Theory Question: Major Scales and Their Relative Minors

November 21, 2008 at 06:06 AM ·

Who first identified the minor scales in music and why?

Replies (16)

November 21, 2008 at 11:20 AM ·

When you take the diatonic scale system, there are a total of seven different ways to pick 7 pitches out of the available pitches to form an eight pitch scale which ends on the same pitch it started with (but twice the frequency, thus one octave higher). These seven different ways to arrange the scales are known as modes and their names are: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian.

The major and minor scales are actually two of those seven modes. Major is Ionian mode and minor is Aeolian mode. The other modes have fallen out of fashion over the last 400 years or so and thus they are now fairly uncommon. In medieval church music all of these modes were used, though, not just the two we use today.

As to why the others have fallen out of fashion, I have no idea.

November 21, 2008 at 01:54 PM ·


There are many reasons that leads to the dispariton of modal scales.

One of the main reasons results from the way to avoid the triton  F-B in polyphonies by lowering B so it becomes Bb or altering F into F#.

the second reason is a rule of couterpoint:  a imperfect consonnance  (thirds and sixths)  followed by a perfect  consonnance is better aproached by a semi-tone in one part and one tone in the other part

for exemple G#   A is better than G A

                       E     D                          E D

In three part  this rule yields to the double leading tone cadence (addition of C#-D)above the preceding cadence

The third factor is the movement to a fifth lower at the cadence which created a forbidden dissonance seventh with the double leading tone cadence. So the  authentic cadence is born A major third resoving into an octave  and a movement of fifth.

The necessary adaptation lead to the disparition of the F mode and G mode at the advantage of the C mode .

Hope this was clear enough

November 21, 2008 at 02:28 PM ·

"Minor scales" have been with us all along.  It is just a matter of what we call them


Before there were even "major" and "minor" keys, or even the notion of "key signatures"--there were the church modes, 7 of them as Alain and Benjamin have said.

Now, these modes were defined on the basis of the distribution of whole and half steps in the scale.

Ionian Mode (our modern major scale) being: WWHWWWH.

Aeolian (our modern natural minor) being: WHWWHWW

The rest of the modes start successively on a higher note of the scale, and therefore move the W & H steps around, in order Dorian Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian.  Overall same number of half steps, but the order gets shgifted around. Aeolian being our natural minor we all know now, and locrian being a step higher than it (which is followed by Ionian).

 To hear these, play all the notes as you would in a C major scale, but START and END on:

A-will give you Aeolian Mode

B-Will give you locrian






You'll hear how some of these sound quite strange to out ears accustomed to tonality.

Now, with minor scales there is a twist.  As we move out of modality (i.e. a la Chant), composers found Ionian to be the most melodically flexible (as well as ood counterpoint), as a function of the whole steps and half  steps-it aurally want to ascend and descend.  But,  Aeolian mode (natural minor, in todays terms), has NONE of the melodic direction to the top of the scale that  Ionian does, a funciton of the whole steps at the top of that what composers eventually agreed on, was raising the 7th and also 6th scale degrees to provide the direction needed (6th also, as only raising the 7th scale degree causes an augmented second)

November 21, 2008 at 02:35 PM ·

The modes may have fallen out of use in Western music but I assure you they are in full use in folk music of many cultures including eastern european, greek, middle eastern, and north african.  Especially Dorian mode.

Oh and check out anything written by Vaughan Williams.

November 21, 2008 at 03:25 PM ·

According to legend, Pythagoras was walking past a blacksmith's shop and he heard the sounds of the hammers against the anvils. He figured that there must be a mathmatical reason for some sounds sounding pretty and some sounding not pretty. He then discovered that because the anvils were of different sizes they create different sounds, i.e. a smaller anvil made a higher sound than a larger one. He also discovered the mathmatical ratio of this. An anvil that was twice the size of another one would have the same sound, but an octave lower.

It then translated to the vibrating string (not superstring theory). The harmonic series (which is very apparent on a string) became the basis of the major scale. If you take the first part of the harmonic series (which spreads to infinite), and you bring them together within an octave you'd get the notes of the major scale (more or less, as some of those notes are slightly out of tune). There are, of course, several major scales, depending on the tuning system you're using, but that's another topic.

November 21, 2008 at 03:29 PM ·

Mixolydian and Dorian modes are very common in Celtic folk music and American folk music with Celtic roots.  They really don't sound strange.  In fact, they add something of interest in a positive way.

I could never understand why minor scales are different going up and coming down and why we have melodic and harmonic minor scales.


November 21, 2008 at 05:45 PM ·

There are many mirror scales . But the true mirror  ,that respect  the same location of tone and semitone is   an  ascending major scale  and a minor descending scale a major third higher.for example CM and em. Vincent d'Indy called it the true relative minor scale.

Harmonic and melodic minor result from the same reason as the (partly) disparition of  modes

namely   the need of alteration to approach perfect consonnance (fifth and octave)  by semi- tone  which is the origin of the leading tone and of the authentic cadence

To get the  minor scales( d a e)  that looks like the major scale the seventh degree need to be half a tone from the tonic .That is the harmonic scale

Raising th seventh degree  creates a augmented interval difficult to sing ,so the sixth degree is also raised  to make the interval easier  to sing "melodic" .In the descending melodic scale seventh degree is no longer a leading tone so it loses its alteration and so does the sixth degree.Melodic descending scale is the real  modal scale

November 21, 2008 at 08:21 PM ·

Excellent information.  I wasn't sure my question came across the right way.  Thank you.

