Dorian Mode, Aeolian Mode, Minor Key… What's the Difference?

by Gary Ewer, fromThe Essential Secrets of Songwriting”. Gary is the author of several e-books that open the world of song composition to budding writers. If you’d like to know how to get your songs working, let his texts show you the way.


Mode or Key?In traditional harmony (i.e., the kind you’d learn in a Classical music school), being in a minor key has a particular definition that gets confused with being in a minor mode. So what’s the difference, and are the terms key and mode just different words we can use for describing the same thing? In short, what does it mean to be in a key?

It’s best to begin this discussion with a quick look at how music was structured several centuries ago. If you were writing in the 16th century, you were probably writing in one of the so-called “church modes”. “Modality” is a large area of study, but for our purposes here, playing a scale from C to C, using no raised or lowered tones, gives you the Ionian modal scale – which we today call the “major scale”. Playing D to D gives us the Dorian scale, and so on.

Modal Scales

In today’s popular and jazz music styles, the Dorian and Aeolian scales are in common usage. Many songwriters build songs using those modes. They are both known as minor modal scales, but that should not be confused with being in a minor key.

The difference between being in a minor mode and being in a minor key is the presence (or not) of a leading tone. A leading tone is the note that is one semitone lower than the tonic note, and often wants to move upward to the tonic note. The Dorian and Aeolian scales both lack this leading tone. The tone directly below the “tonic” of those scales is a whole tone away. Music evolved during the 16th century, responding to a desire on the part of composers to use a leading tone near the ends of phrases, as the melody moved up toward the tonic.

Chord progression in Aeolian: Am Dm Em Am (Click to listen [opens in new window])

Chord Progression in Dorian: Am D Em Am (Click to listen) (note the major IV-chord)

Chord Progression in Minor: Am Dm E Am (Click to listen) (note the major V chord)

The topic of tonality is far ranging and complex, and beyond the scope of this article to cover it adequately. But we should at least answer one important question: How do I know if a song is in one of the minor modes, or in a minor key? Here’s a little checklist:

  • If the melody is rising upward toward the tonic note, and accompanied by a minor V or flat-VII, the song is in either the Dorian or Aeolian mode.
  • If the IV-chord is major (and/or if the 6th note of your scale is a whole tone above the fifth note), the song is likely in the Dorian mode.
  • If the V-chord is major, the song is likely in a minor key.

And to help with some examples from the real world:

All Along the Watchtower (Bob Dylan): Aeolian Mode (C# Aeolian, using the chords C#m B A B)

Losing My Religion (R.E.M.): Aeolian Mode (A Aeolian, using the chords Am Em Dm G) (same as The Cure’s “Love Song”)

Eleanor Rigby (The Beatles): Dorian Mode (E Dorian, using the raised 6th note; the raised 6th becomes a lowered 6th a little later as it “pulls down” toward the dominant note.)

She’s Not There (The Zombies): Minor Key (with delvings into Aeolian and Dorian at various points… a very interesting example.

California Dreamin’ (The Mamas & the Papas): Minor Key (lowered chords C#m B A at the beginning come from the lowered tones of the descending melodic minor scale.)

I welcome your questions and/or comments below.


Written by Gary Ewer

Follow Gary on Twitter

Posted in Chord Progressions and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .


  1. Really appreciating your perspective and method of explanation and communicating the understanding you possess Gary. Your article and comment responses are refreshing.

    — Finding Doug’s comment, quoted below, creating some pondering for me..

    As a composer who understands Music as a language, studies sound frequencies, and is a multi-instrumentalist, crossing the keys, winds, strings, and perc, I’m having a bit of a time quite understanding the idea that prior to Bach, ~Music~ was any different than after Bach. Perhaps the way it was interpreted, played, and generally shared, and the tones able to be generated on certain instruments yes (thanks to an agreed upon uniformity), but Music is sound waves, and there’s more to harmonic frequencies than an agreed upon set of scales and degrees (and for which that agreement varies, depending on where one is on this planet).

    I concur that prior to a unifying system, getting musicians to come together in a specific, pitch based system might have been rather tough if they could not play together by ear. However, I dare say that playing by ear would have been paramount prior to such a written and unified (codified) system being accepted.

    Let’s say I find two hollowed out reeds of the same length and relatively same diameter, poke holes in the same places, and create two flutes that produce unified pitch response. Were I to undertake this now, given my ear has been trained to accept the “standard” frequency system (at 440, though I prefer a bit less), I would have to either find the proper placement to maintain this frequency specific, equal-tempered system we’ve all agreed upon, or would have to override that ear training (I don’t have absolute pitch, though I do have absolute interval recognition, and my pitch recognition is fairly consistent.) Without Bach’s convenience, were I to create a set of instrments to be played together, I would know (hear, feel, “know”) that I’d have to provide for such unison in pitch. I would also hear intervals that are pleasing (whether semi-tone, quarter–tone, or flowing). On strings, as a group, we’d have to agree upon open tunings as a starting point. We’d have to agree on melodic and perhaps bass line sequencing. We might even have to make up a system of organization and labels. 😉 BUT… the music could still be shared, in “tune”, together, and pleasing to the listening, just as it had been for thousands of years before Bach.

