The Minor Scale
Also known as the Aeolian Mode
It's true that modes are not easy for some musicians, but luckily the Aeolian or natural minor scale is rather popular and has some easy chords. So, grab your guitar and we will look at the notes of this minor mode and how they give it such a distinct sad or depressed feeling.
What is the Aeolian scale?
Remember a mode is also a scale, and in the modern sense it is simply a major scale started on another scale degree.
First, we take our basic C major scale;
C D E F G A B C
Depending on where we start on that scale will determine our mode as seen in this chart here. When we start in the 6th degree, it is called the Aeolian mode.
The C major or Ionian scale has the same notes as the A Aeolian. But if you play them both on your guitar, you will see they invoke completely different emotions. While the minor mode can be used in a variety of genres, songs in this mode will never really be uplifting and joyful.
The rhythms and tempos can give minor songs a drive or a rocking sound, but you will notice the subject matter or topic of the song is still not positive. Aeolian doesn't equal a constant dreadful mood, but if you just met the person of your dreams, this is the wrong mode to use in a song!
A B C D E F G A
If there is a modern thoughtful, deep, or melancholy tune that you like, there is a good chance it has some Aeolian mode in it. Just remember when dealing with song examples, that things don't always fit perfectly. Many guitarists and songwriters don't know theory, and they just went with what sounded sad!
The 6th scale degree is known as the submediant and its scale formula is:
or it is easier to just flatten the 3, 6, and 7:
With all those minor notes it is guaranteed that our song will not be happy. If you want to compose dystopian yet beautiful guitar-oriented rock music, the Aeolian mode is a good friend. (If you want a more creepy or spookier vibe, use the Phrygian mode!)
Aeolian Scales: The b3, b6 and b7
The Aeolian is like the Dorian, but with a minor 6th, giving it a sadder and more contemplative vibe. Dorian songs are often more upbeat and groovier with their minor feel. That bluesy or funky vibe is a sign it may be Dorian, and yes, sometimes we see both (like in Eleanor Rigby).
If you want to find what mode a song is in, first locate the key. From there identify which scale degrees are raised or lowered. If you see b3, b6, and b7 notes, it is in natural minor. Be sure not to confuse it with the melodic minor or harmonic minor scales as they are different (and they are both covered in separate articles).
Minor Scales Guitar Patterns
Here below you find the most common ways to play a minor scale on guitar; example are in A minor but you can move the shapes up and down the neck to get new root.
You find more scale diagrams across all the fretboard in the ebook Scales Over Chords | Learn How To Play The Right Scales Over Any Chord
Minor scale with root on 6th string
Minor scale with root on 5th string
Minor scale with root on 4th string
Minor scale with root on 3rd string
Below are Aeolian scales in other keys.
Common chords and progressions used in the Minor.
As always, we use the scale formula to determine what chords will work, and we can build these types of chords with that scale. Then, with these chords, we can create progressions:
In Roman Numbers Notation, the chords in a Dorian Scale are:
i – ii(dim) – bIII – iv – v – bVI – bVII
The diminished isn't that useful but the rest of these chords will be found throughout Aeolian songs. A progression like i-bVII-bIII-bVI, or some variation is common in songs like "Crazy Train" which uses F#m-D-A-E throughout much of the F# Aeolian song.
Besides those chords you can use the scale to see what other chords might work. The sus2 and sus4 are common along with min7 and 7b5. And it is normal for the III and VII to be maj7. If you see a V7 chord that means they put some of the harmonic minor scale in with the natural.
There are also progressions that use i-iv-v like "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Losing My Religion".
Often the minor progressions can be even simpler like i-bVII in "Somebody I Used to Know". In "All Along the Watchtower" we have a progression of i-bVII-bVI repeated through the whole song.
Another popular chord progression in Aeolian is i-bIII-bVII-bVI (Am-C-G-F) like in the songs "Sound of Silence" and "Counting Stars".
Or jumble those chords for i-bVI-bIII-bVII or Em-C-G-D for "Zombie".
C Minor scale triad chords
|C min||D dim||Eb maj||F min||G min||Ab maj||Bb maj|
C Minor scale triad seventh chords
|C m7||D m7/b5||Eb maj7||F m7||G m7||Ab maj7||Bb 7|
More Notable examples
Beethoven was partially inspired by wind harps when he wrote "Moonlight Sonata", which is in C#m.
In modern music we see lots of Em and Am in songs like "Not a Second Time" and "Part of Me".
A great example of is "Hello".
And "Sultans of Swing" is in Dm with a i-bVII-bVI-V7 (the last V7 being harmonic minor but still fitting with Dm).
Some guitarists will use a mode just for a solo or riff section. It makes an easy solo to play when you stick with notes that are guaranteed to fit. When you are dealing with the rock, blues, and minor chords the Aeolian is one of the potential scales to try first. Some songs that have modal solos are:
Just remember that not all minor songs are in natural minor the whole time, others can use the melodic and harmonic minor.
Minor key songs usually have a mix of one of those scales with Aeolian mode. But in general,like the Ionian mode, you will find many places to use it.
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