November 21, 2008 at 09:43 PM ·


I looked up "dispariton" and "disparition" but could not find them. I'm not sure I buy your argument that the church modes were abandoned for reasons of counterpoint. I've taught modal counterpoint, and there are ways to avoid forbidden intervals and parallelisms. Could you direct me to a text? I think composers found that melodies had more forceful direction with the leading tones in certain places, and this difference in half-step location showed that modal scales lacked that "je ne sais quois" as you would say. I simply think they found the melodies to be better-sounding and more fashionable, and the contrapuntal aspects followed later. Perhaps the authentic cadence sounded as a more convincing and forceful way to end a phrase.

Remember that major/minor tonality was solidified in the early Baroque, when music was actually LESS contrapuntal, at least until the later half of the 17th century. Monteverdi was not a known composer of counterpoint, but of homophony. 



November 21, 2008 at 10:30 PM ·

Scott, Alain writes excellent English--much better English than my French--but he used the French word disparition instead of the English word "disappearance," (and his finger missed the last "i").  That's an easy mistake to make, given that many words are similar in both languages.  Hope this helps.

In 16th century polyphonic compositions in the Dorian mode, isn't the C usually sharpened when followed by D to create a leading-tone?  And aren't leading tones usually used in the other modes, as well?  e.g., ascending Phrygian e f g a b c-sharp d-sharp e, or ascending Mixolydian g a b c d e f-sharp g?

"Monteverdi was not a known composer of counterpoint, but of homophony."  I think he could write good counterpoint when he wanted to, but he also pioneered the more homophonic style of seconda prattica.

November 21, 2008 at 11:31 PM ·


I wasn't criticizing Alain's English--just wanted to be sure of what he meant. I'd have to check some modal counterpoint, but I think there was a point, going back in history, before which leading tones were NOT automatically used, regardless of mode. I'll have to do some research on when it was. I think it was not as early as the 15th c., though.


November 22, 2008 at 02:43 AM ·

"he used the French word disparition instead of the English word "disappearance,""

I didn't think disappearance describes the situation properly. The modes haven't disappeared, they only have fallen out of fashion, they are no longer mainstream but they are still in use. When things fall out of fashion, it is very often for entirely arbitrary reasons, and less often for logical reasons.

November 22, 2008 at 12:03 PM ·

 I noticed how much French music scholars are contributing to the discussion, all very interesting, thanks guys.

Yes, disparâitre - disappear, there are quite a few identical words that have slightly different meanings:

experimenter - feel

sensible - sensitive

occasion - opportunity

Not showing off, I love the French language and talking about it always makes me feel good!

November 22, 2008 at 12:16 PM ·

People have mentioned the different modes with regard to the C Major scale, ie all white notes, but were they ever used within different 'keys' or using black notes - though I suspect the 'keys' weren't defined until Bach anyway.  Eg I think doing "Night on the bare mounain" at school the A Minor-ish bit representing the Devil (E-F-E-D-E-F-G-A-E) was mentioned as modal (would be Aolian from the above) but now you think of it as "A Minor with flattened notes".

In fact it's surely just the establishment of a new key with a cadence that allows analysts to say that a piece "goes into this key, then that" as I can't see the difference between 'chromatic' and 'modal' writing, otherwise.

November 22, 2008 at 04:54 PM ·

Desertion could be a proper word .Actually evolution of mode is a slow process that makes difficult to find a proper word to describe it.

The main cause of the change is the growth of polyphony (X th century with melody accompanied with parallel fifths or fourths. XI th century the melody starts and ends with the same note (named final now tonic) and is accompanied with oblique motion  which begin and end in unisson preceded by major second.

XI-XIIth century introduction of the contrary motion with a major second as precadentiel dissonance and a fifth added to the tonic

Xii th the third is henceforth a imperfect  consonnance (formely a dissonance)

XIII th century cadence with double leading tone .according to the rule of couterpoint edicted by Jean De Murs)  The final chord has no third.

Consonnances (8-5-4) evenly appear at the begining of each "perfection" (group of 3 breves)

between groups there are non harmonic tones in short values

Ars  Nova give up the rythmic mode so consonnances may  appear on weak beat

XIV th century the third is included into the fifth chord except in final position. Appearance of the movement V-I at the bass and  the movement VII-I  at the soprano {G-D-G}-{CGC}

XV th Instrumental music spread over the sonor space with non moduling sequences on each degree. The third appears on the final chord so the authentic cadence is completed

XVI-XVII Th is the period of great change:alteration to approach consonnance by half step resulting  in 12 divisions of the octave and the  polyphonies that jut out the octave  impeded to distinguish the authentic and plagal forms-another cause of disappearance of modes

Adoption of the Zarlino's system with pure third and false fifths will yield new rules of counterpoint such as to forbid direct fifth and change the rule of third and sixth which become perfect  consonnance.

To answer Scott . The rules of counterpoint  he was taught  is more recent (XVIII th century)

This is a compilation of many documents in different languages sometimes in old french quite to difficult to read even for a french personn.

November 22, 2008 at 05:33 PM ·


Now that I think about it, you're right--modal counterpoint generally taught is a mish-mash of different periods and rules.


This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Our Kokopelli
Please support
your donation
or sponsorship campaign. is made possible by...

Shar Music

Yamaha V3 Series Violin

Brian Lisus Violins

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Metzler Violin Shop

Gliga Violins

Corilon Violins

Trala: Stop Practicing Wrong

Anderson Musical Instrument Insurance

Bobelock Cases


Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Los Angeles Violin Shop

Pro-Am Strings

Wangbow Violin Bow Workshop