    Anyway, it is an intriguing wandering of thought for me. 🙂

    “Remember that it was JS Bach–specifically in the Well-Tempered Clavier–who “codified” the equal-tempered system, which ALLOWS for the possibility of modulation, of having widely-spaced parts, and even the ability to utilize keys with several flats or sharps. Before the equal-tempered system–which we use to this day–the wide-ranging leaps, distant modulations and multi-varied instrumental combinations simply weren’t possible. Before equal-temperament such music sounded extremely out-of-tune.”

  2. Here’s a part that I don’t understand: “If the V-chord is major, the song is likely in a minor key.”

    I’m fairly limited in my theory and totally new to song writing, but what I’ve learned so far is that, having a major V chord in a minor key, it would have to be either a harmonic or melodic minor specifically.

    Is the above statement meant to specifically juxtapose “key” with “mode”? Or I’d there a gap in my knowledge where someone could point me in the right direction?

    • Hi Josh:

      The raised leading tone that you get in a minor scale is what makes it a key and not a mode. The aeolian and dorian modes both have a whole step between the 7th note and the upper “tonic” (Example: Aeolian: A B C D E F G A; Harmonic Minor: A B C D E F G# A). So if you have a song that appears to be in the Aeolian mode, but then you get a major V chord, the 7th note (G) will have been raised (G#), and it’s an indication that the music is tonal, not modal.

      Does this help?

  3. Pingback: Chord Ideas for Minor Key Songwriting | The Essential Secrets of Songwriting

  4. I have a question, but first let me begin explain my reason for it. I’ve heard that there are four types of minor scales (whether it’s is in a key or mode, like you discussed some in this article, I do not know): the natural minor (Aeolian mode), melodic, harmonic, and dorian. My question is this why is the Dorian mode considered a minor scale? Is it possibly because the person referring to the dorian mode was talking about its usage in a different way?

  5. An issue rarely if ever mentioned is that, to TRULY be in one of the church modes, one doesn’t simply utilize the notes of the modal scale. Rather, there are VERY strict rules governing cadencing, the acceptable range of the modal melodies, and there were absolutely no modulations. Originally, modulating wasn’t even a concept when the modes were in use.

    Remember that it was JS Bach–specifically in the Well-Tempered Clavier–who “codified” the equal-tempered system, which ALLOWS for the possibility of modulation, of having widely-spaced parts, and even the ability to utilize keys with several flats or sharps. Before the equal-tempered system–which we use to this day–the wide-ranging leaps, distant modulations and multi-varied instrumental combinations simply weren’t possible. Before equal-temperament such music sounded extremely out-of-tune.

    The modes weren’t even seen as appropriate for strictly-instrumental music–which the Roman Catholic church frowned upon.

    The church modes didn’t even utilize cadences the same as we do in tonal music, so to be “authentic” to a given mode, each specific cadence had to be the one prescribed for EACH PARTICULAR MODE by the originators of the modes–the monks of the Roman Catholic church–specifically those under Pope Gregory (hence, “GREGORIAN Chant”).

    The “terminus” and “finalis” of each mode must be adhered to, or we aren’t actually in the mode whose scale we’re utilizing.

    This helps explain the difference, for example, between the Aeolian and Hypodorian modes, which place their half steps between the same scale degrees, but the two scales utilize different “finalis” and “terminus” tones to realize the mode.

    It is because of this that “Losing My Religion,” for example is decidedly NOT in a church mode. It simply uses the notes, without (e.g.) properly limiting the range of the melody, and clearly without cadencing in a way authentic to the mode. (And for about a dozen other reasons, as well.)

    Don’t forget: the “church” modes were created to service the text of sacred ceremonies, and composers of this sacred music (all of whom were monks) were not allowed to “be imaginative”. Their job, and the role of each given mode was to serve God, by setting the sacred text without adornment or “artistry”, which would be drawing attention to the composer/monk, rather than to the Glory of the Sacred Word.

    • Hi Doug:

      Your comments about church modes are well-taken, but most songwriters in the pop genres use modes in the more generic (and more modern) sense of organization of pitches with reference to a particular key signature. In that regard, “Losing My Religion” is not in a church mode, but I think the key phrase from my article would be “for our purposes here.”

      Thanks very much for your comment.

  6. I think I get what you’re saying. My question is on major key – Ionian mode difference.
    If for example I play a I – IV – V chord progression that would be in a major key right? And if I play a progression that doesn’t “use” the B note to get back to C like I – vi – ii – IV – I, would I be playing in C Ionian then?

  7. Pingback: Writing a Song that Moves From Dorian Mode to Major Key | The Essential Secrets of Songwriting

  8. Thank you for this great article. I have a question..

    Is there any reason for a composer to choose modal composition over tonal composition?

    • Hi Zachary:

      Many songwriters, and composers of other musical forms (classical, etc.) would say that modal composition offers more opportunity for manipulating the mood of the music. This certainly applies to modes that use a lowered 7th, like dorian and aeolian modes (as well as mixolydian, which sounds like a major scale with a lowered 7th). Other modes are trickier to use successfully, so we don’t hear so much music in Lydian (which features an augmented 4th: C-D-E-F#-G-A-B-C), or locrian: C-Db-Eb-F-Gb-Ab-Bb).

