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I was reading an article Steve Vai wrote in the 80's where he says - "In the key of E Mixolydian, you can use this fingering in the open, 2nd, 5th, 7th, 10th and 12th positions."

I thought that when playing or composing with diatonic modes the key signature is for ionian/aeolian.

In my mind you drop your key by the # of notes you raise the mode by then work out the accidentals according to the modes as illustrated by, but not restricted to the key of C/A. Thus E Mixolydian should be in the key of A/F# unless I'm completely misunderstanding the concept of the diatonic modes.

So is there a key of E Mixolydian?

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TLDR;

Yes, there is such thing as the "key of E Mixolydian", but it's not a proper way to address it. You should call it the "mode of E Mixolydian". Notating it on sheet music is more complex then just putting the key signature of A major/ F♯ minor.


First off, keys and modes are not the same thing which is why use Major and Minor to represent keys rather than Ionian and Aeolian. Modes predate the idea of keys and mixing the concepts leads to a lot of confusion since most modes don't follow the traditional tonal concepts of harmony so calling them keys doesn't make sense. So semantically there is no "key of E Mixolydian" nor "key of C Ionian" for that matter you should refer to them as modes instead.

However, the concept of a key in general especially with a more modern eye and less emphasis on traditional functional harmony opens up a lot of possibilities.

A key gives you two pieces of information, it tells you the tonal center of a piece and the expected harmony and melody of the piece. Again the tonal center is more for tonal ideas, but it can easily be extended to modes. The harmony of Mixolydian vs Major is also vastly different so saying something is specifically in the mode or key of Mixolydian is valuable information.

How to represent it on sheet music however is not as straightforward. Let's take E Mixolydian as an example. You could notate the key signature two ways which are:

  • You can write the key signature for A major/ F♯ minor and hope people understand that you're in the mode of E Mixolydian.
  • You could write the key signature for E major to demonstrate the tonic and use

A real example of a song in E Mixolydian is Good Times, Bad Times which you will find sheet music for both ways.

The issue with the first is musicians have been trained to think the key signature of A major/ F♯ minor will have the tonic be either A or F♯ which is not the case. The signature fits better and represents the set of notes, but information about the tonic may not be clear.

With E major it's much more clear that E will be tonic and since it's a major mode only a few alterations will be needed. However you'll have to introduce accidentals to cancel out the D♯ where as in A major/ F♯ minor you would not have to.

It's up to you at the end of the day.

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E Mixolydian has the same key signature as A major, three sharps, but it's not "in the key" of A major. It is the key (or mode) of E mixolydian.

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E mixolydian is NOT the key of E, it is the key of A. E mixolydian is the 5th mode of the A major scale. If your playing E mixolydian you are simply playing the notes of the A Major scale, your just starting from the 5th degree of A. E is the 5th of A. That being said, you COULD be playing a progression or song centered on the key of E, say a I IV V, being E, A, B, and choose to flavor your scale note choices by playing an E mixolydian, over dominant 7chords. The Mixolydian scale is the Major or (Ionian) scale with a flatted 7th degree. Every mode has a formula that alters the major scale to result in the new scale or "mode". On guitar, The 7 major "Modes" are nothing more than the 7 positions of the major scale. B Dorian, is the second mode of the A major scale. Take for instance a II V I progression with the chords Bm, E, A, .... Even tho the first chord is a Bm you are playing in the key of A. Bm is simply the 2nd degree of A. Etc etc

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