It can certainly be easy to feel as though the modes are altogether impenetrable, slippery and evasive of proper understanding. However, much like plenty of other aspects of western classical thought and musical theory, this has much more to do with mathematics, science, and logic than any might otherwise think. So much of this stuff is indebted to early mathematicians like Pythagoras, for example.
What makes modes unique from is their ability to relate to one another and to other humans, and to trigger certain emotions across a whole spectrum of people, rendering them perfect for tone painting or improvising to evoke a specific feeling. Where scales are ordered sequences of notes that can feel theoretically rigid in their ability to express, the modes are permutations of these same scales that each offer forth their own unique flavour.
And this can be understood very literally. The Ionian Mode, for example, is the major scale, pure and simple. The Dorian mode, by contrast, is one of the first permutations of this root mode. It is the chosen major scale with two of its intervals diminished (flattened), where the Ionian has no flats whatsoever. The Aeolian mode, contrasted with both of these, is comparatively later in the permutations, second to last, with three of its scale degrees diminished or flattened in this regard.
What Exactly is a Mode?
Many often confuse modes for scales and vice versa, and while they are theoretically very similar if not the same, it is when you get down to it that you realise that they are in fact very different, and that the former is wholly indebted to the latter. A mode, instead of being a scale in its own right, is, instead, a permutation of a scale.
More often than not, the modes are worked out in relation to the major scale, this is really where all western classical notions of harmony and what sounds right to our ears comes from after all. The Ionian mode is, in fact, this very same major scale. So, if we were to say that something is in D Ionian, we would be saying that it simply uses the D major scale throughout, without any variation.
Each mode is a separate permutation of this foundational scale. The Lydian mode, for example, is the next stage in this process of metamorphosis. Almost exactly the same as the Ionian bar one interval, the sharpened (augmented) 4th, it is easy to see how this mode has metamorphosed from one stage to the next. All of the modes are like this, all the way from our home scale Ionian, all the way to the Locrian.
Some modes lend themselves better to certain tonalities and harmonic centres. The Lydian and the Ionian are by their very nature rather major tonalities, whereas the Dorian, the Phrygian, or the Aeolian mode we have before us today, for example, are inherently minor, owing to the minor 3rd, minor 6th and minor 7th at play in conjunction with the perfect 4th and perfect 5th, all ingredients for your average everyday minor triad.
What is the Aeolian Mode?
Where the Ionian mode, being the first degree / mode of the major scale, is simply a carbon copy of said major scale, the Aeolian mode is the sixth of these permutations.
The Ionian has the first scale degree functioning as the tonic, hence why to our ears and minds it is no different than its major scale counterpart. The Aeolian mode, on the other hand, places the sixth scale degree as the tonic root.
We would consider this a minor mode, one of three of them, because it features a flattened 3rd, characteristic of a minor chordal centre, and centres on the third degree of the harmonic progression of its key.
If we take the example of F major, birthing as it does the corresponding D Aeolian, we might be better able to see just what these theoretical terms mean in action:
|Interval (from previous)||Whole||Whole||Half||Whole||Whole||Half||Whole|
With a keen eye, we can easily see that the intervals between the notes, the major scale formula if you will, is identical to that of the F major scale, simply shuffled along a few steps: F – Whole – G – Whole – A – Half – Bb – Whole – C – Whole – D – Whole – E – Half – F (again).
It is in this way, I hope, that the relationship between the major scale of the given key and the Aeolian mode of this same key has been made lucid:
- F Major
- 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7
- F – G – A – Bb – C – D – E
- I – ii – iii – IV – V – vi – viib5
- F – Gm – Am – Bb – C – Dm – Em7b5
- D Aeolian
- 1 – 2 – b3 – 4 – 5 – b6 – b7
- D – E – F – G – A – Bb – C
- i – ii – III – iv – v – VI – VII
- Dm – Edim – F – Gm – Am – A# – C
Why Learn Modes in the First Place?
While I would be the first to rush to the support of the idea that all music and musical theory and thought should be democratised, the modes are somewhat of an exception, and each individual fan, learner, scholar, or otherwise avid enthusiast of the guitar can choose for themselves whether they wish to pursue this line of thought.