      You’ll be able to tell if modal composition is doing anything for you by simply improvising melodies in one of the modes, and that’s probably what most songwriters wind up doing.


  9. Pingback: Chord Progressions for Songs in a Minor Key or Mode | The Essential Secrets of Songwriting Blog

  10. Is there a functional term for using the minor v in an otherwise major-key song preceding the IV as it begins a new section, like the chorus in a song? It was very popular in country ballads in the sixties (Brandy Clark still likes to use it!) as well as in some pop and jazz standards before that, and gives a soaring or lifting effect to a bridge or chorus, like a gentle cadence into the fourth as a temporary tonic. In that sense, it is like a ii to the IV-as-I. Wondered if there was a shorthand reference term for this particular borrowed chord. Most song that use it this way are definitely not modal.

    • Hi Paul:

      In the example you give, the minor v-chord is acting like a “secondary supertonic” chord. In other words, it’s acting as though the IV-chord, as you say, is a kind of temporary tonic, and the minor-v is acting like a ii-chord. There is a Wikipedia article called “Secondary supertonic chord“, though in the example they give, it’s making the V-chord sound like a tonic, not a IV. So a minor v-chord would be a type of altered chord.



    If I’ve learnt how to play the 7 mode shapes corresponding to the major scale and linked them together across the fretboard, then I can play, say the Aeolian pattern and extend it up and down the fret board yes? Since I know the other 6 patterns anyway.

    Hence my question is, given the above information, what is the point of learning ANOTHER 5 separate shapes for the Aeolian/Minor? OR are they basically derivatives of the mode shapes themselves?

    • If I understand you correctly, your last statement is correct: You shouldn’t have to learn any new patterns- you simply adjust where you play the existing patterns according to the key you are in. To play in minor keys, locate the tonic on the low E string and instead of playing Ionian (major) there, simply play Aolian there instead and then you can play the other six patterns where they naturally occur relative to aolian. There ARE different patterns for Harmonic AND melodic minor, however, because there is a different formula altogether for those scales.

  12. Don’t have time really to read through the comments, but from my research, in a very generalized nutshell, it seems a scale is a patter or formula of notes, ie t-t-st-t-t-t-st (ionian) a key being the use of said formula with any given root(beginning) note, c-d-e-f-g-a-b-c, and the mode is the changing of said pattern keeping the same order if followed and looped in sequence, t-t-st-t-t-t-st to t-st-t-t-t-st-t to st-t-t-t-st-t-t to t-t-t-st-t-t-st and so on. This conclusion was drawn after a very limited time of research, and very late at night/early in the morning with no more purpose than to serve as a base hypothesis to understand the difference between say the ionian (major 1st mode) key of c (c, d, e, f, g, a, b, c) which belongs to the major scale, and the aeolian (minor 1st mode) key of a (a, b, c, d, e, f, g, a) which belongs to the natural minor scale. two different classifications for the same set of notes and the only visible difference is the root note. If you could clear up the systematic difference up for me, i would be ever so grateful.

    • You’ve pretty well figured it out already- the root note (which I will hereafter refer to by the more appropriate to this context term “tonic”) is the difference. While that may seem trivial, the relationship between a) the three primary (I-IV-V (i-iv-v in Aolian or Natural minor)) chords, and b) the scale degrees, relative to the Tonic (root), is different, and thus creates a different mood, essentially. As a way to test this out, try “when the saints go marching” in C and then again in Am (||: c-e-f-g :||<–(x3) e-c-e-d-e-e-d-c-c-e-g-g-g-f-c-e-f-g-e-c-d-c and ||: a-c-d-e :||(x3) c-a-c-b-c-c-b-a-a-c-e-e-e-d-a-c-d-e-c-a-b-a, respectively). You'll see that the semitone relationships between c-d, c-f, and c-g corresponds ("transposes") exactly with a-b, a-d, a-e, respectively, in A minor, but c-e, which is four semitones, transposes to a-c in A minor, which is only three semitones. This 3rd scale degree difference in relationship to the tonic is what makes them sound different from one another. Also notice how you hear them both definitively center tonally around there respective tonics. When played in C, it certainly won't sound "at rest," (like the song is finished) if you end on A, and vice versa. Similarly, you can also hear the contrast and similar "tonal centered-ness" of the corresponding tonic by playing the primary chords (I-IV-V/i-iv-v): for C: ||: C | F | G | C :||, and for Am: ||: Am | Dm | Em | Am :||

      As a further clarification- You can be playing any of the "modes" of C major and still be playing in C major (including Aolian) if you are treating C as the tonic. Alternatively, you can play in any of the seven keys created by treating the first note of that mode as the tonic (This is assuming your harmony (chords) is similarly suggesting that mode).

  13. Thank you for this article. My question is: How should one tell which mode a melody is
    if all we have is melody, no harmony?
    For example, it is said that Skolion of Seikilos is in phrygian mode. According to two sharps, the key is that of D major/B minor. Phrygian mode starts with tone F#, and in Skolion of Seikilos melodu starts with tone A and it completely sounds as if A is a tonic center. I can not understand why is it in phrygian mode. To me, it looks like it is in mixolydian mode. Can you, please, explain this?


