by Gary Ewer, from “The 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.
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.
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