A 'Simple' C Maj Modality Question ;-)

This question may appear somewhat pedestrian given some of the sophisticated theory questions I have read here, but it’s an honest question and maybe that counts for something ;-).

If we base our investigation on the C Maj scale, my first quandary is; starting the scale on D (Dorian) it seems more logical that D Dorian would actually be called 'C Dorian ’ because we’re in the key of C Maj but we’re starting our scale on D. I can live with that nomenclature and it’s probably the case that my approach led to some unhappy contradictions centuries ago that have yet to occur to me.

The more vexing issue for me is that for modalities to be based in the key of C, it doesn’t seem ‘right’ that we would impose ANY sharps or flats to construct the mode. D Dorian would simply be D E F G A B C D (no sharps or flats). However, the theory literature I am reading talks about D Dorian with a b3 and b7.

If D Dorian is just the C Maj scale starting on D, then why would I need any flats?




Whenever you see the word “mode”, replace it with the word “key”, and see if the question still holds up. In the case of your question here, if you’re playing in the key of C, and you play a melody that starts on the note D, and it happens to go up in a straight line the way a scale does, and the chord that’s playing while you do this is a C chord, would you call that Dorian? I wouldn’t. I’d call that C major.

Now let’s say that the tune you’re playing is in the key of C, but actually playing a D minor chord at that moment, as part of a progression. Does the overall song sound like it has modulated, even temporarily, to the key of D minor, albeit with a B natural in it, instead of a B flat like you’d normally have in D minor? If the answer to that is still no, then I still wouldn’t call that Dorian. It’s still the key of C, but you happen to playing a D minor chord.

This is just me, but the note something “starts” on has no bearing to keys or modes at all, and calling something a mode that doesn’t sound like a key is not something I do. And calling a fingering a mode is definitely not something I do.

The question about the “flat 3” and “flat7” I think is just because you’re reading a book that is comparing the Dorian scale to the major scale. Compared to major, Dorian has a flatted third degree and a flatted seventh degree. All other notes are the same. Trying to hear this this by comparing C major to D Dorian is the absolute worst way in my opinion. Instead, compare C major to C Dorian. In other words, play a C major scale. Now flat the third note and the seventh note, and play it again. That difference you hear is the difference between Dorian and major. For even more Dorian “flavor”, do it while playing along with Cmaj7 chord for major, and a Cmin6 chord for Dorian. That will intensify the respective “flavors” and make the difference more obvious.

But again, just my 2 cents, I wouldn’t call a C major fingering Dorian, because Dorian describes an overall harmonic context, or “key”, in my version of idiotspeak. A bunch of notes starting on the note D don’t do that without more information like chords, or even better, a chord progression / song, surrounding them.


That makes sense. If I understand what you’re saying, for something to be ‘modal’ it has to sound modal and generally that would be intentional - e.g. the musician is consciously seeking that sound or mood (whether they would identify it as modal or not).

Therefore, might you say modality is to a certain degree, context dependent - the musician is intentionally contrasting one mode with another or, in a broader context, with contemporary tastes (major, minor)?

I also hear you saying, the key signature just tells you what notes on the staff are flattened or sharped a convention of music reading convenience, so to speak. In that sense, a fingering technique might work in a number of modes so it is not inherently modal.

That said, I’ve been getting a lot out of the Joe Stump and Mike Stern clips. Some of those are labeled “Phrygian” and “Harmonic Minor” for example. What’s the best way to think about that? (honest question).

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More or less. Music theory types will tell you that the term “key” and “mode” aren’t the same. I assume “key” means a specific key, like C major. Whereas the term mode means more like a “type of key”, like major, minor, Dorian, whatever. So yes, to me the only point in calling something “minor” or “Dorian”, or “Phrygian” is if it sounds… minor, Dorian, or Phrygian!

