My Theory of Relativity (or E-Minor = G-Major)

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Some things are just meant to go together: Yin and Yang, peanut butter and chocolate, bacon and everything. Separately and individually these components are perfectly fine, but when mixed together they become sort of remarkable. The blend highlights characteristics of each that otherwise might be overlooked.

But as an aspiring gourmand, it isn’t always easy to identify exactly what those subtle flavors are, much less how or why certain ingredients go together. One has to educate the palate in order to appreciate the nuances. In other words, it takes time and practice to fully appreciate the full flavor profile, rather than simply stuffing your face to satisfy the primal feeling of hunger.

As a novice guitarist, memorizing the major and the minor scale shapes took about all of the mental bandwidth I had available. Just getting the motions under my fingers took most of my concentration, so I didn’t really have the added mental capacity to further analyze what I was doing from a musical perspective. As a slacker, it’s easy to fall into this pattern, especially on an instrument like guitar when there is so much to learn, like power chords and making cool faces, bro. Duh! Sticking with the food metaphor, I was more worried about easing my hunger (learning the shapes) than I was about how it tasted, or in this case how it sounded.

Eventually a teacher told me that a natural minor scale has the same notes as the parent major scale, but with a different tonal center. Beyond learning the definition to regurgitate on the exam, I never really gave much thought to relative keys when making my own music, and I continued to practice both major and minor scales on the guitar without fully understanding how they can and do complement each other. For example, the E-minor scale is the relative minor of the G-major scale, but starts on a different note: E, which is the sixth degree of the G-major scale. Fundamentally the two scales share the same notes, but the fingering patterns found within each scale shape lend themselves to different musical licks and melodic phrases.

One day, while reading some pop-physics book, I was contemplating Relativity and for some reason the mostly forgotten concept of the relative minor scale was jarred loose from the sediment and started rattling around in my head:

  • “Hmmm,” I thought. “‘Relative’ means two things are connected.” (Rattle).
  • “The major scale is connected to its relative minor.” (Rattle, rattle)
  • “Ah Ha. Same tasty notes, different chewy center.” (Rattle, rattle)

Then a lightbulb went on as I began to wonder what would happen if I played a relative minor scale over a major chord progression. “I bet it’ll be like how a good beer can bring out the flavor of a decent cheeseburger.”

Musically speaking, a mixture of lines from the major scale mixed with lines from the relative minor scale can sound really good when intertwined and overlapped with each other in the context of a major chord progression. It’s like adding salt to bland French fries or sugar to sour strawberries. It enhances what is there without completely changing the deliciousness.

Try this recipe out  and see for yourself:

  • Take a basic progression in G-major: G, C, D (or I, IV, V), and play the G-major pentatonic scale: G-A-B-D-E-G over that.
  • Then take the same progression and play E-minor pentatonic: E-G-A-B-D-E over it.
  • Use the same progression again, but this time alternate playing G-major and E-minor throughout.

The major and minor approaches sound OK, right? Notice what happens when you alternate licks from each pattern. Once you get the hang of it, you should start to notice that — in much the same way a wine brings out the best flavors in a steak — blending relative scales like this brings a new level of sophistication and nuance to your playing and hopefully this will inspire you to find other connections as well.

Just remember:

 

Take your time.

 

Let it breathe.

 

Savor the flavor.

 

Bon appetit.

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