I've studied music theory for many years now, and one thing has always confused me about the naming methodology for the minor scale.

A major scale is based off the Ionian mode and consist of only major and perfect scale intervals.

C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C
P1  M2  M3  P4  P5  M6  M7  P8

The minor scale is based off the Aeolian mode and consist of major, minor and perfect scale intervals.

A   B   C   D   E   F   G   A
P1  M2  m3  P4  P5  m6  m7  P8

There is a mode that consists solely of minor and perfect intervals which is known as the Phrygian mode.

E   F   G   A   B   C   D   E
P1  m2  m3  P4  P5  m6  m7  P8

It seems to me that the Phrygian mode is more minor than the Aeolian scale and should be known, at least from technical terms, as the minor scale. Is there a reason why the Aeolian mode was chosen over the Phrygian mode to be the minor scale to juxtapose the major scale?

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    Technically speaking, aeolian is the natural minor scale – Shevliaskovic Dec 3 '13 at 20:08
  • Exactly, but from a theory stand point it is less minor than aeolian and Phrygian should be the minor scale. Also can someone help me edit the post so I can display a letter scale and the intervals without the guitar charts? Putting '' on each chord letter seems to make everything invisible. – Dom Dec 3 '13 at 20:11
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    @Dom: Remember that Music Theory is based on the practice of music. Also recall that there are 3 forms of minor scales based on such usage: Natural, Melodic, and Harmonic minors. – filzilla Dec 3 '13 at 22:19
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    Any scale which uses a minor third from the root note, i.e.Eb from C, will have a minor feel to it. Thus Dorian, Phrygian and Aeolian could be construed as minor. The 3/4 minor scales - natural, harmonic, classical and jazz melodic all have this feature. Even the blues scale could be thought of as minor. – Tim Dec 5 '13 at 15:37
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    @Dom. Using your theory, maybe the diminished notes of a diminished chord should constitute the minor, as EACH interval is a minor third. It is called minor as it needed a name. As in my other comment, a min. 3 from root is sufficient. Nothing else. – Tim Dec 6 '13 at 20:16

The minor scale is not called the "minor scale" because it is the most minor. Names don't have to accurately reflect the definition.

Modes are sometimes classified as "minor" or "major" depending on their third (a minor third usually comes with other minor degrees like the flat 7th which is common to all minor modes of the major scale). And of all the minor modes, aolian the natural minor scale (or simply "minor scale") is by far the most commonly used in western music. So if it's the one that we use most most of the time, why not simply call it "minor"?

Now why is it the most common minor scale? It's probably because it's the least dissonant minor scale, and the most stable. Dorian, for example, isn't that dissonant, but it's not that stable ; if there is no harmony or drone to support it, the brain may interpret it as a different scale (an Aolian or Ionian scale with a different tonic), like C Maj or A Min instead of D dorian. Phrygian isn't that stable either, and it's more dissonant than aolian, try improvising a melody in E phrygian (without a drone or harmony), and you'll feel like resolving it in A aolian.

Even aolian (natural minor scale), isn't stable enough sometimes to escape the pull of the Ionian mode. This is where the melodic and harmonic minor (used over a dominant V chord - e.g G7 in Cmin or E7 in Amin...) come into play. These variations of the minor scale are there to maintain consonance when the dominant is played.

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  • I like this answer, but I feel there is a little more to this than aeolian is the most popular minor mode. Since western music theory is based off the definition of a major scale and the seven modes are also a derivative of the major scale shouldn't the mode selected to represent minor be based on the scalar theory instead of popularity? – Dom Dec 4 '13 at 17:43
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    I don't believe that theory (or science for that matter) explains how we perceive consonance and dissonance precisely enough to answer your question. And trust me, I have read a lot about the science of music. I'm interested in that kind of knowledge just from a scientific perspective ; I don't believe it would help me as a musician. When playing, I try to avoid thinking about theory as much as I can. My answer is based on my experimentation with modes and their instability. Ask anyone (musical or not) to hum an improvised melody and it will almost certainly be either minor or major... – Anthony Dec 4 '13 at 18:38
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    ... Why do we have this tendency? I don't know why, and I have never heard a fully convincing answer. Other cultures, (like India and the middle east) for example, don't have the same tendency. In my country Lebanon, phrygian is just as common as minor and major (I'd say it's a little more popular than minor...). So since it depends on culture and background, it's hard to analyze it from a purely scientific perspective. – Anthony Dec 4 '13 at 18:44
  • I think you'll find this video interesting worldsciencefestival.com/videos/… – Anthony Dec 4 '13 at 18:52
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    @Dom: It's the other way around: the major scale (Ionian) is a derivative of the other modes, by a late Renaissance banker called Glareanus. – 11684 Dec 4 '13 at 21:26

This has to do with common practice era harmony. A minor key should consist of a minor triad on the tonic. Phrygian, Dorian and Aeolian all fit this bill.

The next most important chord in common practice harmony is the V chord and if you are a common practice era composer, you would want a good triad for your V chord. Phrygian's V chord is diminished, so Phrygian is a bad candidate for 18th and 19th century composers.

