Is it a must for a song using the A minor scale to begin or end with an Am chord?

If not, how can I tell what the scale is?

For example, how can I differentiate between the C major scale, A minor scale, C Ionian scale, and E Phrygian scale? All of them are on the white keys on the piano!


how can i know the scale ? For example, how to differentiate between C major scale, A minor scale, C ionian scale, E phrygian scale?? All of them are on white keys on piano.!!

You need to learn to feel what note is the tonic or 'home note' - the note that the piece of music "pulls towards" or comes "home" to. This sense of coming home can come from various reasons - e.g. the melody may seem to move towards hitting the "home" note on important beats, or a bassline riff might be focused around that note. Another aspect is the use of notes closely-related to the root, such as the perfect 4th and 5th - 5 of the 7 modes contain both of these (the exceptions being Lydian and Locrian).

Once this sense of root note is established, the reason that C major, A minor, and E phrygian sound so different is because the white notes form different interval patterns relative to the root notes C, A, and E. For example, in terms of whole tones and half tones,

  • C ionian has a whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half pattern
  • A Aeolian has a whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole pattern
  • E phrygian hs a half, whole, whole, whole, half, whole, whole pattern

These different patterns relative to the root makes the mood of the different modes different. Recognising these moods might be another way to get a feel for what mode a piece is in.

Is it a must for a song on Am scale to begin or end with Am chord

No, but starting the song with the Am chord, or playing the Am chord on important points in the song, is another of the ways of establishing A as the home note.

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  • Not so sure that the patterns of tones/semitones are the definitive factors. Yes, of course they exist, but melodies are not usually made up using runs from these patterns. – Tim Jul 29 '19 at 11:21
  • @Tim Well sure - I'm not saying that those patterns represent the order in which notes are played in real tunes, just that they define the specific notes in the scale given any specific root. Isn't that always the way with scales? Or am I misunderstanding you? – topo Reinstate Monica Jul 29 '19 at 12:15
  • @Tim -- a Phrygian phrase is likely to emphasize the b2, or a Dorian phrase is likely to emphasize the 6, i.e., the notes that distinguish the modes are often emphasized to help establish their sounds. I take it that this is what topo is getting at with interval patterns relative to root notes. – ex nihilo Jul 29 '19 at 12:34
  • @DavidBowling - what I'm saying is that given a phrase played on white keys may, or may not give clues as to whether it comes from C Ionian, D Dorian, E Phrygian, A Aeolian (especially!) et al, necessarily. – Tim Jul 29 '19 at 14:15
  • @Tim a phrase may not give clues as to the root, but a whole song typically does. If it doesn't, i guess that would be the exception that proves the rule insofar as it wouldn't definitively be in any particular mode..? – topo Reinstate Monica Jul 29 '19 at 19:58

A lot of music is similar to a journey. It starts at home, and eventually ends up back there. it might visit other placess on the way, but they won't always feel like home, back where the journey started.

So, to establish a key, most music will start with the root chord. here are of course anacruces, which are the short starts before the main chord, which then establishes where 'one' is. So, a piece in key C major will probably start with that chord, or harmony. In key A minor, that piece will start with that chord, or harmony.

The same principle counts for minor keys - except that the leading note - one semitone below the root - the one that pulls most towards the root, is missing in the natural minor scale notes. So, it gets to a sharpened version of that 7th note. Then it sounds like it needs to end up on the tonic, when that's played.

The same doesn't happen with the other modes, as strongly. So here, we have to re-visit 'home' more often, to try to establish where it is. listen to modal stuff, and you'll hear all of this happening.

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You seem to be asking more than one thing here.

I can cite an example right off the bat that is in A min, starts on A min and ends on B maj chord. Luis Millan 6 pavanas and a fantasia (pavan #1). Of course the very next pavan starts on B maj so...

CORRECTION: pavan #1 starts on A min and ends on A maj (not B maj). Sorry.

You absolutely do not have to start and/or end on the chord that represents the first degree of the key you are in but that generally sounds best. As an art form there are no "rules" but in fact music is very mathematical and in Western music we have come to appreciate certain chord movements more than others. There is a definite feeling of completeness when a song starts and ends on the chord of the key (more so for ending, many songs start on the V or other chord but end on I). However, ending on another degree can be useful for expressing another feeling.

The basic chords that exist within a key make a natural cycle called the circle progression, that moves in 4ths through the key starting and ending on I.

I - maj

IV - maj

vii - dim

iii - min

vi - min

ii - min

V - maj (add 7 for resolution to I)

I - maj

Of course 7th may be added. With more knowledge of chord substitutions one can see that this is really a cover (or extension) of the basic I - IV - V progression. Once you get the circle progression in your ear you almost can't stop hearing it. It's present implicitly in a lot of music even if the players are not literally playing the exact sequence of chords. As for learning more about modes, I think it's a great idea but not sure that will shed light on your question. All seven diatonic modes are related to the major scale starting on different degrees on the scale.

