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Modes and the C Aeolian Scale

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Ok, ok, I know what you're thinking. I went over the Aeolian scale a few weeks ago in the A Guide for Beginners - The A Minor Scale lesson. However, I've received a couple of e-mails over the last few weeks from a few people who are trying to get a grip on modes, and I thought it might be informative to talk about how the Aeolian scale relates to the major scale.

For a thorough explanation of modes, look at my Modes of the Major Scale lesson. I'll recap the modes that come from the C major scale, which are:
  • C Ionian (Major): C D E F G A B C
  • D Dorian: D E F G A B C D
  • E Phrygian: E F G A B C D E
  • F Lydian: F G A B C D E F
  • G Mixolydian: G A B C D E F G
  • A Aeolian (Minor): A B C D E F G A
  • B Locrian: B C D E F G A B
Now, this is great when you're looking at C major, but what about other keys? Let's say I want to know what the notes are for a C aeolian scale. One way to determine this is to figure out what the parent scale of C aeolian is - meaning from what major scale is the C aeolian constructed.

Aeolian scales are constructed from the 6th degree of a parent scale. They are also synonomous with the natural minor scale. There are a couple of different minor scales (dorian, phrygian, melodic minor, etc.), but I think aeolian is nost closely associated with the term minor scale. If we look at the modes for C major above, we can see that A aeolian is constructed from the C major scale, since A is the 6th degree of a C major scale. The chart below shows the degrees and notes for the C major scale:


So, for C aeolian, we need to find the major scale for which C is the 6th degree. If we look at Eb major, we see that the notes and degrees are:


You can see why it helps to know your keys and what sharps and flats are contained within them. Since C aeolian is constructed from the Eb major scale, we can also be sure that it contains the same notes. Thus, the notes in a C aeolian scale are:
  • C Aeolian: C D Eb F G Ab Bb C
Alternatively, we can also think about how a C aeolian scale is constructed relative to itself. In other words, what are the seven notes that make up the C aeolian scale relative to C and not Eb major (from which it is derived)? If we think about it this way, we get the following chart:


To further confuse you, we can use this approach to determine all of the modes of the major scale with C as the root, and what parent scales they come from:
  • C Ionian (C major): C D E F G A B
  • C Dorian (Bb major): C D Eb F G A Bb
  • C Phrygian (Ab major): C Db Eb F G Ab Bb
  • C Lydian (G major): C D E F# G A B
  • C Mixolydian (F major): C D E F G A Bb
  • C Aeolian (Eb major): C D Eb F G Ab Bb
  • C Locrian (Db major): C Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb
Thus, you can see that C ionian does not share that many common notes with C aeolian, and thus, they have very different sounds. Either method of figuring out the notes for a given mode is fine. As long as you have some way of thinking about how to determine the notes of a particular mode, you're ahead of the game. Let's take a look at the example below so you can hear the difference between the C ionian (i.e. major) scale, and the C aeolian (i.e. minor scale).
Modes and the C Aeolian Scale