Yes, but just keep in mind that when music theory books talk about a particular scale having a “flatted seventh degree” or a “flatted third”, they’re not really talking about key signature. For example, the key of A minor has no sharps or flats in its key signature. But it still has a flatted seventh degree and a flatted third degree compared to A major. Specifically, the key of A major would have C# in it, whereas the key of A minor has a C natural. C natural is “flatted” compared to C#, so it doesn’t need anything in the key signature. So this business you’re reading where these terms are being used, it’s being described this way because theory heads like to describe types of keys compared to other types of keys. In this case, they’re comparing Dorian, which is a minor-flavored mode (“type of key”), to Ionian, aka “major”.


These are just different “types of keys”, with their own sound. Again, harmonic minor isn’t a “mode”, per se, it’s a bigger category, because it has a different sequence of whole tones and half tones than the more common diatonic modes like major, minor, Dorian, and so on. So you can actually have modes of harmonic minor. Phrygian dominant is a mode of harmonic minor, for example.

Again, if you ask me, the best way to learn the sound of all of this stuff is to play a chord that typifies the sound of the scale or mode you want, then play the scale at the same time. By far the simplest way is on a piano keyboard. Left hand does the chord, right hand taps out the scale notes. You don’t have to be any kind of keyboard player to do this. Just find the notes and hold them down in the left hand, then find the notes and tap them out with the right hand, one finger if necessary. Super easy to compare / contrast chord flavors and modes this way.

I think of them as sound “flavors”. Aeolian, Dorian, Phrygian, and Harmonic minor are different flavors of minor. To me they are:

Aeolian - latin/classical
Dorian - jazzy minor
Phrygian - spanish/flamenco
Harmonic Minor - middle eastern-ish

Different scales and modes create different progressions. In A minor the dominant chord is E7 (borrowed from A harmonic minor). In A Aeolian either Bm7b5 or G7 is used as the dominant.

A minor: Bm7b5 - E7 - Am
A Aeolian: Dm - G7 - Am
A Phrygian: Dm - C - Bb - Am To really get the flamenco sound change Am to A(b9).
G major: C - D7 - G
G Mixolydian: C - F7 - G
G Lydian - F#m - Em - A7 - G


It’s actually a huge can of worms, historically, in jazz pedagogy. It counts! Sidestepping the issue a bit, see if this helps…?

“Enharmonically equivalent” refers to two musical structures that are identical but that may or may not sound the same depending on context. Think of a splotch of color against different shaded backgrounds. One hue, many, many possibilities for color contrast.

With any given scalar/modal concept there are generally speaking, two views, parallel and relative. Previous responses address some of the this. Are you familiar with solfege? Here is Dorian expressed first, relative to a parent key, and second, as it’s own thing, the parallel view:

Major scale expressed in scale degrees and solfege:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti

Dorian Relative to Do:
2 3 4 5 6 7 1
Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do

Dorian Parallel view (starting on the same root, b3 and b7):
1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7
Do Re Me Fa So La Te

(…where “Me” is pronounced “may,” and “Te” is pronounced “tay.”)

Perhaps with an understanding “enharmonically equivalent” and “relative vs parallel,” the questions change? Good luck!

Cheers, Daniel

[Update: Visualization-wise, as opposed to audiation-wise, I actually tend to think of Dorian this way… WHW WHW …with regard to the tetrachords it comprises, and with regard to the related seventh chord, 1 b3 5 b7, visualizing a natural sixth between 5 and b7. Each view has an important application.]

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I hate to sound like a caveman, but sheet music cannot distinguish the modes, hence I postulate that they are only useful for theorists.

I will go further and argue that anybody saying “I am desperate to learn heuristics for improvisation” should question why they want to stunt their musical progress with premature improvisation vs. learning more repertoire.

Sheet music can indicate if a song is modal, or has modal sections. For example, if the key signature is G Major but all the F notes are natural then it’s G Mixolydian, like the chorus for Ramblin’ Man.


It’s a question I see all the time. Problem is that in modern literature (especially western) they use ‘modes’ in context of tonal music, opposite to the initial idea of modal music.
It’s better to call it ‘Dorian scale’. It’s not a version of natural major, it’s another scale, totally different. As for b3 and b6 - natural major is used as a reference point to describe any scale or chord. That’s why people sometimes make mistake naming chords like min add6.

