Songwriting basics and tips 19: Modes – Atmospheric Aeolian

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Bob Leslie is an Independent Scottish Songwriter, Singer, and Recording Artist

 

Sixth child of a major parent …

 

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The Aeolian mode is the one that is based on the 6th note of its parent major scale. If that pms is C, then we’re starting on A. Let’s see what that looks like over a couple of octaves:

A  B  C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C  D  E  F  G A

 

 

Following our usual practice of checking out the IIV, and V chords (because, between them, they cover all the notes), we obtain the following 3 chords:

A minor

D minor

E minor

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“Hey!”, I hear you say. “Isn’t that just the key of A minor?”

Well, I suppose it is – in fact, it’s also known as the Natural Minor scale. However, in practice, A minor usually involves sharpening the 7th note to convert the E minor  chord into E major so that we can have a nice, familiar perfect cadence of (or, more usually, E7) resolving onto A minor. 

Try playing a bit over AmDmEm, and Am. Then do the same, but with an E7 instead of the Em. I bet the second one sounds more familiar to you.

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Drama class …drama.jpg

So why use the pure Aeolian chords of AmDm, and Em? Well, the Western ear tends to associate minor chords and keys with sad, moody, or atmospheric contexts, so, 3 minor chords would seem to suit a deliberately atmospheric approach better than just 2.

Also, dropping down through the 7th and 6th chords (G major  F major) adds an extra layer of dramatic interest to the proceedings.

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Here’s probably the world’s best example of that: All Along the Watchtower

That’s in C Aeolian, getting maximum use out of a  CmBb, Ab, BbCm progression

 

Stretching D Aeolian to the max, we have The Police and Walking on the Moon.

And, in a folky context, here’s another: Ride On – with a very familiar  
CmAb, BbCm pattern.

Meanwhile, using variants on a standard 3-chordjim.gif E Aeolian base of EmAm, and Bm, we have the Doors classic Riders on the Storm

And here are a couple of variations on a theme: John Martyn’s original of his song Don’t Want to Know – using chords DmBb, and C – and Dr John’s take on the same song using DmGm, and Am. Different strokes, but both of those are in D Aeolian.

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Mix it up …

As with other modes and keys, you don’t have to stick to the one path in a song.

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 Things We Said Today by the Beatles has a verse in A Aeolian and a bridge in A major (with a quick modulation to E major, then returning to A major). Great song, but you would think the re-mastered version would have ironed out the bum notes!

And it’s very common for leadplayers to switch the changes on Aeolian, Melodic minor, and Major all within a solo, or play a riff in one, and the verse/chorus in another.

That’s worth thinking about when writing – maybe have some part of a hook section, say the main riff, or a chorus, in Aeolian, and change to a straight major  key for the rest – or, indeed, vice versa!

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Next time, we’ll investigate the strange world of Locrian mode – when your base chord is diminished, then you’re really thinking outside the box!

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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter

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