Thrash Course with Revocation's Dave Davidson: Comparing the Fundamental Minor Modes

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In my last column, I went over the differences and similarities between the major scale, also known as the Ionian mode, and another fundamental major mode, Lydian. This month, I’d like to take the same approach to comparing two fundamental minor modes: Aeolian, also known as the natural minor scale, and Dorian.

In our examination of Ionian versus Lydian, I pointed out the notes within each mode that I feel give it its characteristic quality, such as the major third and major seventh in Ionian, and the augmented, or “sharp-ed,” fourth (#4) in Lydian.

In composing songs, riffs or solos, I like to emphasize these characteristic tones so that the listener gets a clear picture, harmonically speaking, of the music they’re hearing. Let’s now take a look at what I consider to be the characteristic tones of Aeolian and Dorian.

As I mentioned last month, the seven fundamental modes are essentially different orientations of the major scale, with each degree of the scale used as a new starting point, or tonic, for each different mode. Aeolian is built from the major scale’s sixth degree. If we look at the G major scale (G A B C D E F#), its sixth degree is E. If we start from that note and think of that as our new tonic, we get E Aeolian (E F# G A B C D; see FIGURE 1). In terms of intervals, or scale degrees, the Aeolian mode’s formula is 1 (the root), 2 (the major second), b3 (the minor, or “flat,” third, 4 (the perfect fourth), 5 (the perfect fifth), b6 (the minor sixth) and b7 (the minor seventh). To me, the note that most characterizes Aeolian is the minor sixth (f6). In the key of E minor, that note is C.

Now, if we take these same seven notes and make A the root note, we get the A Dorian mode (A B C D E F# G; see FIGURE 2). The intervallic structure, or formula, is now 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6 (the major sixth) and b7. To me, the major sixth is the note that best characterizes the unique sound of the Dorian mode, which has a “warmer,” or “lighter,” quality than Aeolian. Focusing on that characteristic sound is a very useful thing to do when putting riffs together. FIGURE 3 offers an example of a metal-style rhythm part that emphasizes the major sixth of A, F#, throughout to create the sound of D7/A. For comparison, if I were to substitute the minor sixth of A, F, in this same riff, the result would be along the lines of FIGURE 4.

It’s also very cool to put the modes side by side, as I do in FIGURE 5, wherein I play a similar melodic line against both E and A pedal tones. I can then use this approach for riff writing. In FIGURE 6, I alternate between E and A pedal tones while repeating a static, or unchanging, melodic line, thus making the difference between the two modalities more pronounced.

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