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What guys above said is absolutely correct.

Let me however simplify this a little:

“Key” - to put it simply is either A, B, C, D, E etc.
You could play the same melody in either key and it would still be the same, just higher or lower compared one to another.

“Modes” relate to modal scales, there is one the most common Ionian with it’s modalities:


As you can see there are seven modalities in total and each have their own “vibe”.
However they are all the same set of notes - just starting on different step of the scale.

Think about it like this:
If we take Ionian scale in the key of C, then C is the first step of the scale.
The second step would be D - which in this particular scenario relates to Dorian mode.
Third would be E, relating to Phrygian, and so on.

But if we switch around and begin our Ionian on the note D, then the Dorian would be E, Phrygian would be F# and so on.

Just treat scales/modes as patterns that you can apply to certain keys.

As for “flattened” intervals, let’s analysie A Aeolian:

A - 1st degree, a root note
B - major 2nd
C - minor 3rd (the “flattened” interval)
D - 4th
E - 5th
F - minor 6th (the “flattened” interval)
G - minor 7th

So the “flattened”/“diminished”/“augmented” don’t necessarily mean sharps and flats.

I may add that no notation system (existing or future) could distinguish modes or even key.

So I found the first page of the sheet music and I see the key being G major, and sometimes there is the usual F#, and sometimes there is F, but how does this indicate a mode?

I see where you are coming from on this, and I think I agree with the underlying rationale, but if one’s aim is to play an improvisatory style, improvisation is not something I’d ever want a student to put off practicing. How improvisation is taught from the outset, of course, definitely matters.

Actually, in addition to what @Ian pointed out, a truly modal tune will often indicate explicitly in the text that a piece is modal.

I don’t generally think of the dominant section of a tune as modal per se. But that said, traditional notation may absolutely indicate modality, and it behooves folks new to the same to not get hung up on the occasional accidentals encountered in analysis.

[update: As @Ian points out below, what I’m describing in the second paragraph here doesn’t apply. Satriani’s “pitch axis” stuff comes to mind as another example of specifically modal passages in rock related music.]

Sheet music is cool thing. You may imagine how a piece sounds by looking at it, without any relations to an instrument. Which is good (and that’s why tabs may be so annoying)

But, at some point I agree with @kgk . Though most of the time tonality/mode are obvious from notation, sometimes it’s not. Or should I say - you can’t guess it until you read whole piece… or at least some part of it. Just looking at the clef and key signature may not always help.

The only thing that can really define mode (in modal music) or tonality (in tonal music) are our ears. Tensions, releases etc appear in our head while we’re listening to the piece. In the case of original medieval modal music it’s retrospective. Sometimes you can guess the mode only close to the very end of the piece. So, basically with a standard notation you need to look at the piece at whole to find out what is all about (ambitus, repercussa, finalis etc), or use direct indication (that’s what people usually do). Modern music is more straightforward, though there are a lot of examples when defining tonality is difficult… if possible. Bartok, Shostakovich, early Shoenberg etc etc.
Even if I play two simple chords repeatedly - C and F - until I start to play a melody over them you can’t say if it’s I-IV or V-I. But even a melody could be ambiguous.

So sheet music not always allows to reveal the tonality/mode easily, though it’s not because of notation, but because of the nature of music itself.



I don’t know… For my ears funky music dorian is quite obvious without any relation to any abstract theory. As I mentioned earlier - problem is that very often modes are given as a ‘C-major with shifted root’. But this explanation is for easier understanding only (and easy reproducing). These modes/scales are fully all-sufficient scales. If they were given from the same root it would be methodically more correct. btw there are a lot of ways to build modes one from another. One is shifting the root (most common) - where you get ionian-dorian-phrygian-… Another is which I call ‘get rid of tritone’ where you get lydian-ionian-mixolydian…

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Only the chorus is Mixolydian, the verses are G major. The solo is mixo as well. Another way to tell that it’s mixo is the F major chord resolving to G. In Mixolydian the V chord is minor but it’s frequently altered to major, so that’s where you see the F#. The bVII chord (F major) is commonly altered to F7 so an occasional Eb or Bb will show up. A Hard Day’s Night is probably better example.

