these topics:
How to play Heart and Soul’s bass and chords
You’ve learned how to transpose with Heart and Soul
If you can check YES to all of the above, now it’s time to focus on how Heart and Soul can teach relative minors.
Keyboard harmony is hands-on. It makes sense to teach piano students how to understand the relationships between chords and keys first with the sounds and piano keys, before they are expected to do harmony from a text.
Relative major and minor pairs
For every major chord and key (as in the key of C), there is a minor chord and key that shares a deep musical connection. You’re going to learn how to hear and play this, but first, here’s a little background.
What is a key?
Not a piano key, but a tonal key, as in the key of C. To a pianist, a key is a group of notes, tones and harmonies that belong together, a default pattern of piano keys, a scale, that music can be based on. A key has a key note, or tonic, which names the key and gives the key a sense of being centred and having a home. There are other notes that help define a key, but for now let’s keep it simple.
What is a key signature?
A ‘key signature’ is a signal at the beginning of a written piece of music (and on each line throughout the piece) that sets up which scale the piece is based on, and therefore what key it is in. A key signature has sharps or flats (or none), which represent the default pattern of piano keys, notes and tones.
A sharp or flat in the key signature usually signals that a black key belongs to the default pattern of piano keys.
Two sides to every key signature
Just like the Force in Star Wars, every key signature has a light side (major key) and a dark side (minor key).
If you’ve never heard the difference between major and minor, here are some words that could be used to describe them:
- Major: bold, cheerful, bright, happy, carefree. Or, a Jedi.
- Minor: sad, pensive, angry, tragic, intense. Or, a Sith.
Note: The music samples throughout this post are taken from Rebekah Maxner’s compositions.
Major and minor keys that share the same key signature are referred to as ‘relative Major’ and ‘relative minor’ keys. Like relatives in the same family, they share the same piano key pattern, like sharing the same DNA.
The main difference is that each one has a different key note, centre, or tonic.
There is a technical way to figure out relative majors and minors, but…
Heart and Soul teaches Relative Minors
Why not keep it simple? Why not learn how to find relative minors by ear?
Heart and Soul has a secret clue to finding relative majors and minors. First, discover that Heart and Soul is in C Major. We know this because Heart and Soul:
- Is all on white keys.
- Begins on the C note and C Major chord (and will end there, too).
- Has an overall positive and happy sound.
When you play the familiar Heart and Soul chord progression, remember that three of the chords are the primary chords. Chords I, IV and V (one, four and five) are the most-used chords in music, and all of them are Major chords.
Chord vi (six) is not a primary chord. It sounds sadder and is minor.
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Chord vi matches the relative minor
Heart and Soul offers a short-cut to help you discover which two keys share a ‘relative major’-‘relative minor’ connection.
Heart and Soul’s first chord reveals the ‘relative major’ half of the pair: C Major.
The next chord reveals the ‘relative minor’ half of the pair: A minor.
Heart and Soul’s first two chords are the clue to finding paired relative major and minor keys. C Major and A minor are each other’s relative major and minor keys.
- Both C Major and A minor use the same default key pattern — all white keys
- Both share the same key signature DNA
- Because they use only white keys as their default, neither one has sharps or flats in its key signature.
Try the key of G
Play the bass and chords of Heart and Soul in the key of G. Play the first chord, which is ___ chord. This can be seen as the relative major of the chord that follows.
Now stop on the second chord of the progression. What note is the LH playing? What minor chord is the RH playing? ___ note. ___ chord. Even though this is chord vi of the key of G, it is a gateway to figuring out its relative minor.
These two chords can represent the two keys that are related to each other, the first the relative major key, the second, the relative minor.
If you figured out that the relative Major is G and the relative minor is e minor, you are correct! Both have one sharp in the key signature — F#.
Try the key of F
Play the bass and chords of Heart and Soul in the key of F. Play the first chord, which is ___ chord. This can be seen as the relative major of the chord that follows.
Now stop on the second chord of the progression. What note is the LH playing? What minor chord is the RH playing? ___ note. ___ chord. Even though this is chord vi of the key of F, it is a gateway to figuring out its relative minor.
These two chords can represent the two keys that are related to each other, the first the relative major key, the second the relative minor.
If you figured out that the relative Major is F and the relative minor is d minor, you are correct! Both have one flat in the key signature — B-flat.
Try other keys
Try transposing Heart and Soul to other places and keys on the piano. When you play it with success, you will:
- Figure out other relative major and minor pairs
- Have a simple way of knowing which major and minor keys share the same key signature
- Simplify the learning of scales, because you’ll know which two will share the same default key pattern (with different starting notes)
In the post above, it was mentioned that there’s a technical way to find relative major and minor key relationships. Here’s more on that:
The tonic (key note) of the relative minor is always three semitones (half steps) below the tonic of the major key.
Here’s how that looks for A minor and C Major:
Here’s how that looks for e minor and G Major:
If you begin with the minor tonic, you can find the relative major the same way, by counting three semitones up.
Note: If you land on a black key, how do you know what letter to call it? The major-minor relationship always covers three letters in a row: E Major down to C-sharp minor (E-D-C), A Major to F-sharp minor (A-G-F).
But isn’t it more fun to find relative minors and majors by playing Heart and Soul and hearing the harmonic connection?
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Video of the Week
Gray Day (Level 3) is a slow, expressive piece in the style of impressionist jazz. From the print and eBook The Color Collection, Early to Late Intermediate Piano Solos. Or, check out the Gray Day eSheet!