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My knowledge of music theory is very limited at the moment. I'm in the process of learning about scales and modes. I've learned that the major scale has a mode for every degree of the scale. The 6th degree is the Aeolian, or natural minor, mode.

After learning more about the minor mode/scale (the terms seem to be used interchangeably when talking about Aeolian, but not the other modes ...), I see that it comes in a few flavors. Natural minor, melodic minor, harmonic minor. It also has modes of it's own.

Why does the minor scale have modes? Do other modes of the major scale have modes of their own?

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The harmonic minor and melodic minor scales are not modes of the natural minor scale. A mode is a very specific idea in music where you start building a scale on another note of the scale.

For example, A minor consists of the notes A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A and it's built using the scale pattern W-H-W-W-H-W-W. You also may notice that C major consists of the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C and it's built using the scale pattern W-W-H-W-W-W-H. As you can see, these scales are closely related and are created by starting at a different place in the scale pattern, and when we talk about modes of scales this is what we refer to. You would not call the melodic or harmonic scale a mode of the natural minor, but a scale that is based on that scale with a few deviations explained here.

The melodic and harmonic minor scales each do have modes and in general, any scale will have N modes where N is the number of distinct notes in it, with a few exceptions because of symmetric scales like the whole tone and chromatic.

Most scales I can name are modes of the standard major/minor scale, the harmonic minor scale, and the melodic minor scale, so if you just study those, you'll have a lot of material. You can still encounter/make new scales and they will have names based on what scales they relate to. For example, if you really wanted to, you could build a melody & harmony off the major scale with a lowered 2nd degree. In C, this would be:

C - Db - E - F - G - A - B

You would call this Ionian b2 because it is pretty much the Ionian/major scale with a lowered 2nd.

  • This clarifies it quite a bit. To solidify a few things for myself - am I right in the following conclusions? In your first example, with A minor... A minor is not technically a scale of it's own because it shares the exact notes of C major. So it is a mode of C major built off of the 6th tone. So natural minor does not have any modes. In the last example with Ionian b2 - this is a scale based on the major scale. Because it has an altered set of notes, this would have it's own set of modes. – grinch Sep 30 '15 at 17:20
  • @grinch every mode has a scale. A minor is a scale. It is also a mode of the major scale. Think of a mode as more of a relationship between scales where you could say major is a mode of minor or vice versa depending on context. And yes Ionian b2 is based off the major scale, but is not a mode of it and it will have 7 modes because it has 7 notes in its scale. – Dom Oct 1 '15 at 16:23
  • @grinch All modes share the name notes as their parent major (Ionian) scale. In fact, if they don't they can't be a mode. Dom's example of Ionian b2 is, as Dom said, not a mode because of the altered tone. However, if you decided in a hypothetical sense to make Ionian b2 your parent mode, then all of the other modes would need to share the exact same notes with no alterations because they are relative to the parent scale. The only difference between modes is where you focus the tonal center. – jjmusicnotes Oct 2 '15 at 5:48
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The natural minor to any major scale is the sixth degree of any given major scale. A parallel minor scale shares the same starting tone but follows it's own natural minor scale and would have a different natural relative major.

In doing the major scale itself, there are then the modes...

So yes, a mode is simply playing from one note to that same exact note in the order that it falls within that key. D to a D in the key of C is your Dorian minor mode. G to to a G in the key of C is your mixolydian mode, or the mode that will fit perfectly over a Dominant chord(a dominant chord unaltered).

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So if we take the Major scale and write down the modes for that:

Ionian - Dorian - Phrygian - Lydian - Mixolydian - Aeolian - Locrian

That is a set of modes for both the Major and Natural Minor scales. The Minor scale simply starting in a different place. Realistically you can start pulling out all sorts of scales and form modes from these. The modes for the Melodic Minor are (and I had to look these up):

Melodic Minor - Dorian b2 - Lydian Augmented - Lydian Dominant - Mixolydian b6 - Locrian Natural - Altered Dominant -

There would be other modes for the Harmonic Minor scale, Double Harmonic Scale, or other scales which do not have the same intervals as the Major scale. Some scales will simplify to a smaller number of modes, such as the Diminished Scale, which only has two distinct modes. One can argue the Chromatic Scale can have modes, but it only has one as they would all be identical. So to conclude your first question - why does the Minor Scale have modes - all scales will have modes of some description and it may be helpful to draw a distinction between the Melodic/Harmonic Minors as new scales compared to the Natural Minor, which is in itself a mode of the Major scale.

For your second question - whether the major modes have their own modes within themselves - well they have the rest of the major modes. If you take the Dorian mode and play a scale starting on the second note you would expect to play a Phrygian scale. As I said earlier it helps to draw a distinction between the Natural Minor (Aeolian mode) and the other two minors you highlight, which have their own set of modes for their subtle differences.

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A mode is basically using scale notes, and starting the sequence on a different note from that sequence. As in D Dorian uses the same notes as found in C major. But you know that. By using a different set of notes, such as those found in the harmonic minor scale, a slightly different set of modes appear. As already answered, using, say, the chromatic scale, there could be, it may be argued, that there are 12 different modes that come from it. Debatable. So, yes, using harmonic or melodic minor scales will produce more modes. Obviously, referencing from the natural minor will only take you back through the original modes from the original 'mother' key. Modes made from modes can't exist.

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    Yes, I would debate it. Using 12 pitches chromatically saturates a scale and removes a tonal center - the thing by which modes are differentiated. That said, the closest you could approximate what you propose would be permutations of tone rows, which of course wouldn't be identified aurally. – jjmusicnotes Oct 2 '15 at 5:41
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It has modes for the same reason that Major scale has modes. Nothing special about it. Harmonic and melodic minor scales are different scales not modes of natural minor. Here is a nice diagram of all three side by side made using guitar Chords and Scales software: guitar software scales and chords

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We use 'Mode' in a narrow sense to describe the 7 scales obtained by starting a major scale on the 'wrong' note. We also sometimes describe several scales that categorise as minor (not necessarily JUST natural, melodic and harmonic) as 'different modes of the minor scale. And, even more widely, we might call ANY scale a 'mode' - 'Ukranian Dorian', 'Hungarian minor' etc. etc.

Don't worry if you come across a usage of the term 'mode' that doesn't correspond with one of the OTHER usages! And don't bother to condemn the looser definitions as 'wrong'. Just be sure to clarify that you're talking about e.g. the 'church modes' if that's what you ARE talking about.

  • Curious about the downvote here.... – David Bowling May 5 '18 at 0:31
  • It would be sensible to require that a downvote should be accompanied by a better answer, or at least an explanatory comment. – Laurence Payne May 6 '18 at 14:29

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