    • Hi Aleksandar:

      Yes, you are right, that piece is in mixolydian mode. To determine the mode of a melody (without chords to assist), you need to look at the harmonies that are implied by grouping melodic cells together. When you look at Skolion of Seikilos, you’ll see right away that all the shapes are clearly outlining chords from A major – until you get to the G-naturals. That puts it clearly into A mixolydian. In order for this song to be phrygian, it would need to use the note F#, as you say, as a clear modal centre. But that note plays a very unimportant role in this melody. So your choice of mixolydian is correct.


  14. I think you nice folks are missing the forest for the trees.

    If the distance between the 1st and 3rd scale step is a minor third, it’s minor; if the distance is a major third, it is major. Unless you do something strange with key signatures or accidentals it’s not going to be other than a major or minor third. Period. It had nothing to do with leading tones.

    Modes do NOT depend on what note you start on, but rather order and relationships between the tones and simitones in the “scale” (on something that can play chromatically that is).

    Ionian is WWhWWWh (2 Whole Steps = Major 3rd)
    Dorian is: WhWWWhW (1-1/2 steps, minor third, so it’s a “minor” mode)
    Phrygian: hWWWhWW (1-1/2 steps, so it’s again a “minor” mode, a weard one but still minor)
    Lidian: WWWhWWh (2 Whole steps, this also would be considered “Major”)
    Mixolidian is: WWhWWhW (Again it starts with WW so it’s a “Major” mode)
    Aolian is WhWWhWW (1Whole Step + 1 Half step = Minor 3rd so it’s “Minor” )
    Locrian: hWWhWWW ( 1-1/2 steps, so it’s minor)

    Why do I say this? I am an award winning Appalachian Dulcimer player, and we play modally. We mostly just use Ionan, Dorian, Mixolidian, and Aeolian. When playing a diatonic fretted instrument, the mode does depend on what note you start on.

  15. This whole article doesn’t sound right in how it says things. If you want to boil it down to solid theory, It’s pointless to make modes from natural minor scales. And it’s pointless to call something a minor mode when you’re looking at major scales and natural minor scales (like C major and A minor above), because the only mode that is truly minor is the Aeolian, and if you don’t call it the ‘Aeolian mode’ of a certain major key, then you might aswell call it the ‘relative minor’ of whatever major key you made it from. And if you make a mode from a natural minor scale then you’ve missed the whole point of modes anyway.

    If you take a C major scale:

    C D E F G A B C

    The Aeolian mode of the C major scale is A Aeolian:

    A B C D E F G A

    A Aeolian is exactly the same as A minor (the relative minor of C major):

    A B C D E F G A

    But A Aeolian still isn’t really a ‘minor mode’. Something is either an ‘A minor scale’ (the relative minor of C major), or it’s the ‘A Aeolian mode’ (the Aeolian mode of C major). The two may be the same in tonality but they aren’t the same thing in terms of theory and that’s why we call things either modes or keys. That’s why there are keys and modes as two separate things in the first place.

    And likewise, if you somehow make modes from natural minor scales, it’s pointless.

    Here’s the A minor scale.

    A B C D E F G

    It contains exactly the same notes as the C major scale. So why would you make your modes from it instead of the major? It doesn’t make any sense and it’s just a waste of time.

    • Hello Elmando:

      Thanks for your comment. The term “minor mode” and “major mode” is a phrase that indicates the relationship of the bottom 3rd of modal scales, and so it is a handy way of categorizing them. I did not invent that – it is part of, if you will, the “solid theory” of the topic, and used by musicologists to describe music long before there was music in “keys”. (For example, in the book “Counterpoint: Fundamentals of Music Making”, Markand Thakar describes some of Palestrina’s music as “graduated exercises in the major and minor modes…”) As you can see in this article, modes are figured from major scales, so your last two sentences show that you might have missed that point. The point in comparing minor scales from tonality and the Aeolian mode, for example, is that the Aeolian mode does not use a leading tone, which is a requirement in order for something to be in a key. That is the one important point in this short article. Don’t be confused over the expression “minor mode” – it’s simply a categorization that makes the discussion and comparison of key and mode a bit easier.

      Thanks again,
      -Gary Ewer

  16. Welllll…no, it doesn’t help completely although I really appreciate the prompt response! If I look at John Jacob Niles’ published melody line and transpose it down 3 half-steps to the key I’m singing it in, it then begins on B and has an F# in the melody line at the “-der” of “wander”. One is playing an Em chord at that point because the F# is just a connecting tone — “… wander out under the sky” is G, F#, E, D, B, G, A. So there is an F# in the song when you start on B with a G-scale and ending on A. The F# shows up again in the -ior of “Savior” and the “for” in “…our Savior did come for to die”.
    I agree the chord choices in this transposition are Em, G, Am and none of them have an F# but the melody line does. So … doesn’t that make a difference in saying whether it’s Aeolian or Dorian??
    Thanks for your patience … a LOT!

    • This has confused me – I thought it was in key Am (No sharps or flats) – In the 30th measure there is a chord with E in the bass and it has a G# – The next chord is Am right at the ‘Angels’ …..?

