Meet the Relatives
The entire harmonic system of western music is constructed with twelve keys, each usually in a major and minor version. That means everything in all the music you know happens in one of only 24 possible keys.
That might not sound like many. But just think what you can do with 26 letters of an alphabet.
In this small excursion, we’re just going to think a bit about harmonic relationships. About the effect of relative nature of ‘key’.
Key to Enlightenment
The word key suggests something revelatory – flick – welcome to musical enlightenment.
The subject itself is rather more complicated, particularly when expressed in words. Metaphors prove more helpful.
We’ve also talked about travelling through different keys as like a journey (). Moving through different keys gives a piece of music a trajectory, usually back to rest with our home (or starting) key.
However, neither of these metaphors does justice to the relative nature of key and key change. The relationships between keys is actually more important than the particular keys themselves. And you can think of this through family relationships. A network of relationships exists between different keys, a musical kinship of relative relationships.
Just imagine you yourself are a key. The safe suburban key, ‘middle C’.
Now come meet the relatives…
You yourself are the key of C.
Now that’s your relative minor, remember. Your namesake minor (C Minor), now that’s someone very different, much more distant member of the family, just happens to have a similar sounding name, you know how it is, you often get confused.
Your relative minor shares most of your same notes. You find them with the six note of your own scale. C-d-e-f-g-A. So the relative minor of C major is A minor.
That term ‘relative minor’ is a musical term, not mine. Family relationships are important, but always relative.
Let’s now broaden our view of the family, but just a little.
Certain notes, chords, and keys sound more familiar, appropriate, more harmonious with each other than others. The closest major harmonic relationships come from the forth and fifth notes of the musical scale. These represent notes created when the wavelength of our starting note is divided into thirds and quarters (cf for more on that topic).
In the case of C, that means F and G. These are the closest major keys – harmonically – to the key of C major. Technically, those relations are known as the dominant, and sub-dominant, which actually goes to show how bad language can occasionally be when describing music. ‘Sub-dominant‘ in particular is an awful description of the harmonic relationship we hear in the Amen at the end of a church hymn.
You can also find these two as the forth and fifth notes in your major scale. C-d-e-F-G.
Anyhow, we’re going to call these two your siblings. So your brother is F major, and your sister G major. But your siblings also have their own partners – their own relative minors – so let’s extend the family view to include your brother’s partner (D minor) and your sister’s (E minor).
Those can incidentally be found as second and third in your major scale, C-D-E. Which for the final incidentally means we have covered six of the seven note major scale with these harmonic relations.
So how about that seventh note, the ‘B’? That’s a different harmonic relationship again, to us. It’s the closest unit of all to you, only a semitone away. It’s so close it almost sounds like it might clash. We call this a chromatic relationship, and you hear it’s effect throughout the Wagner that should be playing now.
In harmonic terms, we’ve now generated enough material to cover most pop music. We’ve also gathered six of the seven notes of the major scale (D through to A). But remember, all these relationship are relative. If we were in the key of G major, we would have a E minor partner, with the siblings C and D major, with partners A minor and B minor.
When we come to classical music, the harmonic relationships become more complex. Now we change key more rapidly. What’s more, the changes of key move greater distance. By the time you get to keys like Eb or Ab (from C’s perspective, remember), these are something like second cousins, whilst F# and C# are very distant relatives.
And yet, those distant relatives you thought were so different, with the odd-sounding accents? Turned out they weren’t so different after all. They had there own partners, brothers, and sisters, just like you.
And anyhow, you’re all related. We are all related.
We are family. Harmonious.