It is harder for me to see the harmonic disqualifications of the Dorian scale. But I expect that Aeolian is preferable to Dorian when writing strict common practice era tonal harmony.

Although I am fuzzy on the specifics, I am pretty sure it is Aeolian's adaptability to tonal chord progressions that makes it the "natural" minor.

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The “minor scale” and “major scale” have originated from the church-Latin cantus mollis and cantus durus.

These terms, in turn, originated from only the names of the notes B♭ (B molle) and B (B durum). That gave rise to the name of what came to become the most prominent hexatonic scales, namely the hexacordum molle and hexacordum durum.

  • Molle, F-G-A-B♭-c-d, is a subset of the G-aeolian/natural-minor scale.
  • Durum, G-A-B-c-d-e, is a subset of the G-ionian/major scale.

Using those scales in such a way is quite natural when starting from a Pythagorean system. The Phrygian scale, less so (except in retrospect – the Phrygian scale being used quite a lot in metal).

Later, these scales were extended to their modern, heptatonic forms – which are in Germanic, Slavic and Finno-Ugric languages still called varieties of “Moll” and “Dur”, e.g. we call G-major “G-Dur-Skala” and G-minor “g-Moll-Skala”.

In the Romance languages, the terms didn't linger though; instead, the durus scale was described as the more major and the mollis scale as the more minor of the two scales. English went with the Italian term, Scala minore.

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Every major scale has its relative minor, which uses the same notes. This relative minor scale is a natural minor scale, and it starts from the sixth degree of the major scale. This relative minor scale is the Aeolian mode of the major scale. So, for example, in the key of C, playing all the same major scale notes, but beginning from A, produces the A minor scale, which is the relative minor of C. While it's true that some other modes may also be minor, they are not the relative minor. Hope this helps.

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    But why is it the 6th degree of a major scale the relative minor and not the 3rd degree? I'm saying the natural minor scale is not the most minor scale so why is it called that. – Dom Dec 3 '13 at 21:28

Key Signatures are what people are not taking note of here. C major has no sharps or flats in its key signature. A relative minor of a major scale is one that shares the same key signature because it uses the same notes its relative major. A Minor is the relative Minor of C major as it has the same key signature of no sharps or flats. It is also the 6th degree of the major scale or a minor third below its relative Major. So any major scale you chose you can work out the relative minor by going down a minor third.
If you try the phrygian as the Minor scale it simply won't work because it would start on the 3rd of the scale, so for C major it would start on E. E minor has a key signature of F sharp. F sharp doesn't appear anywhere in the key of C. So if you played the phrygian mode of C it isn't going to be E minor as it has the notes of the C major scale not the E Minor scale. However if you move a minor third down from G. (G major has a key signature of F Sharp) you will find the relative minor is E. We can also apply the Tone/Semitone formula. Every major scale has the formula between each note of the scale ascending: Tone Tone Semitone Tone Tone Tone Semitone. Still in the Key of C (C D E F G A B C) between C and D is a Tone, between D and E is a tone, Between E and F is a Semitone etc. The Natural minor scale (which is what the Aeolian Mode of C is) Tone Semitone Tone Tone Semitone Tone Tone A B C D E F G A This cannot be applied to the Phrygian scale. The Phrygian scale starts with a Semitone so it is immediately out of the Minor formula. E F G A B C D E You are also forgetting that there are 3 main types of Minor scale. The natural minor (Aeolian Mode), the Harmonic minor and Melodic minor scale. All of which have the melodic minor as the core and altered notes are put in to create the other versions.Raised 7th in the Harmonic, and Flattened 6th and 7th in the Melodic Minor ascending but then riased again descending. You cannot do this to the Phrygian as it starts with a semitone from its first note to the second and again E minor has an F sharp. If anything the Aeolian mode is the most minor as you can make three Minor scales from it. But the main point is if you had a piece of music in E minor it wouldn't fit with the key of C because of the F sharp where as the Phyrigian of C doesn't have that F sharp so makes it the Phrygian of C and not E Minor.

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    Totally missed the point. I know the difference between aeolian and phrygian. I'm saying from a music theory stand point phrygian is the opposite of major (ionian) because it consists only of minor intervals while aeolian has a major interval. Because of this, I think the Phrygian mode should represent minor and the minor scale from a theory perspective. A aeolian, C ionian, and E phrygian all have the same key signature and ionian is known as the major scale and aeolian is known as the minor scale. I want to know why phrygian is not known as the minor scale. – Dom Dec 6 '13 at 16:39

Matthew James Briggs' answer is closest. The I, IV and V chords in the aeolian mode are all minor triads making it the most useful mode for minor keys.

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    Never realized that the only mode where I, IV and V are minor chords is the Aeolian mode. However, in a minor key, when the V chrod is used it is more often than not altered to become a major or dominant chord. So while it is remarkable that Aeolian is the only mode where I, IV and V are minor, this is not a property of the minor scale that is put to practice. – Anthony Nov 22 '19 at 10:54
  • To be clear, the Aeolian is the 'natural' minor. Though the third is raised for strong cadences, the corresponding scale is aptly called the 'harmonic' minor. – user3235 Dec 1 '19 at 20:56

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