Ionian (Major) starts on 1 (or Do)

Dorian starts on 2 (Re)

Phygian on 3 (Mi)

Lydian on 4 (Fa)

Mixolydian on 5 (Sol)

Aeolian (Natural Minor) on 6 (La)

Locrean on 7 (Ti)

There is another set of altered modes based on the melodic minor scale. But the point is, they are all related so once you understand the structure of western music you don't really need to have all the hole tone - half tone patterns memorized.

In my opinion one of the more important aspects of Western music is the relation between chords in the scale and the scale tones or degrees that act as a root. A traditional approach to harmony theory would point out that all notes in the major scale can be harmonized or covered with just 3 chords, the I, IV and V. Also, the concept of a resolution or cadence is a corner stone of the western musical tradition. This is the sound of V7 --> I. This is such a "strong" sound that give one the feeling of completeness that it is very common for songs to end this way. But again I must stress that this is a component of classical harmony theory and is based on cultural tastes. Not a law of physics which cannot be broken.

As far and identifying all the modes on the "white keys" of a piano. Using the formula I gave above you are in the key of C. Play D to D and that is Dorian, E to E = Phygian, etc.

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In my opinion, you can get rather bogged down in Greek names for modes.

For example: if you are using E phrygian or aeolian, you are still in E minor. In either case you are in E minor, and that's the most important thing.

E Phrygian: E F G A B C D E E Aeolian : E F# G A B C D E

They are almost identical, except that in one case, the 2nd is flatted.

If you think of them both as E minor, and train your ear to hear how other tones outside of the 3rd and 5th have been altered, you dramatically reduce the number of patterns to learn and Greek names to memorise.

If you get your major, harmonic and melodic minor scales thoroughly down, you will find that starting them from different degrees is rather easy. Simplify the problem.

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  • 1
    Likewise, Dorian can be thought of as a minor tonality. – topo Reinstate Monica Jul 29 '19 at 15:30
  • There are only seven names to learn. Hardly taxing for the average memory! – Tim Jul 29 '19 at 17:20
  • it's more a question about what is useful to know and what is not. If you are hearing a certain pattern of tones in a real time musical situation, knowing the Greek name doesn't help much. – danmcb Jul 30 '19 at 7:16

The tonic note is singular in its ability to indicate finality. No other note in the scale can end passages as effectively. Yes you can end on a V - vi progression or a IV - V, but unless the passage has a leading tone resolving to a tonic you are most assuredly going to have the passage end on a 'hanging' or in other words it is going to have an ending that sounds unresolved.

Now, this does not mean an unresolved ending is bad. Most TV shows that end on some sort of cliffhangers use an unresolved ending to great effect. So it is not as if such an ending does not have its place, the question is just would you want this as a rule.

Most music, like most books want a beginning, a middle and an end. You want an introduction to some sort of melodic or harmonic device, you want a middle that takes the introduction and builds on it in some sort of creative way and then a meaningful end.

To be quite frank, the easiest way to have a meaningful ending to a piece is just simply having a V - I resolution.

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There is a history behind the modes that you listed. But in terms of theory, the modes you listed are based on their relationship to the C major tonality (which is based on playing all the white keys. A seven note diatonic scale.

The pattern used for the seven notes of the scale denote (no pun intented) the mode (tonality) that you are in. Starting and stopping on the Am scale is only necessary if you want to give the feeling of resolve based on what is called a cadence. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cadence).

A good example of not ending on the tonic of a scale are those scary movie soundtracks where you feel uncomfortable because the music doesn't seem to give you a feeling of rest.

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Is it a must for a song using the A minor scale to begin or end with an Am chord?

I think your question can be generalize to: must a song begin or end with a tonic chord?

A lot of music starts and ends with the tonic chord. Sometimes the beginning is not the tonic, but the ending is.

But some music is flexible regarding what scale is being used and what chords start and end the piece. Below is an example I played recently. It may not be the style of music you have in mind, but it illustrates the point about scales and chords.

Binchois, De Plus en Plus se Renouvelle

The music is from the late Medieval and works with something called musica ficta which isn't the same as the major/minor system. for simplicity I'll refer to major and minor.

It starts on a G major chord then moves through E minor to a C major chord. Scale-wise I think it sounds like C major. Then is clearly moves to a G chord and uses a F# in the scale which moves the scale into G major.

enter image description here

The ending is on a D minor chord. Scale wise a C# is used and both B flat and B natural are used which puts it in D minor.

enter image description here

So, we can see in this example that a song doesn't have to start and end on the same chord or scale.

A copy of the score is at IMSLP.

...how can I tell what the scale is?

That's a separate and more complicated question that depends a lot on harmonic style. But, in the case of proper major/minor scales - and in the case of musica ficta - you can look for the leading tone. The leading tone is a half step below the tonic. So, while C major and A minor have the same key signature of no sharps/flats, A minor will use a G# for the leading tone.

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