  17. I struggled for hours to put together I Wonder As I Wander on mountain dulcimer (which only has frets for a diatonic scale, not chromatic) in my voice range (rather low for female) … and succeeded! I think it is A Dorian. It clearly uses the notes of the G scale. It ends on Am; in fact most phrases in the song end on Am. There’s no leading tone. So A Dorian seems to fit.

    Yet, most of the song is spent in an Em chord sung from B up to G. It would be hard to say “the most important note” is A since, although most phrases end on A, the note is not used except at the end of phrases. And most of the time the chords are Em and a G just before the Am.

    I went to multiple web sites for mountain dulcimer and found various suggested tunings in different keys. The part that is prompting this post is that I also found *very* confident pronouncements that this song is Aeolian mode, Dorian mode, and “true Aeolian” with “true” in italics. Well, it can’t be ALL of those! So which is it? Door #1, #2, …?

    If I’m wrong and it’s NOT A Dorian (given the scale I’m singing it in, not how John Jacob Niles published it), what’s wrong with how I’m thinking about this. I’d really like to get this!


    • Hello Ruth:

      Determining the mode used by a piece of music will require knowing the tone set of the melody, but also the chord choices. The tone set will usually be the same no matter which version you listen to, while chord choice can change from one rendition to another.

      With “I Wonder as I Wander”, the mode cannot be definitively determined by looking at the tone set alone. That’s because the only (but crucial) difference between the dorian and aeolian modes is the 6th note. With this song, the 6th note is missing. It uses the following notes: A-B-C-D-E-G.

      But you can determine the mode by looking at the chord choices. Many versions you will hear are in a standard minor key (using a raised leading tone (G#) when a chord based on E occurs. Other versions I’ve heard are in the Aeolian mode. I’ve never personally heard a dorian version of this song, as it would require using a chord somewhere that uses an F# (the raised 6th note that makes it dorian). I think that would be tricky. The best chord to use that might include an F# (assuming A as a “tonic”) would be a D major chord. Not impossible, of course, but I’ve never heard that myself.

      Does that help?

      • I have my dulcimer tuned to DAD and am trying to figure out what mode or key I’m playing the song, “I Wonder as I Wander”, in. I seem to use barre chords of Bm, Em and F#m to make the song work. The song ends on an E note. Would this be E Aeolian mode? I’m trying to do a blog post on this song. Thanks for your help.

  18. Hi Gary,

    Thanks for key/mode write-up. I came to this post upon searching for information regarding Aeolian and Dorian modes, and I’m glad I did. I had no idea that being in a ‘key’ had the requirement of the 1/2 step leading tone. I have a couple questions, and don’t know if you’re still checking on this older blog post, but I’ll ask anyhow. One question is fairly theoretical, the other more practical.

    First, let’s say me and dear ole dad are jamming one day on a D Dorian groove. Dad says “We are playing in D minor.” If I say “No, we are jamming in D Dorian”, well, I know that’s correct.

    But could I *also* say, “No we are technically in the ‘key’ of C major, but using the Dorian mode of C major.” Would that also be correct? Now let’s clear something up — I am 100% aware that D Dorian is the second mode of C major. That’s not my question. The question is, since D Dorian shares the same notes, chords, and key signature as C major, would I be *technically* correct to say that our D Dorian jam was, in reality, C major? Or am I just being a total dork here? 🙂

    I’m having a really hard time expressing this question in writing so I have no doubt that you may be confused by what I’m asking. I guess it boils down to, can you be in a key and a mode at the same time. “I am in D Dorian, AND also C major.” Or are they completely different constructions? If I could draw a Venn diagram here, would the key circle and the mode circle be completely separate? Or would the key circle be completely inside the mode circle?

    My second question is this: since there is no difference in key signature on the score, how would a musician, unfamiliar with the score of a tune just put in front of them, know that the piece is in D Dorian? Without knowing, and/or hearing the tune how would they know? And I guess a follow on question is, does it even matter? I don’t know how to sight read, so I guess it’s entirely possible that the musician just figures it out, either by looking over the music and noticing the focus on the D instead of the C, or simply hears it in the underlying chord progression? Maybe I answered my own question. It just seemed odd that the first time you see a piece of music, one of the first things you look at is tempo/key etc. and it struck me that in my example of C major and D Dorian (as well as many others!) the musician may not immediately know if the song is in a key or a mode.

    Great post. As you can see, it got me thinking. Thanks for your time!

    • Hi, and thanks for your great questions. Though C major and D dorian share the same key signature and use the same notes, the main difference is in the melodic and harmonic goal. A song in C major uses the notes CDEFGAB, and melodies and chords will treat the note C as being the chief note – the tonic. A song in D dorian will use those same notes, but the melodies and chords will treat the note D as being chief.

      Sometimes when you’re jamming with another musician, it can help (purely as a way of keeping your fingers on the right notes) to think of D dorian as being C major. But you need to keep thinking of the main difference: Music in C major needs to make C important, while music in D Dorian makes D important. So chords will be structured differently. A typical C major chord progression might be: C Dm G C. A typical D Dorian progression might be: Dm G Am Dm.

