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The automated scale/mode detection programs that I am aware of such as Mixed in Key can only detect major and minor scales, in addition to the key. Could there also be programs that could perform automated scale/mode detection beyond just the major and minor scales? (e.g., detect if a song is using the Phrygian mode)

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    Where and how would you use this, what's the need and intended purpose? What does this "Mixed in key" program print for a Phrygian snippet and how can you tell that its output is not right? Jan 4 at 22:05
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica generic music analysis, e.g. understanding typical scales in a given music genre. this "Mixed in key" program print only prints minor or major, as well as the key. Jan 4 at 22:07
  • Sorry, software recommendations are off-topic here. Feel free to ask in the chat room, though; there was some talk about AI-based theory analysis there recently. Jan 4 at 22:19
  • @AndyBonner Thanks, I read "I think the consensus is not that software recs are on topic, but that some can be, if the question is written well." and I saw some non-closed recommendation questions eg music.stackexchange.com/q/10576/2589 I can ask on another SE but just to make sure I understand the policy here. Jan 4 at 22:32
  • Questions like this are asked so often that I think it should be perfectly reasonable to get some answers. Well, product and resource recommendations are off-topic, because they're opinion-based and the answers go out of date very quickly, because new products and resources are released all the time. But if the question was something like, why don't tools show me modes, and how could I get mode information. Jan 4 at 23:26

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TL;DR: The concept of key as in "home pitch and the third above it in harmonic resting position" is much more widely applicable than the narrower concept of mode. For a piece in F Dorian, it's not wrong to tell (pop) musicians it's in F minor.

The authors of "Mixed in key" must have forgotten to explain what they mean by key and why it's useful for the mixing thing. I haven't tried it, but I assume that for a sample in C Dorian and another in C Phrygian it will say "C minor" for both, meaning that they would be mix-compatible in the intended approximate sense.


First off, your question reveals a common misconception:

Could there also be programs that could perform automated scale/mode detection beyond just the major and minor scales?

I don't know this program, but I'm quite sure it doesn't detect scales. Key does not mean scale, it means the harmonic center pitch, and whether the third above it is minor or major. Key is not scale. For a key there is a "default" scale that's denoted in the key signature, because a lot of Western music tends to use those pitches more than others, so this reduces the average number of accidentals needed in sheet music notation. But a song in any key can use any pitch, the only thing that matters is the home note and third, then you know the key.

I am not currently aware of such programs, which would take any random music and declare that it should be categorized as being in one of the church modes. To get some understanding why that might be, read these questions and answers about the Music21 Python programming library

Basically, if you analyze entire songs, chances are that they don't mechanically stick to any single mode for the duration of the whole piece. There needs to be a sliding window and multiple simultaneous possibilities. AND the concept of key as in "home pitch and the third above it in harmonic resting position" is much more widely applicable than the more rarely applicable concept of mode. For a piece in F Dorian, it's not wrong to tell musicians it's in F minor.

Furthermore the algorithms are rather simplistic, they're based on simple statistics like what pitches are used most often.

In reality, the perception of harmonic balance is affected by all aspects of music like pulse, meter and rhythmic weight. Pure pitch relationship based harmony only exists in theory - actual music has a time dimension, and the dimensions of music are not completely separate and independent of each other. And perception also depends on each listener's personal history.

I haven't checked, but to me it looks like the "mode" classification in things like the mentioned Music21's analyze fuction says "major" or "minor" only meaning a coarse category relative to the key center (tonic, home note). It does not mean "100% ionian scale only" or "100% aeolian scale only". I suppose it means that the third above the tonic is mostly major or minor, and everything else can be anything. And this is actually a rather accurate description of how pop/jazz musicians of today understand the concept of key. *)

In this meaning, something in Phrygian would fall in the "minor key" category, because the third is a minor third. And for the rest of the pitches we don't care. Music in Dorian, Aeolian and Locrian would similarly go under "minor key". They are all minor modes.

To see if the "Mixed in key" application works like this, feed it something in C Phrygian and see if it says it's in C minor.

To actually tell whether something is "really" in a mode, modal, ... then we'll have to let a group of music theory and history nerds have a debate about it.

*) "Today": when I was young and learned pop music in the 1980s-1990s. If we really speak about literally TODAY, 2024, it seems that for many mouse+DAW pop makers, key means scale. Just like the OP in this question... Where is that harmful misinformation coming from. If these people figure out that a tune uses an out-of-scale note, their heads explode because the laws of physics were broken.

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  • Thanks! "Chances are that they don't mechanically stick to any single mode for the duration of the whole piece." yes my follow-up question was asking for a program that can keep track of key/scale changes throughout an audio file. Jan 5 at 1:13
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    @FranckDernoncourt Then we come to the question: if the mode seems to change, is the music really "modal" at all. And as we study more, we may even realize that there are many different meanings for the words "mode" and "key", and there are different cultures and perspectives. If we study very long, we may even understand that when reading or listening to someone talking about modes and something "being" in such and such mode, we realize that we must ask ourselves, "What does this person mean by these words?" And then we could put computer programs' "music measurements" into perspective. Jan 5 at 1:26
  • @FranckDernoncourt Can you verify if the "Mixed in key" application works like what I'm suggesting here? Feed it something in C Phrygian and see if the application says "C minor". Jan 5 at 1:54
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    @FranckDernoncourt But you can make the question on-topic by changing it to "how come I haven't found a tool that shows exact modes beyond major/minor", and then the question would be about the meaning of modes and keys and what is so special about them that an app for showing an exact mode is very hard and/or not practical to make. Jan 5 at 8:16
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    @piiperiReinstateMonica Ah, got it. Wasn't expecting that meme in a situation where something was actually fixed.
    – Aaron
    Jan 5 at 21:32

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