I am writing a song with the verse going from C > Am > Em > Em. . I can't think of any other pop/rock songs that use this progression and if anyone can think of any please share as this would be very helpful right now. So I suppose the progression could be either E minor or E phrygian. If the vocal melody above these chords was to exclude the F/F# note would the listener ever feel like there was an implied tonality?

  • Could be Em, C, Am or even G, in my opinion...
    – aschipfl
    Dec 17 '17 at 17:19
  • wouldn't the piece either need to begin or end in Aminor or Gmajor for those two to be valid options?
    – armani
    Dec 17 '17 at 17:45

Even though the chords could be taken from E phrygian, it would be very uncommon to say that the given progression is in E phrygian. The reason is that the character note in phrygian is the b2, which would be F in this case, and since the note F does not show up anywhere, the most common interpretation would be to say that the progression is in E minor.

The story would be different if there were a melody over these chords which uses the note F. But if neither F nor F# are used in the melody, this progression is most likely in E minor.

Generally, a mode other than major and minor is only perceived if the chords and/or the melody feature the mode's character note. E.g., it doesn't make much musical sense to say that the progression C-G-C is in C lydian (with the #4, i.e. F#, as character note), even though the chord tones are all part of C lydian.

  • hmmm, interesting. I like your thinking. I think I can agree with you and discard Ephrygian as an option now which is great. But can you discard C major from from the options?
    – armani
    Dec 17 '17 at 17:43
  • @armani: Well, what do you hear as the "home" chord here? Of course, those 3 chords are also part of C major, A minor, G major, ... But I hear E minor as the key, mainly because the progression leads to the Em chord, where it stays for two bars.
    – Matt L.
    Dec 17 '17 at 17:54
  • That is just the thing, I don't know. I guess it could be both? Even though there are two bars of Eminor at the end, I can't say that this is sufficient for saying Eminor, yet I can't say just because it starts with C and that all the chords are from C that it is in C major either. I guess there really is no answer?
    – armani
    Dec 17 '17 at 18:19
  • @armani: Since the chords occur in several keys, one could keep arguing. Eventually, it's in the ears/head of the listener, but I dare to say that most musically trained people would perceive that progression to be in the key of E minor. But since it's your composition, you are the one to decide, and there is not definite right or wrong. As a hint, try to add an F to the melody somewhere to make it fit. Then try the same with F#. My guess is that it will be easier to make the F# sound good, which would imply E minor rather than C major.
    – Matt L.
    Dec 17 '17 at 18:32

Could be either. Or it could be useful to consider it staying in C major. What does the melody do? Any F# notes?

  • I wrote it purposefully trying to exclude them so the listener wouldn't know but now I am not sure where to take the song. Have a listen to what I have so far here ufile.io/7jqrt There is a quick short modulation to Dminor at the end before the chorus comes in. I don't know where to go from there. I suppose now there are 3 possibles for the chorus. Eminor, Ephrygian or stay in Dminor after the bridge? what would you do?
    – armani
    Dec 17 '17 at 12:36
  • @armani congratz on that piece of music. I can see you've gone about it exactly the right way; following your ears and trying to understand why what you've written feels the way it does. I was originally going to just write a comment, but this warrants a proper answer which I'll probably write tomorrow. In short, you're in Em and then modulating to Cmaj (yes, despite the B flat). Don't get too carried away by the idea of being "in" a mode. Unless writing very strictly nodal music as a choice, it's much more useful to just know what the key centre is. A key is NOT a scale. Again great work!
    – Some_Guy
    Dec 19 '17 at 11:34

Seems more like C, although E Phrygian contains the same notes exactly. When it gets written on the stave, you need to decide what the key sig. is going to be, and to me no # or b fits better. At the end of the song, you'll find one particular chord will sound like it fits better than any other. That'll be the decider for the piece's key.

  • could it be Eminor?
    – armani
    Dec 17 '17 at 14:59
  • It could, I haven't heard it ! C and Am have more in common with Em than Dm does, but that's no great criterion.
    – Tim
    Dec 17 '17 at 15:09

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