      Referring to your second question: How you know what key or mode you’re in simply requires you to see which note is serving as the goal of most of the melodic phrases, particularly the last phrase. Sometimes this is easy to see, but sometimes it takes some study before that becomes apparent. Overall, the sound of the music should tell you, but simply by looking at the score you should be able to see which note and chord is acting as the tonic.

      Hope this helps, and thanks again for writing,

  19. Pingback: Music: Given only a list of all notes played in a piece, along with their durations and starting times, can the key be algorithmically determined? - Quora

  20. Gary,

    Thanks so much for your explanation! I’m just getting back into music after 20 years away from it and I’ve been wondering about this one forever…..

    ~ Jason

  21. Sorry, but I’m just not getting this: if I have a piece, for example, in Am, (ABCDEFG) with a melody centered on A, how is that not the same EXACT same thing as A-Aeolian? The G (subtonic?) is a whole tone away from the tonic of A for both, so I’m failing to see how a nonexistent “leading tone” (semitone) leading to the tonic would make any difference or distinction as to whether we’re in a minor key or mode. To my way of thinking, Am IS the Aeolian mode (natural minor) in relation to the key of C Major, and I’ve always thought of any other mode as a “shade” of the key or its relative minor depending on the modes tonality. What am I missing here?

    • Hi Jason:

      The scale you used as an example, ABCDEFG, is the Aeolian scale. We also call it ‘natural minor’, but that’s an unfortunate term, because ‘natural minor’ is simply the Aeolian scale that uses a name that attempts to relate it to other minor scales (melodic and harmonic). When we use the term ‘minor key’, we’re talking about a manipulation of that scale. Specifically, a melodic minor scale raises the 6th and 7th notes when ascending, and puts them back to their natural state when descending. A harmonic minor scale raises the 7th note in both directions. A natural minor makes no changes, and so it is simply a modal scale: Aeolian.

      What I was writing about in this blog posting is that in the pop music world, all of those scale and key “types” are lumped together and called “minor key”. So in the popular music world, your first statement is true. But my point is that when we use the term “key”, we’re talking about something that’s different from “mode.” A key has the specific requirement (among other requirements) of having a raised leading tone, and that’s where melodic minor and harmonic minor scales come into existence.

      So that makes “All Along the Watchtower” minor mode (Aeolian), because it uses the unaltered notes of the Aeolian scale. And “California Dreamin'” is in A minor, because it has a raised leading tone (on the word “grey”).

      The confusion that people express about this comes about mainly because theorists decided many, many years ago to call the Aeolian mode a “natural” minor scale, and that was an unfortunate thing. Unfortunate because it gives the impression that there are three types of minor scales that belong to tonality, when in fact there are only two. The other one belongs to modality.


      • So then, just so I’m clear, you’re saying that if we’re playing with:

        CDEFGAB with a tonal center of C and a leading tone of B, we’re playing in the Key of C Major?

        ABCDEFG with a tonal center of A and in which the seventh is G we’re playing modally in A Aeolian?

        ABCDEFG with a tonal center of A, but in which the seventh is raised a half step to G# when used as a leading tone, we’re playing in the Key of A Minor?

  22. Thanks for your article. I was just wondering if you had any suggestions on how to HEAR the difference between aeolian and dorian modes. I find this quite challenging.

    • What you’re going to want to focus on is the 6th note of the scale – that’s the one note that’s different between aeolian and dorian. To practice this, I’d play both scales alternately, listening for the quality of that 6th note. Then I would play the first 6 notes of each scale, which means you’ll play up to that 6th note and then turn around. Doing it that way will isolate that 6th note and make it more obvious. Little by little you’ll get the sound in your ear.


  23. That makes some sense to me, but I am looking at the score too. There aren’t any sharps or flats in the key signature, and the only accidental played in the piece is a G#. I totally get the E Phrygian part, but the E major part is what is complexing me……there aren’t any other accidentals at all…only a G#, but it sounds very E major. HELP.

    • The Phrygian mode is affirmed by the absence of a key signature in the score. The E major part is simply a musical anomaly. The only aspect of E major in this piece is the fact that the E major chord appears significantly. So just to modify my previous answer to you, the only aspect of this piece that points to E major is the presence of the G#, which only ever occurs when the E major chord itself is playing. There are lots of examples of music that fluctuates between different keys and modes. The Zombies’ “She’s Not There” is a good example of this.


  24. HI, I am hoping that you are still checking this because I have a piece that is really bugging me. When looking at the piece, it appears to be in a harmonic minor. However, the tonal center sounds like E major. For example, the key signature is a minor (and a G sharp is played often in the music), but the chords that ring as the acc. are usually E (wth an occasional F). It is the spanish piece Malaguena. I feel it is in a mode. Help

    • Just gave it a good listen, and I would say that it fluctuates between E major and E Phrygian. I would not say harmonic minor, because the would require an F#. The E phrygian scale is: E F G A B C D E, and as you can hear, much of the melodic material is based on this scale, with lots of E major (i.e., G changed to G#) thrown in.


  25. I am analysing songs to establish the key of the tracks, for inputtingf into a MP3 tags so I know (I am a DJ) what songs will mix comletely and harmonically with another song (‘harmonic mixing’).

