How would we interpret relative/parallel major/minor keys in the context of a modal piece?

  • a) not applicable, implies tonality
  • b) major is Ionian, minor is Eolian always: so C-lydian's relative minor would be also Aminor and C-lydian parallel minor would be Cminor, even if they are not enharmonical
  • c) a parallel/realtive of a mode can be ANY major/minor MODE, not only Ionian/Aeolian. In that case: F-lydian relative minor would be D-dorian and so parallel minor F-dorian. So, D-dorian relative major would be F-lydian and so parallel major D-lydian. That would be represented as a 2 grade forwards (5 backwards) shifting on their modal scale for majorizing, and 5 forward (or 2 backwards) on minorizing:

3 Answers 3


I suppose this depends on how strictly modal you are trying to be. If you're trying to be really strict based on Gregorian Chant then you won't be needing any parallels or relatives. Beyond that if you do too much changing of modes it's going to sound less modal. I usually see borrowing from parallels in tonal settings. So it kind of depends on what you are actually doing. If it's a rock group it doesn't matter what you call it. In Jazz you are constantly modulating, substituting and borrowing and they tend to play Lydian for all the maj7 chords and Dorian for all the minor7, which would be harder to describe in terms of being modal and adventurous.


If one has designated a piece of music as being in a particular mode, e.g. D Dorian, then that is what it's in.It will be centred around D, and have a minor sound, mostly. When that feel moves, it may well have gone into a different mode.Relatives or parallels will probably have moved to a different mode.Yes, C Ionian and A Aeolian have exactly the same notes, and are called relative maj./min. You could say the same of D Dorian, G Mixolydian, etc.All could have the same key sig. I say could as generally the convention is to leave out a key sig. and use accidentals.This shows the reader it's modal. Not in C major though !

Does the answer to this question really matter though.Take each part of the music in its own right.Most of the time, the last note will give a clue as to the 'key',and the notes contained within will tell which mode has been used.

Can't see how 'parallel' modes work. There's another word, but it escapes me .C maj and C min. can be thought of as 'parallel', but say, C Locrian ?

  • Having done SOME homework, I find that the term 'parallel' has conflicting meanings, depending which part of the world it's being used in.
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 6:42
  • Well, applying same rules of ionian/aeolian, it might have sense to consider mixolydian as relative major of phryian (relative minor backwards) and lydian as relative major mode to dorian (relative minor backwards). Following the rules, locryan as special and exceptional as it is, could be considered minor mode of dorian and the major mode of mixolydian, even if it has no sense.
    – Whimusical
    Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 13:08
  • The problem is that ionian is a full major and aeolian is a full minor. None of the other modes are major nor minor. Yes, they may have slight leanings towards one or the other, but none of them fulfill all of the criteria.So they certainly won't be called relative major or minor.What 'rules' are you following?
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 13:22
  • minor scale: that which has b3.
    – Whimusical
    Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 14:15
  • 1
    The minor scales - harmonic; natural ; melodic (classical and jazz); pentatonic. All other scales/modes are not just called minor due to a b3. Dorian and phrygian are modes. The whole/half diminished doesn't become a minor just because it has a b3 in the same way that a whole tone scale isn't a major scale, just because it has a major 3.
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 15:14

The context of the piece is what determines how one should interpret modes, so, the question is a little like an M.C. Esher drawing: circular, like a snake eating its own tail.

I'd like to clarify a couple things from your question:

b) major is Ionian, minor is Eolian: C-lydian's relative minor is also Aminor and parallel minor is Cminor

Natural minor is Aeolian. C-Lydian contains an F#, which is not found in A natural minor. In fact, it is only found in the ascending melodic minor scale. (For the scope of this question, we'll only talk about the three most common minors.) The parallel to A minor is A major, not C minor. Parallel major / minor refers to the same tonal center but altering the scale. For example:

Parallel minor of C major is C minor Parallel major of F minor is F major

c) a parallel/relative of a mode can be ANY major/minor MODE, not only Ionian/Aeolian.

This statement is incorrect. Sure, related modes can be respelled and re-contextualized, but you can't go around wantonly naming things; it just doesn't work that way.

Start macroscopically (big picture) and then work your way inwards to the details. Right now it would appear as if you're attempting the reverse: identifying details and then trying to justify a derived context.

Start with the key / pitches used, look at the harmonic pacing and progression, and then derive what modes seem most appropriate given the environment in which they operate.

So, to answer your question about how to interpret a mode in the context of a given piece, my advice would be to interpret it in a way that is logical, that presents a harmonic progression (if the given piece contains harmonic progression) and that most clearly articulates / describes what is going on in the music theoretically. Just because different scales contain the same notes (like D dorian and B locrian) doesn't mean that each scale is completely interchangeable.

Modes are treated differently and are used for different reasons - especially depending on the time period of the piece you're studying.

Hope that helps.

  • Thank you but I did not explain well. B option was a choice for interpreting scenario, I know Clydian is not enharmonical to Aminor, but as Clydian is C, one of the options I suggested is consider that its relative minor kept being root's one
    – Whimusical
    Commented Jul 29, 2013 at 13:01

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