Understanding how the modes work is vital to understanding the bigger picture of music theory. They’re the backbone of so much of the repertoire we play on a daily basis, and understanding them is vital to your development as a guitarist.
If you’d like to see the lesson this blog post is based on, click here to watch it for free — otherwise, read on!
The minor scale has long had associations with sadness and tragedy.
It can allow for more varied forms of expression than the major scale, but has a bit more complexity to it.
Minor is just one of seven unique modes we can create by beginning on different degrees of the major scale. Before we really break down the minor mode, we’ll derive the other modes:
Dorian mode: begins on the second step of the major scale - WHWWWHW
“Scarborough Fair” is a famous English folk tune in Dorian. It is the same as minor except for the raised sixth scale degree.
Phrygian mode: begins on the third step of the major scale - HWWWHWW
Beginning with a half step gives Phrygian a unique sound (one that’s often used in flamenco music). There is a lot of pain and struggle evident from the first note. Brahms uses this mode in the slow movement of his 4th symphony.
Lydian mode: begins on the fourth step of the major scale - WWWHWWH
Lydian is the brightest mode, beginning with three whole steps. It appears at first like a whole-tone scale until the first half-step.
F lydian also resembles F major except for the fourth scale degree. Important pieces of music in Lydian include Faure’s “Lydia” (engraved below) and Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances (on following page). We can transpose modes too, just like scales.
D lydian, for example, contains the notes D E F♯ G♯ A B C♯ D, the pitches from the A major scale (of which D is the fourth scale degree).
Mixolydian mode: begins on the fifth step of the major scale - WWHWWHW
Mixolydian is almost major until the final tone (the seventh scale degree is lowered from major). The last movement of Grieg’s piano concerto begins in A major and then shifts to A mixolydan at the end.
Aeolian mode/Natural minor: begins on the sixth step of the major scale - WHWWHWW
Any major key has a relative minor scale, which begins on the sixth scale degree. In it’s raw form, we call it Aeolian mode.
However, composers have manipulated Aeolian to give it the power to be a key of its own (which we’ll explore later).
Locrian mode: begins on the seventh step of the major scale - HWWHWWW
The interval between 1 and 5 is not particularly effective for tonal music, so this mode is very rarely utilized.
Let’s go back to minor. J.S. Bach manipulated the Aeolian mode to derive the minor scale. Let’s apply scale degrees to each tone in Aeolian, just as we did in major:
The half steps appear between intervals 2 and 3, and 5 and 6.
Bach realized that 1-7-1 in major keys was powerful because of the tension created by the half-step interval. In Aeolian, 1-7-1 is a whole step. When 7 is a half step below 1, the listener feels a greater desire for the note to return back up to 1. When 7 is a whole step below 1, much less tension is produced, and the note actually wants to continue descending away from 1. This desire to create more melodic tension led to the invention of harmonic minor, an Aeolian scale with a raised 7th:
Let’s transpose the Bach Violin Partita into E minor.
First, ask for which major key is E minor the relative minor?
This is the key where E is the sixth scale degree. Count down six steps from E (E, D, C, A, B, G) to find that the answer is G major. This means E minor and G major will use the same notes, except that we will use the harmonic minor scale, in which the 7th is raised from D to D♯.
Bach’s Violin Partita is engraved here in A minor. Transpose it on your own into E minor:
There is yet another form of minor that adds a whole step between 5 and 6 for a smoother and more melodic sound.
This is appropriately called melodic minor. It is a combination of intervals that doesn’t exist anywhere else, so it’s not a mode of major: WHWWWWH.
Melodic minor is a hybrid scale that takes the most desirable elements of major (raised 6th and 7th scale degrees) with the most dramatic element of minor (lowered 3rd scale degree).
Let’s look at Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” in G minor (the relative minor of B♭ major, which has two flats). Notice that all the pitches are the same except for the third scale degree, which is B♭.
Before watching the lesson, convert “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” into G major. Try this even if you’re not a pianist! The value derived from performing the transpositional calculations and witnessing the visual relationships is significant regardless of your instrument of study. Transpose into many other major and minor keys, as well.
If you’d like to watch the lesson on this topic for free, just click here.
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