NEW HOMEPAGE LANDING PAGE Forums Chatting On The Porch Modal “key” and other modes

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      Mel Newton

      At the workshop discussing using index cards to organize tunes and practice a question was asked about what a “modal” tune was. Specifically, I play a tune called “Cold Frosty Morning” and have it listed on my index practice card as a “modal” tune. It took a while for me to get this post together….but if anyone is still interested, here’s some music theory behind that vocabulary. An excellent link to learn more is

      First we are going to back up and talk about the key.

      Cold frosty morning is in the KEY of Am (A minor). This key has no flats or sharps and starts on the note “A.”

      You may be thinking…wait. The key of C doesn’t have any flats and sharps. You are right. Try it on the fiddle – start on A and move up the scale through the next A an octave above. Now do it starting on C. Cool how it sounds completely different right?).

      The key of C is played: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. Another name for this scale is C major (which is also known as C Ionian).
      The key of Am is played: A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A. Am is the natural minor scale of C and it’s fancy name is A Aeolian.

      A quick tangent. When I’m trying to understand concepts such as this, it helps me to put the terms as simply as possible into my brain. In my opinion fancy unfamiliar words are precise and great when everyone understands them, but can sometimes contribute to confusion when trying to understand a concept. So, I’m deliberately using very casual language. It’s how my brain works, but if you want a more technical, precise explanation, look at the link I posted at the beginning. Moving on.

      Why do we need the fancy name of Aeolian, Ionian etc instead of just sticking with major and minor (which we are all use in casual conversation)? Because there’s a LOT of other types of scales beyond just the major and minor scales and we need a way to describe what we are hearing.

      Let’s go back to our scales. We are going to use the key of A because it’s a common key on the fiddle.

      The key of A major/ionian starts on the TONE PITCH of A and the TYPE of scale is ionian (ie the “major”). Practically speaking this means the scale starts on A and has 3 sharps – C#, F#, G#.

      Let’s play it now (I’m sitting at my piano as I write this. It really is easiest when you can play and hear the changes we are chatting about).
      A major/ionian: A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G#-A

      Now let’s play A minor (A Aeolian). The TONE PITCH is A, the TYPE of scale is Aeolian. Practically speaking this means it starts on the note A, but has no sharps or flats.

      We know that playing a song in A major sounds and feels very different from A minor. A major is “brighter” and happier sounding (most of the time) than A minor. We think of minor’s as more “sad” and “eery” than than major counterparts.

      So what’s a modal? (you know, the whole point of this post). A modal scale is a scale that doesn’t fit into either the category of typical Major/ionian, or the typical minor/Aeolian scale.

      Since we don’t use these scales as much, we don’t have common, easy terms for them and we call them different things. For example, there’s A Dorian, A Phrygian, and A Locrian etc.

      Try playing through these and comparing them to the Ionian/major, and Aeolian/minor scales from above:
      A Dorian (starts on A, only F#): A-B-C-D-E-F#-G-A
      A Phyrgian (starts on A, B flat) : A-Bflat-C-D-E-F-G-A
      A Locrian (BFlat and Evlat): A-Bflat-D-Eflat-F-G-A

      To our ears, these scales definitely don’t sound like the “regular” major scale. We are tempted to lump them under “minor” since they don’t sound “quite right” and a leave you hanging. But they are different from our regular “minor” (Aeolian scale).

      So, these scales get lumped under their own category for us mortal music folks and get called “modal”.

      For fiddle players the difference between whether the tune is in the “true” minor versus one of these other modal scales isn’t that big of a deal (although you might fumble to find the right note while learning it since the tune might not go exactly where you think it’s going!). It’s a bigger deal for banjo players that need to tune their strings a little differently to catch those “weird notes” and for someone playing chord back up, since the chords played to accompany a “true” Aeolian minor tune might be a little different than an A locrian or A Phrygian based tune.

      I hope this helps!!!!!!! Please let me know here are by email (email to jason and he will forward to me) if there are any additional questions or anything I can clarify.
      – Mel

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