• The Difference Between Major and Minor Modes

    in Piano,Scales,Theory

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    In today’s post, let’s turn our attention to the difference between major and minor modes. But to do that, let’s first discuss tonality.

    TODAY – TONALITY

    The concept of key in music is called tonality. Ever heard the terms “major key” or “minor key?” That’s because there are two classes of tonalities – major and minor.

    Tonality describes the emotional character of a key.

    In life, there is usually a contrast between two characters, modes, or ends of a spectrum. Some examples include:

    • light and darkness,
    • happiness and sadness,
    • good and bad,
    • beauty and ugliness,
    • masculinity and feminity,

    And now you have:

    • major and minor.

    This same law of contrast is the reason there are two tonalities in music: the major tonality and the minor tonality (aka – “major key” and “minor key”).

    The process of reproducing the major or minor tonality will entail the use of what we call “pitch modifiers” (sharps, flats etc.).

    For example, here’s the C major scale:

    If we want to reproduce the major scale in “A,” a certain number of sharps will come into the picture.

    The number of sharps in the A major scale is three. This is its uniqueness – there is no other major scale that has this number of sharps – it’s exclusive to A. This uniqueness is known as key signature

    Each tonality is unique and has its signature. Key signature is a set of pitch modifiers (sharps, flats etc.) that distinguish one tonality or key from the other.

    For example, you know that C major and A major are different from each other.

    C has no sharps, while A has three sharps (on F, C and G).

    YESTERDAY – MODALITY

    Several centuries ago, there was nothing like tonality, which is commonly called the key center or simply the key.

    The order of the day was modes. The difference between modes and scales is this:

    In modes, we don’t have to reproduce a scale twice. In other words, we start from C to C, D to D, E to E, etc. without pitch modifiers. You should be familiar with these seven modes:

    Ionian
    major and minor modes C D E F G A B C

    Dorian
    major and minor modes D E F G A B C D

    Phrygian
    major and minor modes E F G A B C D E

    Lydian
    major and minor modes F G A B C D E F

    Mixolydian
    major and minor modes G A B C D E F G

    Aeolian
    major and minor modes A B C D E F G A

    Locrian
    major and minor modes B C D E F G A B

    Classification of Major and Minor Modes

    Have you ever tried to describe an event from a long time ago, but in today’s terms? Let’s say you’re trying to explain the “telegram” to young teens who haven’t a clue what it is. You’d probably have to make a comparison like this…

    1940: “Did you get my telegram?”

    2015: “Did you get my sms/email?”

    This is exactly what our attempt to classify modes looks like. We’re using tonality to classify modality.

    When modes were used, there wasn’t tonality or key. The terms major and minor are attributes of tonality, and not modality. There is actually a school of thought against the classification of modes according to tonality. However, we are intentionally doing it because we want to find out what these seven modes have in common. We are giving tonal attributes to modal scales.

    The Difference Between Major and Minor Modes – Explored

    The very first thing to do in order to ascertain if a scale is major or minor is to determine the interval between the first and the third tone of the scale. So the interval between the root and the third tone of the scale is the litmus test to ascertain the tonality of a scale.

    Major Scales: If the interval between the first and third tone of the scale is a major third, then the scale is a major scale.

    Minor Scales: If the interval between the first and third tone of the scale is a minor third, then the scale is a minor scale.

    At this point, I need to emphasize the importance of the knowledge of major 3rds and minor 3rds in all the keys. If you don’t know about major 3rds and minor 3rds, here’s a lesson on consonant intervals with a free 111-pg pdf guide.

    To recap, we have a:

    • C to C mode called the Ionian mode
    • D to D mode called the Dorian mode
    • E to E mode called the Phrygian mode
    • F to F mode called the Lydian mode
    • G to G mode called the Mixolydian mode
    • A to A mode called Aeolian mode
    • B to B mode called the Locrian mode.

    These seven modes can be classified into two: Major modes and minor modes.

    All we have to do is determine the quality of third, to know which is major and which is minor.

    Here’s a quick cheat sheet for thirds. (But I recommend checking out my full-length lesson and 111-pg pdf guide to get a comprehensive look at this.)

    Major thirds:
    C E
    D F#
    E G#
    F A
    G B
    A C#
    B D#

    Minor thirds:
    C to Eb
    D to F
    E to G
    F to Ab
    G to Bb
    A to C
    B to D

    The Ionian mode: C D E F G A B C. The first and third tones of this mode happen to be C and E.

    Considering that the interval between C and E is a major 3rd, the Ionian mode is a major mode.

     

    Dorian mode: D E F G A B C D. The 1st and the 3rd tones of this mode are D and F.

    D and F is a minor 3rd, therefore the dorian mode is a minor mode.

     

    Phrygian mode: E F G A B C D E. The 1st and the 3rd tones of this mode are E and G.

    E-G is a minor 3rd, therefore the phrygian mode is a minor mode.

     

    Lydian mode: F G A B C D E F. The 1st and the 3rd tones of this mode happen to be F and A.

    Considering that the interval between F and A is a major 3rd, the Lydian mode is a major mode.

     

    Mixolydian mode: G A B C D E F G. The 1st and the 3rd tones of this mode happen to be G and B.

    Considering that the interval between G and B is a major 3rd, the Mixolydian mode is a major mode.

     

    Aeolian mode: A B C D E F G A . The 1st and the 3rd tones of this mode are A and C.

    A and C is a minor 3rd, therefore the Aeolian mode is a minor mode.

     

    Locrian mode: B C D E F G A B. The 1st and the 3rd tones of this mode are B and D.

    B-D is a minor 3rd, therefore the locrian mode is a minor mode.

    If you put everything together, you’ll have 3 major modes and 4 minor modes.

    The three major modes are Ionian mode, Lydian mode, and the Mixolydian mode.

    The four minor modes are the Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, and the Locrian mode.

    P.S.

    If you enjoyed this lesson, then you’ll love our upcoming course on scales – HearandPlay 120 – Scales where scales and modes are broken down into digestible fragments. Click here to sign up on our notification list.

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    Hello, I'm Chuku Onyemachi (aka - "Dr. Pokey") - a musicologist, pianist, author, clinician and Nigerian. Inspired by my role model Jermaine Griggs, I started teaching musicians in my neighborhood in April 2005. Today, I'm privileged to work as a music consultant and content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with thousands of musicians across the world.

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    { 2 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 David

    This is quite insightful

    Reply

    2 Ikweezy

    I really appreciate this post and learnt alot from your teaching mr Chuku thanks bro

    Reply

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