    One song I have has all notes within B mixolodiam and cadence which lends self towards the B Major, as 90 percent of the song is in the B major but it has an A Major chord in it occasionally, and various instances of the A natural crop up. Am I *right* in saying the key of this song is B mixolodian, or in order to give it a key name according the strictist possible rules of what defines a key, would I have to call it ‘B Major with a dimished A’ or something? I am hesitant to call it E major, despite the fact that all the notes (and both chords) fit into that key, because the E chord never appears in the song, and theres no cadnece towards it. Thanks.

    • Hi Dale:

      If most of the song is in B major, with occasional A major chords, I would describe the key as B major, and simply consider the A major chord as being an “altered chord.” The possibility is that it’s in B mixolydian, but for the purposes of proper mixing for your DJ business, that won’t matter too much (given that both B major and B mixolydian use the same note (B) as a “tonic.”


      • Thanks. I would say the description B Mixolydian is more potentially more useful for DJs like nmyself though, because you can usually only fit 3 or 4 letter descriptinons in standard ‘key’ fields, and putting B Mix ‘wraps up’ more information in the field than just ‘B’ (theres no room to put ‘with alterations’ or stuff like that. useful If you wish to listen to the song (it got me and my music teacher talking for a while), its Kelis Acapella.

  26. Gary,
    Thanks for your timely response. I look forward to looking over your books and probably will buy. I love good music books.

    As to A Aolian, I was going by what Adam Kadmon in his “Guitar Grimoire” had to say. He has a diagram depicting modes and keys, and that’s where I got that. BUT…if I go to the circle of fifths, F# minor is the relative minor of A. Just as A minor is the relative minor of C. If, on the circle of fifths, I move counterclockwise the same 3 steps that I did to get C Aolian (where I get the key of Eb), I do indeed arrive at the key of C. From what I understand, F# minor and C have the same set of notes. Just, as you say, a different starting point.

    I am sure this would all be easier if I played keyboard and could more easily see what I was doing. I am a guitarist.

    I do get that the starting point would be different and thus a completely different set of functions and harmonics for the chords. But what I really am curious about is why Eb has the same notes as A minor. I want to understand the pattern that determines that.

    Thanks in advance for your reply. And thanks for your site. Beau

  27. Hi Beau:

    Being in a key (implying major or minor) as well as being in a mode (Aeolian, Dorian, etc) requires two things:

    1) A particular key signature; and
    2) One note being treated as the most important note.

    The first part of that is relatively simple. For example, if you have a piece of music in 3 flats, you are either in the key of Eb major, or C minor, or in one of the modes that uses 3 flats.

    That’s where we have to consider the second point… which note is being treated as the most important. In a musical context, the concept of a note being “most important” means the note that is being treated as the tonic, or key note.

    So the difference between a melody in Eb major and C Aeolian has to do with the fact that in Eb major, the note Eb is the focal point of all or most of the melodic shapes, while in C Aeolian, C is the focal point.

    The difference between something being in a minor *key*, and something being in the Aeolian mode has to do with the presence of a leading tone in the minor. For example, if your music is in C minor, you’ll see lots of B-naturals moving up to the note C. If your music is in C Aeolian, you’ll see Bb moving up to C.

    So that is really the main difference between music in a minor key and music in a minor mode. It comes down to whether or not you’re using a leading tone.

    Your second paragraph above is not correct. I think you tried to calculate the Aeolian mode in the wrong direction. If you go to the Aeolian mode associated with A major, you’ll be in F# Aeolian.


  28. Burning question: Okay, A minor is the relative minor of C major. But when you go play C Aolian (synonymous with Aolian mode), you are basically playing in the key of E flat. Is this correct? If so, what is the relationship between Aolian mode and the relative minor? The answer to this conundrum seems at least to me terribly important.

    Further, if you go to Aolian mode in A major, you end up in the key of C. Why? How does this work?

    Study of the circle of fifths and the relationships of keys and modes suggests the possibility of solving this riddle. But I have as yet to figure it out.

  29. I once saw a description of modal music as being ” music that has no real pull to the home chord”. I know it’s a rough description, is it true?

    • I wouldn’t use that as a primary definition, because it depends on how the modal music is structured. Also, the lydian mode does have a semitone leading tone. But it is certainly true that much modal music does not use the same leading tone -> tonic motion as a primary feature, and so it indeed does often lack that same pull to the home chord.

      • Is it true t say that this simplification is used as the modes; for intsance the Aeolian mode use cadences such as minor V to I and also bV11 to 1, as this wouldn’t give the music a real pull to the home chord?

        • It might be more accurate to say that most modes are naturally lacking the semitone leading tone, and it was through the Renaissance period (roughly 1450 – 1600) that composers began artificially adding a raised 7th degree at cadence points, in order to strengthen the drive to the tonic note. In this way, modality morphed into tonality.

  30. I understand what you mean about the Dorian and Aeolian modes however my question is this. Why do people always refer to the Aeolian mode as the natural minor scale. Is this just a mordern term or is there a difference?

