I don't know what I did to deserve it, but I had "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" stuck in my head this morning (perhaps better known with lyrics about an ant colony, as popularized by a purple dinosaur). I mumbled to myself "Oh yeah, it's Dorian." But as the coffee started to take effect, it occurred to me that, while its melody flaunts its lowered ^7—spends a full measure on it, and gives it metric emphasis—the melody itself contains no ^6. That is, with a tonal center of A, the melody contains plenty of G natural, but has no F, whether natural or sharp.

Setting aside any consideration of how it has been harmonized in the past, and setting aside any question of its historic origins (there's a compelling argument for melodic DNA from "John Anderson, My Jo", which complicates matters with a modulation and eventually a cadential leading tone)— Setting aside any question of historical intent or treatment, and taking this as a sterile exercise in melodic analysis— And taking the "modes" in a contemporary sense, as a mere collection of pitches, without regard to more syntactic historical usages and "reciting tones" and what not— Under these circumstances, should we call this natural minor, Aeolian? It would seem it would have just as much right to Dorian. So is there an "Occam's razor" that prefers Aeolian as "more normative"? Or am I missing some other basis on which to make the decision?

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    Don't think you can. It's just 'minor' - same as there's no harmonic or melodic minor key, just 'minor'.
    – Tim
    Mar 14, 2022 at 13:36
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    The fact that John Anderson commonly has a raised leading tone today does not imply that it always has.
    – phoog
    Mar 14, 2022 at 16:12
  • Have you tried harmonising the melody line? That may well throw up a 6th of some sort - give that a try.
    – Tim
    Mar 14, 2022 at 16:44
  • I suspect the purple dinosaur is after my time, but in summer camp ca. 1962 we sang "the ants go marching one by one" in a harmonic minor, with raised sixth and seventh degrees. And to add to the answers below: I don't see any point agonizing about what to call the mode of "Johnny". It's hexatonic, and I don't know of any terminology that would fit the scale (say) A B C D E G A. Mar 15, 2022 at 10:56

2 Answers 2


I think it's hard to look at a question like this and separate Renaissance modal "art" music from modal folk music - historically those genres overlap - and not look at how tunes are harmonized. This particular song, and many others like Greensleeves, aren't unharmonized chant or folk melodies, they were written with harmonizations.

I've been frustrated with studying Renaissance modal music, because it seems the further back in time you go, the harder it is to find music that was clearly categorized by composer's into modes. But, using Fux as a convenient example, in his dorian mode counterpoint examples he always ended with a raised leading tone and sometimes used a lowered sixth degree. Actually, his dorian cantus firmus only spans the tonic to dominant without the sixth or seventh degrees. Fux had no issue with classifying that c.f. as dorian.

I don't mean to digress into Fux, but I just want to make the point that in the Renaissance style Fux was emulating dorian would have been the basic minor mode rather than aeolian, and dorian mode wasn't rigidly defined by the sixth scale degree.

But, is When Johnny comes Marching Home modal in the first place?

|Gm     |Gm     |Bb    |F     |
|Gm     |Gm     |Bb    |D     |
|Bb     |F      |Gm    |D     |
|Bb F/C |Gm/D D |Gm D7 |Gm    |

If we are looking for minor key, tonal confirming traits, we could say the first phrase is a half cadence in the mediant, the second phrase is a half cadence in the tonic, the third phrase is a sequence with first iteration in the mediant and the second in the tonic, the four phrase truncates the progression of the sequence and the concludes it with a perfect cadence.

From the modal perspective the opening doesn't have any tonic/dominant pair, there are a lot of root progressions by third or step, the only descending fifth progression is the final cadence. Melodically the main elements are tonic down to the lowered subtonic, outlining the minor tonic, and descending from the fifth degree to the tonic.

This seems pretty modal to me. IMO this kind of mix of so-called weak, modal progressions with tonal cadential harmony, and juxtaposing the lowered subtonic with raised leading tone, is what you frequently hear in folk music, music that would usually be called modal.

