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About the song linked below, is it right to say that its key is D Mixolidyan?

Verse: D Am C G D

Chorus: D Am D Am C G D

The reason I'm asking this is note D (and D chord) has for my ears a central role in the song and therefore it seems inappropriate to me move the focus to G saying that the key is G major. But I'm just looking for confirmation

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4 Answers 4

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Any mode or scale can be built on any tonic.

So, yes, you can have D mixolydian... or D flat mixolydian, C mixolydian, etc. etc.

If you have analyzed the song to have a D tonic and is mixolydian in mode, then you can say it's in D mixolydian. It's good that you analyzed for what is the tonic, then the mode. That's analyzing tonality. Simply seeing all the chords fit into a key signature of one sharp... therefore it's in G major, is not the way to analyze tonality.

Keep in mind lots of music changes mode and/or changes tonic. It common for music to shift back forth between modal and tonal harmony. Greensleeves in an example where the harmony is modal in some parts Em D Em and tonal in others B7 Em. Lots of music labelled "modal" does that kind of thing. The "modal" music of the Renaissance did that kind of thing. Even if the Clapton song had a A7 D in it, you might still call it "modal" if you felt there was enough modal harmony to justify it. There is no strict cut off for what to consider modal.

Rock music is so heavily flavored with the mixolydian mode, especially from the ♭VII chord, it's hardly worth applying that modal label to most rock harmony. Rock melody is often very pentatonic and so omits certain degrees which would otherwise make specific modes clear.

This Clapton song is interesting on both points. It does have a ♭VII chord, but additionally is uses a minor v rather than a major dominant. Melodically, in the verses, it is not omitting the seventh scale degree - which happens in a lot of rock music - instead it emphasizes the ♭^7 degree. However, in the chorus, at the conclusion (cadence) of the line "let your love rain down on me," the melody does skip over the seventh degree. If one were to put a A7 D move in this song, that would have been an obvious place to put it.

Most people would probably simply say it's in D. You could make a case for calling it mixolydian. I would understand why. If you called it D major, I would say "hold on, not like Mozart D major."

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    I think that you raise some good points here, and the final paragraph is a good summary. This question provides a good example of how rock and blues can be slippery under attempts at traditional analysis.
    – user39614
    Commented Oct 5, 2021 at 16:28
  • Would it be wrong to say that the key of the tune is D or D major? If you had a song list with a column "key", wouldn't you write "D" in that column without thinking you've mislead someone? In practice, I've found it very difficult to explain why it's OK to say "in D", but not "the key is D major". Yes, there might be an academic distinction, but I haven't found the distinction to help in any practical situation. Commented Oct 6, 2021 at 13:10
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    Who are you giving the explanation to? If someone doesn't understand the wide range of tonalities that can be found in music, and you just want them to do something like play along to Let It Rain, I would just give them the chords, and not talk about tonality... that doesn't change the actual tonality of a song. Commented Oct 6, 2021 at 14:29
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    I'll learn my music theory not from Google search, thank you! Commented Oct 6, 2021 at 16:18
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    @piiperiReinstateMonica -- you can say that the notion of key has become ambiguous, or that some music has an ambiguous relation to the notion of key: take your pick. I choose the latter.
    – user39614
    Commented Oct 6, 2021 at 17:47
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D Mixolydian is a mode of the parent key G major - both contain exactly the same 7 notes. The main difference, as you say, is that a piece in key G is recognised as that, due to the home note/chord being perceived as G. This has a home of D, thus will be in D Mixolydian - or the Mixolydian mode of G. It ought to have the key signature of one sharp (F♯).

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both progressions you mentioned can definitely be attributed to the Mixolydian mode:

D–Am–C–G–D or I–v–VII–IV–I

D–Am–D–Am–C–G–D or I–v–I–v–VII–IV–I

similar progressions can be found in The Doors' Hyacinth House

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The song is not in mixolydian; it's D major.

The song makes use of "modal mixture", borrowing chords from D minor, which is how the C natural comes into play.

A song truly intended to be mixolydian would put much more emphasis on the sound qualities of that mode.

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  • If there's 'modal mixture', why not go that extra step and just say 'modal' - Mixolydian modal?
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 5, 2021 at 16:22
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    I didn't down vote, but I think a bit more explanation that "modal mixture" is needed. What other mode, specifically D major, is actually present? Commented Oct 5, 2021 at 16:23
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    With no V, there doesn't appear to be much (if any) key D major in this piece. V is important in major keys.
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 5, 2021 at 17:41
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    @piiperiReinstateMonica, with a one chord vamp, assuming the song has a melody, I would probably look at the scale. For major/minor keys, at minimum I would look for a leading tone and the quality of the third. If the melody were, for example, pentatonic, no leading tone, and again the accompaniment is just a single tonic chord, I would say it isn't quite properly in a key. Commented Oct 6, 2021 at 14:15
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    @piiperiReinstateMonica - with no other chord than D, all through, a) you wouldn't get me to 'play' it, b) it's in D - or even on D. With no other sonic clues, that's all one could say. With an A/A7 it would be key D, with C/Am it would be D Mix - probably. By the way - @ only gets relayed to the 1st name after @. Picked this comment up 'by mistake'!
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 6, 2021 at 15:18

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