    • Structurally, the natural minor scale is identical to the Aeolian modal scale. The term “natural minor” is a more contemporary way of referring to mode. It’s an attempt to describe it in terms of being a form of a “tonal” scale, a type of minor. In my opinion, it’s “more correct” to refer to it as Aeolian.

  31. I’m looking for songs in the dorian mode to teach 11 to 13 year olds, something that will be familiar to this age group. Any suggestions?

  32. Pingback: What is the difference between minor and natural minor? - Minor Things

  33. Pingback: Check Out These 13 Modal Chord Progressions « The Essential Secrets of Songwriting Blog

  34. I’ve noticed this terminology issue getting people confused more than once. It’s just that to a pop musician ‘minor scale’ means the aeolian mode, whereas to a classical musician it means the harmonic minor, with the raised seventh.

    What Rod describes a ‘common practice’ is a pop music attitude, not a classical one.

    But Gary’s right, it isn’t particularly important.

    What I’d dispute is the uniqueness of the leading note. Yes, it has a ‘gravity’ toward the tonic that is very useful, and it does perform the function that Gary describes.

    But the flattened second in the phrygian mode (another perfectly good minor mode!) performs a similar function, I would argue just as well. In fact in context the seventh in the aeolian mode can have the same impact as the seventh in the harmonic minor scale.

    I’m not hugely fond of the dominant/leading note – tonic relationship anyway: there are more interesting ways of creating tension and release in music. We could do with getting away from this 18th century cliché!

  35. Also worth noting is the fact there are three distinctly different scales available in the minor key. The first is natural, which corresponds with the aeolian mode; in the second, the leading tone is raised a semitone. This is called the “harmonic minor” scale, probably because it allow for the V-I harmonic progression which distinguishes tonality from modality. The third type, “melodic minor,” is a little more complicated. Strictly speaking, when ascending the scale, the 6th and 7th notes of the scale are raised a semitone; on the way back down, they return to their “natural” position. Another way to think of it: start with the first five notes of a minor scale, then finish off the scale as if in the major key.

    Classical composers typically would move freely between one form of the scale and the others, using harmonic and melodic versions more often at cadence points or in order to modulate to another key. I can’t think of any specific songs using this technique, but think of a song in d minor that makes use of both C natural and C# at different times.

    The neat thing about mixing different minor scales and/or modes is that you can set the listener up to expect certain notes and then pleasantly surprise them with others.

  36. Hi Rod – You’re partly right, in the sense that Aeolian is indeed minor, which I wasn’t disputing. But the proper terminology is to refer to Aeolian as a minor *mode*, not a minor key. The system of tonality (i.e., when we talk about music being “in a key”) requires in part the presence of a semitone leading tone. This leading tone exists naturally in major *keys* and major *modes*, so this discussion never comes up for major. But for the minor modes of Aeolian and Dorian, the leading tone doesn’t exist, so it’s missing the most important ingredient for being termed a “key”.

    For most musicians, it winds up being a minor (pun intended!) issue, more simply an issue of terminology. I hope I didn’t stir up a hornet’s nest, because I only meant to convey to people that by understanding the existence of the two different ways of organizing tones, we can add to our creative palette as we compose.

    Thanks very much for your comment.

    • I have a question. I’ve studied music for almost 50 years, and often times treated theory like a trip to a deptment store. You pick up a few things and leave the rest back inside the store. Recently, I’ve been studying counterpoint, and also the various modes. Question…Does the major or minor mode follow the same pattern as the chord progressions within the differant keys?? I just ran into your site and found it quite enlightening.

      • Hi Bill:

        Not sure if I know what you’re asking, and perhaps you could clarify. If I’m understanding you correctly, chord progressions tend to work the same way in major keys as minor keys, in the sense that a I-IV-V-I will work in both A major and A minor. But I have a feeling you are asking something more than that. Could you rephrase?


  37. Your leading tone point in interesting, but your terminology seems a little confusing to me, since most people I know think of Aeolian as being more or less the definition of minor key. A Aeolian is, after all, the relative minor of C major, isn’t it? It seems strange to say it’s not a minor key. To me, distinguishing between natural minor (Aeolian) and harmonic minor (your “Minor”) seems more in line with common practice.

  38. Although very interesting, I question the consistency of your approach. For instance, how would this apply to Ionian mode vs major keys?

    To me, it’s about cadence and harmonic duration. You can imply many moods involving the TONAL (not necessarily KEY) areas within the modes but I am not sure there is a difference between modes and keys RELATIVELY speaking.

    The discussion is really interesting… Thanks for this.

    • The Ionian mode (synonymous with major key) does not have the same issue as minor modes, because the semitone leading tone naturally exists in the Ionian mode. Songs written in the Ionian mode several centuries ago have many of the same melodic structures as music from the Baroque onward, with the lack of tonality’s harmonic structure being the main difference.

      Could you let me know what you meant by “tonal areas within the modes”? My point was that the two terms “tonal” and “key” for the purposes of this sort of discussion, can be thought of as synonyms, while “tonal ” and “modal” are not. And I guess the main reason for that would be that tonality considers not just the scale structures used, but also the harmonic progression, the semitone leading tone being a crucial element.

      Many thanks for your thoughts, Arnold.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.