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I am learning songs that use modes and up until recently I thought I kind of had things figured out but there are some songs that still confuse me and I wanted to touch up on learning about some of the criteria that contributes to deciding what mode a chord progression is in or even if you can say that the song is in a mode rather than just natural minor or major. For example, does the criteria need to involve the use of the characteristic note in the melody such as the m2 in phrygian or the #4 in lydian or can the progression just start/end on a chord other than the I chord and be enough to say that it is in a mode? In most examples from wikipedia there definitely seems to be examples that use these key notes but could you have a chord progression that doesn't use the key notes and still say that the song is in mixolydian mode for example?

So this song is in 6/8 and loops F#m > E and at first I thought that it sounded like E was the home chord because it sounds like home but then a B minor chord comes in as a quick passing chord before going back to F#m > E . I can see that A major has all three of these chords so I can understand why the sheetmusic is notated using 3 sharps but is the song in F#m? Or since E sounds like home is it in E mixolydian? The 1st chorus employs the entire use of the A major scale which makes it sound like the song is, at least at that point, in A major but then it goes back to the verse again and it seems like the mood changes.

There is also an outro section which I am not sure about. Is this part in B dorian?

Bm F#m E Bm Bm D B Bm F# E Bm

Here is the song

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  • Your title is a general question, but the body is specific to this song. It's two very different questions, so please clarify which you're looking for an answer in this case. (Note that the specific question about the song is likely off topic.)
    – Aaron
    Feb 15, 2021 at 8:30
  • The verse is firmly in key E, so E Ionian; actually the chord is E6. The middle moves to chord A, but that certainly doesn't mean the key's changed to A. It's a middle section, and millions of songs in E go straight to A there.. Don't get hung up on modes. Just like any key, the place where the song feels at home, at rest, and could end there, gives the answer. Try stopping on F#m: to me it feels like it needs more - the E, for instance.
    – Tim
    Feb 15, 2021 at 8:36
  • @Tim, when the song moves to A the note D is used in the melody so can't be E major anymore can it? Also, Bm chord in E ionian for the verse? Bm has no place in E major.
    – user35708
    Feb 15, 2021 at 9:14
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    @ Aaron, it is an example. My question is general but I used an example, is that ok?
    – user35708
    Feb 15, 2021 at 9:17
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    What I'm trying to explain: Let's say a piece is written in key E. The chords in it are E, D, A, E, and E feels and sounds like home. Most of us would agree that its key is E. Whereas you would say, no, it's changed key, so it's actually continually changing key. That D, by the way, could easily be 'borrowed' from the parallel key of Em. And an A chord in key E? IV.
    – Tim
    Feb 15, 2021 at 9:49

1 Answer 1

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It can be a very confusing subject - modes. And like a lot of music, it can't be approached in a scientific way. It's an art, so hard and fast rules can't exist. Or if someone thinks they can, someone else can and will do the opposite, and 'break' those 'rules'.

We, as humans, do our utmost to pigeon-hole everything! And, to an extent, we've managed with keys and their modes. We've made sense of most of it - C Dorian contains the same notes as B♭ major, minor keys must have their 3rd as m3 from the root, etc., etc.

As far as what key a piece is in, officially, we have specific key signatures that tell us. Except even they're confusing. A piece in G minor (yes, that's a key), will have the key signature of B♭ and E♭, most likely all through it. But suddenly there appears some F♯s and maybe an E♮ or two! Not in the key signature, oh dear, maybe we've changed key!

Returning to modes. They are manufactured, in a way, so we can understan what's happening better. C Dorian contains the same notes (in the scale) as E♭ Lydian, as B♭ major. So, looking at, or playing a piece with two flats in the key sinature, we could be in any of the modes of B♭ - some major, some minor.

How to try to tell? Music is somewhat like a journey, which eventually will end up back at home. Home is where we feel the piece has come to a final stop. Where there is no need for more music to take us that last part of the journey - that's already just happened.

It is often the last harmony in the piece, but doesn't need to be. It could just as well be the end of merely one verse. Listen to that chord, that harmony, and it could stop there. Bit like, went from home to shops, came home, but am going out again later. But might not...

Whether a piece is modal or not (I include Ionian here) there will be a discernible place where 'home' is apparent. That's the clue to the key - and its root note - and usually whether it's major or minor.

But on that journey through the music contained in the piece, there may very well be diversions. Mini breaks, holidays, or just going a different way home. The short excursions are modulations - yes, I might have gone a different way - even got temporarily lost - but I'm going to be back on track soon. Or moving a bit more and using a particular note that isn't in the original key signature many times. That could constitute a key change, may not.

Then there's 'borrowing'. When I borrow, I always return whatever it is! There must be a better term. However, using notes which don't belong is what it means. No change of key, just wanting to use some of the notes that are out there for grabs. Of course they'll be accidentals, meaning to the reader they're non-diatonic.

Then there's parallel keys. The root note stays the same, but the set of notes associated changes. The original usually returns at some point.

So to sum up, listen for where home is - that's the best clue. And the key signature itself may or may not be the absolute and whole truth.

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  • Tim I read your post. Thought about it and read it again and I am not sure I can make sense of what you said yet. Have you heard Wicked game by Chris Isaak? youtube.com/watch?v=3Uw4V5yt1-w&feature=emb_logo It is supposed to be in Bm but E sounds like home to me so what gives? The whole song is just Bm A E E. Going by what you say E should definitely be the home key.
    – user35708
    Feb 16, 2021 at 17:18
  • If that's not fairly and squarely in E major, I don't know what I'm doing in music. B Dorian uses the notes from A major. But - so does E Mixolydian! And the note that feels (to me) like home is that E. So, I'm saying it's in E - E Mixolydian, not E major, not B Dorian, and not A major. Whatever the 'real' answer, the key sig. is 3#. And who says 'supposed'?
    – Tim
    Feb 16, 2021 at 17:27
  • In your reply you said E major first then you said E mixolydian.. I am assuming that you meant E mixolydian. If that is the case then I agree with you there. I don't know why people say it is in Bm. I guess because it starts on the Bm chord.
    – user35708
    Feb 16, 2021 at 19:24
  • All I'm going to say is E Mix. is a major mode!
    – Tim
    Feb 16, 2021 at 19:26
  • It is a major mode but it sounds different to E major. Going back to what you said "So to sum up, listen for where home is" . Isn't there also some truth to the argument that says that where a chord progression starts has a big impact on what we perceive as "home"?
    – user35708
    Feb 17, 2021 at 7:09