I'm learning music theory with the hopes of being able to analyze sheet music.

My question is -- What if the piece I am analyzing is in some other mode than major or minor? Or even stranger, like double harmonic major.. etc..

How do I look at a piece of music and figure out what scale it's using, if it's not major or minor, is what I'm getting at.

  • Any piece that uses the double harmonic scale is probably not modal.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Apr 2, 2019 at 0:23

3 Answers 3


Keep in mind you could have a piece of music with sections that switch between modal and major/minor harmony. But let's assume the music is consistently one way or the other.

The seventh scale degree is critical to understanding modal versus major/minor. Let's dig into that idea starting with major/minor music.

The ending of a piece of music is traditionally where you will get confirmation of a major/minor work's key. If the music ends with a traditional cadence, it's using the major/minor system and not modal.

You can continue examining cadences within the music. Pieces in major/minor will have various internal cadences marking the end of sections. Again, if you find traditional cadences, it isn't modal.

The defining feature of "traditional" cadences is the appearance of the leading tone scale degree. That is the seventh degree of the scale which is one half step below the tonic. The leading tone will appear in cadences as either I to V with the leading tone going up to the tonic, or as a phrase ending on V where the leading tone will be present in the V chord.

When we look at all the modes except Lydian - Dorian, Phrygian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian - the seventh scale degree is a whole step below the tonic. By the definition above these seventh scales degrees are not leading tones. Instead we can call them subtonics. Let's skip over Lydian for the rest of this, because it complicates things in a way that I don't think will help you right now.

When looking at modal music we should see the subtonic instead of the leading tone in melody or harmony.

For example, we might see melodies ending C to D in D Dorian rather than C# to D which would be used in D minor.

Instead of seeing chords like V to i we might see (minor triad) v to i in Aeolian or (minor triad) v to I in Mixolydian. In major/minor the chord of the leading tone - a diminished triad - might be seen like viio6 to i. But in modal style the chord of the seventh degree is not a diminished chord. It often will be a major triad like VII to i in Dorian or Aeolian.

I just used a bunch of musical terms that may be unfamiliar to you. You will eventually learn them as you study the modes. But one important thing to look for, one idea to simplify the topic, is checking the seventh scale degree. In modal music it is usually a whole step below the tonic.

Regarding scales like double harmonic or freygish those should be pretty straight forward to identify, because the tones in such scales are not diatonic. In such exotic scales the seventh degree may be a half step below the tonic - that would look like the leading tone described above - but the non-diatonic nature of the scales will probably involve accompaniment with chords different than the major/minor system. It's hard to make a simple generalization. But the exotic scale should stand out as not diatonic and therefore not belonging to the major/minor system.

  • 1
    Thing is, quite a lot of music does not use traditional cadences, yet they still do not stick strictly to any one mode. For example, "You Will Know Our Names" from Xenoblade Chronicles contains v-isus4-I cadences and uses B flat, B natural, C, D flat, and D natural (i.e. it does not use any one mode alone). I generally think of that theme as being primarily in B flat minor with Phrygian implications and a tendency to emphasize D flat major.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Apr 2, 2019 at 0:16
  • 1
    Yes, I'm mostly striking the contrast between something like a Bach violin partita and a folk music reel. It's a starting point to develop an understanding. Commented Apr 2, 2019 at 1:37

Music of 20th century and later that is not in major or minor at first sight is probably composed in no traditional key or scale. So you have to analyse the notes and chords and may say something about the construction of these scales. eg. Bartok or 12 tone music. Often there no alternative than a statistical approach, also in early music.

You can tell what tones are current, what chords - if there are at all - you can identify and you can tell something about the voicing (homophone or counterpoint) and instrumentation. But when there are no keys and no scales to identify (like the key signs and the last tone) it is difficult to say more.


Trick: have a first look at the ending of the piece. Most (not all) pieces end on their basic key.

Study: I) Start out learning the traditional notation system with Major/minor keys and its sharps and flats. Use the "circle of fifth" for example. Its easier to figure out a special mode then, when it is not fitting into the classical system.

IIa) Modes are important, too. Check out the seven modes for each traditional (major or natural minor)scale: ionian, dorian, phyrygian, lydian, mixolydian, aeolian, locrian

IIb) Do the same with melodic minor and harmonic minor. The naming can be weird sometimes, but you will get it after a while. Good books relate these to the traditional system like "ionian#5" etc. Keep in mind that these names only try to give a sound a name. Hear the differences and check out the important notes which make the difference in each mode!!

III) What helped me a lot is looking for additional sharpening of particular notes in a score for checking out the raised seventh in a minor key. Say you have a d minor piece with one flat at the beginning of each stave. You will find a c# somewhere in the score telling you that its probable not being F major which also has one flat at the beginning of each stave. Make a list of raised seventh notes (lead note to the root) in every minor and major key.

IV) Modern and avantgarde pieces do not have these general key signing and the individual notes are raised(#) or flattened(b) when they occur, as tonal centers can change after some bars etc. Here you combine all your experience on analyzing tonalities in a particular musical situation.

To say the least: It´s a musical journey. Composers like to give musical pieces a certain looseness of key sometimes, too, and like to change (modulate) to another key or use no key at all, see Neue Musik for example...

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