January 26, 2014

Aeolian Knot

This post is part of a series about the modes.
Aeolian is the same as the natural minor scale or the white keys from A to A. To play this mode starting on a different note, just play natural minor.

So how to talk about a mode that is now one of our regular scales? Doesn't it work just like minor? Well yes. And no. It is actually quite common for today's minor music to use a raised 7th at some point (relates to the harmonic and melodic minor scales) to get the sound of the raised 7th leading to the tonic. Aeolian does not have this sound. Since a great deal of modern music theory worries about how the 7th (and other notes) lead to the tonic, this is actually a bigger difference than you might think. Just to give you an idea of how big, musicians were beginning to use raised 7th sounds back in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, before major and minor quite existed. A ridiculously popular tune (then and now), "Greensleeves," is actually half in the modal Aeolian and half in the more modern minor (the end of the phrases is where the raised 7th sound sneaks in.) Not that they thought of it that way of course. They were just living in a time in-between the modes and the major-minor systems and their music showed it.
Aeolian can sound oddly plain to people who are used to the major-minor system. The notes stay the same no matter what is happening in the final cadence. This means the harmonies don't always match the music theory worked out for the major-minor system and so once again we have to work with this scale on its own terms. For starters, we have to understand that there won't be as much pull to the tonic (the starting and ending note) from the 7th note as we are used to. In Aeolian, landing on the tonic from the 7th note is more of a surprise, or a push, than a pull. It isn't always as final sounding as you might think either but that leaves some room for ornamenting a couple of last frills and turns that you can't always get away with in today's minor music. And that is what I like about Aeolian. It gives you room to be ornate and flashy even with a simple melody. Maybe especially with simple melodies. Of course, it is possible to go overboard with this and make the end of the piece circle in on itself in an endless loop that makes your audience start looking at their watches. This makes ending pieces in Aeolian a slippery business. One trick is to segue from Aeolian to Ionian (basically major) to keep from getting lost in the final cadence maze. This actually happens in folk music quite often as major (Ionian) and minor (Aeolian) tunes are paired up and played together as a single "piece." And Classical music often does exactly the same thing by having minor and major movements following each other in a piece.
Since most people automatically think of minor as being sad, it would make sense for Aeolian to be used for slow pieces. Which it is at times, but in folk music it is actually very common to find fast dances, like jigs, that are in Aeolian. Something about the contrast of the closed sound of this scale with the speed and jumping rhythms works beautifully together. My personal theory is that the Aeolian scale keeps the fast upbeat music from getting so cheerful we can't stand it. We get to be happy but don't feel like we are being drowned in sugar.
I look at Aeolian as one of the best places to start working with modes. It is possible to move from Aeolian to other modes fairly easily since we, as modern listeners, are used to minor shifting about quite a bit. And it is a great mode for learning to handle ornaments, extended endings and in general breaking out of our modern major-minor musical mind-sets. It is an extremely friendly mode.

January 10, 2014

The Mixolydian Bounce

This post is part of a series about the modes.

To hear a Mixolydian mode, play the white keys on a piano from G to G. To start this mode on another note, play a major scale with a lowered 7th step. For example; G major has one sharp, F. Since F sharp is the 7th step of the G major scale, we play F natural to hear a mixolydian scale.

Mixolydian pops up in folk and Troubadour music a lot. So often, it doesn't even always get labeled. I know a number of performers who prefer the lowered 7th sound so much that they have trouble playing in a major key. They just can't help tossing in a lowered 7th here and there. And interestingly, the lowered 7th is used in Jazz quite frequently too. This scale seems to be one of the areas where folk, Jazz and Classical music meet with relative ease.

One tune in Mixolydian that I play is called "The Little Beggerman" or "The Red Haired Boy" (same tune, just different names for the vocal or instrumental versions.) It is very upbeat and fast (especially the way I play it) but it is missing the wide open shine of major tunes. Instead, it has a tongue in cheek quality to the melody that comes partly from the lowered 7th.
This mode is also great for laments, lullabies or songs about longing. I love the sense for reaching out but not quite touching I can get from this scale. The lowered 7th can also make it easier to spin out melodies (fast or slow) since it doesn't pull to the tonic the same way the 7th note in the major scale does.
I especially like the way Mixolydian can switch back and forth from slow and thoughtful to fast and flashy. It is an easy going scale that adapts to changeable moods within a single song which is a great way to keep an audience involved in a performance.