What is "modal minor"?

Context: Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Six Studies in English Folk Song" has a part called "1.Adagio ('Lovely on the Water') in E modal minor" (emphasis mine).

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What is "modal minor"? Is it distinct from Aeolian?

I understand there are minor scales distinct from Aeolian, such phyrgian, dorian, melodic, minor pentatonic, etc. But which scale did Williams have in mind? Is it possible to tell from the sheet music?

1 Answer 1


Definition of "modal minor"

Modal minor is a synonym for aeolian. It means that the piece does not make alternations to the minor scale such as raising the seventh degree to form a leading tone.

"In modal minor" has a different meaning than "in a minor mode", which is a broader term that could refer to any music whose mode (i.e., scale) contains a minor third above the root.

Can one tell from the score?

Yes, one can tell from the score, at least in the Vaughn Williams case, by noting several features:

  • The key signature, containing only F#, suggests the possibility of E minor.
  • The piece ends on a sustained E, and the final E in each instrument is not approached by a leading tone. In particular, the piano's final arpeggio clearly outlines E minor but pointedly includes D natural rather than D#.
  • The cello part contains no accidentals, excepting a single C# in m. 16, which is insufficient to affect the perceived mode of the piece.

The accidentals in the piano part

The accidentals in the piano part of worthy of attention. Bb and C# appear with some consistency in the part and one might argue the piece is based on a scale that includes those pitches. However, a careful look at the context of these accidentals suggests otherwise.

The Bbs occurs in the piano part always as part of a G minor or Bb major arpeggio. The C#s are always used to intensify an arrival on D. This consistency of context — and especially their near absence from the cell part, which contains the melody — argues against an alteration of the minor minor.

  • Do you know what the "modal" in "modal minor" might mean? Is this an old form of terminology?
    – Max Heiber
    Commented Jul 18, 2022 at 9:02
  • I found it really helpful that this answer includes an analysis of the score (thanks).
    – Max Heiber
    Commented Jul 18, 2022 at 9:02

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