What really sets the modes apart from the scales is the way that each offers, within the parameters of a tonal centre, specific harmonic, melodic, and tonal properties. These very properties are often what are called upon when people seek a specific mode from their toolbox. The Lydian mode, for example, has oft been noted for its more mystical, airy, and magical qualities, which have found apposite use in film soundtracks and even in the suggestive compositional harmonic and melodic writing of more adept film composers.
This is not just some intangible, ethereal aspect of music either. Despite music being so abstract an art form, there are certain scientific and theoretical reasons why these modes make us feel a certain way when they are used in certain contexts, and in this way they have become vital tools of suggestion and evocation in the realms of composition and improvisation.
This Lydian mode, for all its airy mysticism, can’t escape the very reason for its being such a magical sounding mode; some of its mystical aspects are lost in this explanation of the illusion, so to speak, but it is hoped that also one can appreciate anew the magic of what is created from so few elements. In the inherent tension between the sharpened (augmented) 4th and the perfect 5th in the Lydian mode, there is something unexplainable that seems to evoke within a large majority of us feelings of unease. But it is an unease more potent as a tool of magic and deception than it is an exercise in the heightening of intensity.
So, too, with the Aeolian mode, which is often called upon for minor affairs and varying shades of sadness in composition and improvisation.
What Exactly Does this Mean for the Guitar?
Because of the structure of the guitar fretboard, its relative sameness in comparison to the changing notes and note shapes on a keyboard for example, it is conversely much easier to map out where a Phrygian mode might be in relation to its root note counterpart.
On a guitar, the third degree of the scale in relation to this counterpart, is almost always the major 3rd on the string below. From the E or A string, for example, the third is simply on the string below on the fret below. The only string this doesn’t work for is the G to B string, as this string is tuned slightly flatter than it would were it to follow the formula of ascending perfect 4ths otherwise present in the guitar strings.
Incidentally, no one knows for certain why this is, though some purport that it occurred as the instrument was evolving, fulfilling as it does the practical purpose of preventing somewhat the overstretching of the guitarist’s fingers all across the fretboard, in forming chord shapes or otherwise. In this instance, simply bearing in mind that the relationship is different will slowly cement itself into your subconscious and muscle memory.
Open Chord Shape Aeolian Mode
Below, following on from the example above, is the D Aeolian mode ascending and descending by one octave:
This more open positioning, with almost half of the notes in the Aeolian mode able to sound from open strings, will be familiar to those more accustomed to playing with basic, open chords. After repeated practise of this shape, ascending and descending, try to use the formula above to suss out where this mode might progress were we to use more of the neck.
Keep using this shape, however, and try not to let the fingers of your fretting hand wander too far up the fretboard. Eventually, they will be able to roam as free as they like, though being fairly strict with yourself in learning and absorbing notes and their values at this stage will save you acres of time in future.
This extended, two octave D Aeolian is detailed below, but do attempt to work it out for yourself first, for it is in precisely these moments of intuition and reflection under your own behest that your mind is most engaged and is likely also at its least self aware. Do get stuck in!
If you find yourself struggling initially, I recommend recording yourself playing the mode, either by video or audio, and see if you can intelligently assess yourself where you are going wrong, thus training your ear and your mind.
Good practise anyhow would be to play along to a drone and/or metronome, to best ensure that you are playing in key and in time respectively. So, whether you are struggling or whether you are comfortable with the exercise, it would be fruitful for you to engage with one and/or the other.
The beauty here with this mode, as with so many of these theoretical quandaries when translated to guitar, is that it can be transposed as easily as moving the shape up and down the fretboard. So long as you, to begin with, start on the root note, you are transposing this Phrygian mode shape wherever you so please.
Have a go – pick a key at random or perhaps one of your favourites, then work out the 3rd, then from there you will be able to work out its Aeolian too! I would strongly encourage anyone to feel comfortable with both the open chord shape and barre chord shape of Aeolian in most of the essential keys before moving onto learning another of the modes, as they can become rather jumbled in one’s mind if attempting to learn more than one or two of them at once.
FAQs Aeolian Mode
Owing to its inherently minor tonality, it is often called upon in compositions or improvisations which centre around more sombre or otherwise melancholy themes. The extended diminished harmony alongside the minor elements make the Aeolian mode perfect for jazz improvisation in particular.
There are plenty of examples of the A Aeolian mode, and these are certainly not limited to genre or style of music, nor to particular nations or cultures, though they do of course find a certain prevalence in some as opposed to others. This is simply the way of the world.