The three minor modes

There are only three basic modes with a minor flavor. Each one has its own name, and they are: Aeolian, Lydian, and Mixolydian. (Aeolian is just a fancy name for natural minor.) With these three basic minor modes we can write an incredible amount of interesting music that has a darker feel than major modes. We experience each of these modes as its own sound-world.

The rest of the story:

If we look at Aeolian or the natural minor scale as 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 7 8, I think we have a master plan to understand Aeolian or natural minor scales in all 12 keys. Always remember that natural minor or Aeolian can be used interchangeably. Either name means the same thing. This is the first and most important mode with a minor feel.

If we start with Aeolian or the natural minor scale and raise b6 to 6, it becomes Dorian: 1 2 b3 4 5 6 7 8.

The word “raise” means to go to the right ½ tone. Dorian is used almost as often as Aeolian or natural minor. It is used especially often in jazz, folk songs, and movie music. Perhaps the most famous piece of music that is purely Dorian is “Scarborough Fair”.

If we start with Aeolian or natural minor and we lower 2 to b2, it becomes Phrygian: 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 7 8. Note that Phrygian is perfect for synchronizing with Xm7, a minor seven chord. It is similar to Aeolian or natural minor, but it has a much darker sound. There’s something really ominous about Phrygian.

That sums up the three traditional modes with a minor feel. I think this is the best way to start, because this the minor scale that is most often taught first.

Try to remember that most of the time teachers use the terms natural minor and Aeolian to mean the same thing. Some people say that these two terms mean something slightly different, but I think that is splitting hairs. This is my opportunity to pull out my Bugs Bunny picture. I just love this picture!

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