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I meant to ask, “how does sheet music notation reveal the mode?” I still cannot see anything in the music notation about the mode, but I do see your interpretation of the music (your mental model) revealing what you want to see. Does my question make sense? Earlier I stated that the notation does not reveal the mode (the key is an unambiguous set of notes, a mode is an abstract statement of interpretation about one note in the key), and you said that I was in error, but I cannot understand why I was wrong…

I hate to wade in late, but I see the thread moving away from a basic discussion down the rabbit hole of Greek names and modal applications. FWIW I would offer a little simplification.

In western music we hear twelve tones before they “repeat”. Why twelve? There are some great YouTubes on that. However, not all sound consonant together. In general, we like the way a particular pattern of seven sound together. Why? There are some good YouTubes on that. We call that pattern of seven consonant notes the “key”.

Can the other five notes be played? Sure. But our ears are accustomed to hear them as jarring and harsh once the “key” has been established. Likewise, if you are playing with other musicians the way to sound harmonious is to all agree which of the twelve notes you are going to play. Generally we pick the pattern of seven notes we are all familiar with.

Are there other patterns of seven notes that can work? Sure. Think Melodic Minor. How about fewer notes? Sure. Think Pentatonic or chord arpeggios. More notes? Sure. Bebop scale and blues scale have eight.

So there is no magic to a key. It’s convention, and a way to make sure musicians are on the same musical page so they sound good together. Just keep in mind that music is VERY dependent on culture and convention to sound good to an audience. Smashing or ignoring convention usually (not always) sounds like just noise.

Finally, modes. They are the same standard pattern of seven notes we called a key. They refer to which of the seven notes you start counting from. Why does that matter? Only for rhythm and phrasing. We tend to play the starting note on a down beat and accentuate every other note. We also tend to hold the first note in a bar longer. We also tend to start and end melodies on whatever note we perceive as the first.

So, in the “key of C” we all agree that we are using just the white keys ABCDEFG. If I think of C as the start of the WWHWWWH pattern, I’m likely to play melody lines that start on C. Down beats will usually feature CEGB and off beats DFA. C is often held longer, as is often the fourth note after C: G.

If I think of starting on D, the notes on the downbeats and the notes I tend to hold are different. It will give my melody a different feel. Likewise G or A or F. Those are the “modes” of C.

Modes can be thought of as just a way to organize your phrasing and explain your thinking to other players. Saying “key of C major” tells people which pattern of seven notes you are playing. Saying “D Dorian” expresses how you are phrasing those seven notes. There is a lot of theory on what phrasing sounds good and when, but you don’t need to know any of that to understand and use “modes”.

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I got you now. Sheet music doesn’t explicitly tell you the mode, and it is open to interpretation. That F major chord in Ramblin Man is an indication of Mixolydian. Whether the section is Mixolydian or just borrows the chord is open to interpretation. I lean towards Mixolydian because the melody has that F natural and it’s the highest note in the chorus.

Sheet music doesn’t tell you if a piece of music is major or minor, but you can tell from the melody and how the chords resolve. Same thing with modes, they are just harder to read. Are there chords used from outside the key and how do they resolve? Is the melody emphasizing any accidentals? And published sheet music is horrible when it comes to key changes so take key signatures with a grain of salt. I usually ignore them and figure out the key/mode myself. Here’s an example:

The chorus is in A major. The verse seems to start in A minor with the lead-in having an F natural in the melody. Then it appears to change to A Dorian in bar 2 but after a few more bars you can tell it’s actually in E minor because of how the harmony resolves. P.s. the second verse has a nice example of a Neopolitan chord.

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