It's interesting to compare it with John Anderson, My Jo, because while there is a similarity with the open melody and the move from tonic to subtonic, the harmony of John Anderson, My Jo clearly cadences three times in the minor tonic, the subtonic, and the tonic again, for the opening. That seems more tonal than modal compared with When Johnny comes Marching Home.

Considering dorian would be the basic minor mode, it seems reasonable to say When Johnny comes Marching Home is in dorian mode. That seems less dubious than saying it's clearly in a minor key when 14 of 16 bars do nothing directly with tonic/dominant harmony.

  • Interesting to take this answer along with Dekkadeci's. If my Q came from an attitude of "Don't pay aaaany attention to the harmonization, just looking at melody, what mode is this melody," then I take it your response is "But you can't; modality (in a modern conception) is a tonal construct." And Dekkadeci's is "Who says you have to decide?" So my synthesis of the two is "If you're just doing melodic analysis, nailing down a mode doesn't have to be part of it." What do you think? Mar 14, 2022 at 17:53
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    Also, I get that the tune could be generically called minor, but that just dodges the question. Given the historical background, I'd tend toward calling modal things dorian unless there was clear reason to call it aeolian. Mar 14, 2022 at 19:52
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    Interesting—it's kind of the opposite of what I'd assumed, that Aeolian had a claim as a "default." Mar 14, 2022 at 19:54
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    That reminds me of questions on this forum when people say some music is in some key of "natural minor" AKA aeolian mode, like "A natural minor." Or, natural minor is basic minor scale, because those are the tone of a minor key signature. But there is so much to unpack about the fluidity of tones in minor the historical development. Mar 14, 2022 at 20:12
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    @AndyBonner but mode is originally a melodic concept. The idea of "modal harmony," especially as opposed to tonal harmony, arose in the 20th century. Look at Brahms' harmonization of (Dorian) Mit Fried und Freud in the motet Warum ist das Licht gegeben. The soprano part -- the melody -- is definitely Dorian. The harmonization has all sorts of accidentals, including the raised leading tone in the final cadence.
    – phoog
    Mar 14, 2022 at 23:33

Deciding between Aeolian and Dorian could very well be the wrong tack when handling a minor-key piece with only non-raised 7th scale degrees but no 6th scale degree - calling the piece a minor-key piece and not bothering to classify it as Dorian or Aeolian could very well be the best thing to do.

Without enough notes in the melody to fully determine which mode a piece is (if any), it's hard to call a piece modal. Sure, we can default to claiming a melody of E-F-G-A-G-F-E-D-E is in E Phrygian instead of E Locrian, but how certain were we of that label? Heck, this particular example could be in C Ionian or C Mixolydian instead!

We're safer off merely claiming that your example is in a minor key instead of being in any one mode.

  • How would When Johnny Comes Marching Home be in Ionian or Mixolydian? Mar 14, 2022 at 15:12
  • @MichaelCurtis - Admittedly, my example doesn't completely match the one in the question - When Johnny Comes Marching Home contains all scale degrees but the 6th one, so you cannot claim that it's in Ionian or Mixolydian when you can validly claim it's in Aeolian or Dorian - but I like to think my point still stands and that you are better off not making mode claims for either example.
    – Dekkadeci
    Mar 14, 2022 at 15:20
  • Good point—I guess if I pursued the question to the extreme, you'd have "what mode is a piece with only one pitch in," which is ridiculous. Mar 14, 2022 at 15:34
  • @AndyBonner also consider: what mode is Greensleeves in? It depends on which variant you've encountered. You could reasonably embellish the melody of Johnny with a raised or lowered sixth degree, or with both in different places. The modern conception of modes tends to be that they are a strict set of pitches and that using a pitch outside that set means you're not in that mode, but that is not how modes were used between the late middle ages and the 18th century. In Guido's time, Dorian mode could have a lowered 6th degree; there was no Aeolian in those days.
    – phoog
    Mar 14, 2022 at 16:08
  • @phoog Yup, thus all the disclaimers about "syntactic historical usages." Maybe one could argue that a "grab bag of notes" is never an analytically useful concept—even a good tone row has some rhyme and reason to its ordering... Mar 14, 2022 at 16:11

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