Writing in Aeolian Mode – Tragic, Ominous, Dramatic, and Determined

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tilt selective photograph of music notes

Cover Photo by Marius Masalar

Aeolian is a major scale with lowered third, sixth, and seventh degrees.

– Mode Structure: 1 2 ♭3 4 5 ♭6 ♭7 (Fig. F-1 & F-2)

– Character Note: ♭6th Degree

– Sixth Mode of Major scale

– Identical to Natural Minor scale

We can also think of Aeolian as a Dorian scale with a lowered sixth scale degree. This lowered sixth (♭6) is the character note that helps separate the two modes, which typically gives Aeolian a darker sound than Dorian. In the following example, we use the lowered sixth degree to help create an ominous mood.

Examples of songs using Aeolian

Aeolian Modes

Fig. F-1  Aeolian Modes

Diatonic Chords of C Aeolian

Fig. F-2  Diatonic Chords of C Aeolian and B♭ Aeolian Modes

Aeolian Composition Example #1

Measures 1–6

Starting in m. 1, we hear a slow-moving keyboard arpeggio featuring the note G♭(❶), the character note (♭6) of B♭ Aeolian. When combined with the piano B♭sus2 chord at a slow tempo, these elements help set a foreboding tone for the piece.

The keyboard arpeggio stops in m. 2, giving way to a series of chords in the strings. Over the next several measures, the bass note of each string chord rises, and the other notes harmonize with as little motion as possible (❷). In m. 2, the strings begin playing B♭ in octaves. In m. 4, we hear a complete B♭min triad when the bass moves up to D♭ (3rd) and combines with F (5th) in the upper register. In m. 5, we hear the final chord of this section, E♭ minor. Since E♭m contains the character note (G♭), it is also one of the cadence chords.

Notice how the piano “sus” chords blend with the strings. The piano part uses scale degrees 1, 2, and 5. As we saw in other examples, the first and fifth notes of a scale/mode tend to harmonize with most diatonic chords. In m. 6, lower register strings drop out, and our ominous keyboard arpeggio returns.

Measures 7–End

The same progression begins again in mm. 7-10 (❸). This time, the keyboard arpeggios persist, and a horn melody emerges to bolster the sound. The string harmonies continue to ascend through the end of the piece, yielding new chords in mm. 11-14 that we haven’t heard before.

In mm. 12-13, the top note of the strings moves up while the other two remain in place, adding a little harmonic tension. Finally, in m. 14, the bass reaches its highest note, A♭, supporting the ♭Ⅶ7 chord of B♭ Aeolian (❹).

Analysis

In the above example, the piano and keyboard parts play repeating patterns (or “motifs”) to create a background layer of harmony. Underneath, the strings form chords that swell in from silence to full volume. In Fig F-2 and the chart below, you’ll find a list of all the diatonic chords of B♭ Aeolian, which we used as inspiration for the chord progressions. Let’s examine the two main sections of the piece.

“Did you know that Aeolian mode is identical to the Natural Minor scale? In other words, it is a major scale with lowered third, sixth, and seventh degrees.”

Diatonic Chords of B♭ Aeolian Mode

min7ø7♭ⅢMaj7min7min7♭ⅥMaj7♭Ⅶ7
B♭min7Cø7D♭Maj7E♭min7Fmin7G♭Maj7A♭7

Using a Pivot Chord

A “pivot chord” is a single chord that belongs to more than one key. We can use pivot chords to help shift/modulate from one tonality (or key) to another. This technique often allows us  to add a little harmonic variety and perhaps change the mood in the process. In functional harmony, sometimes a piece will shift away from a minor key toward its relative major* key. Since Aeolian is equivalent to the Natural Minor scale, we can exploit this property slightly.

For instance, in C Aeolian, the ♭VI chord is A♭ major. In the key of E♭ major, the subdominant (Ⅳ) chord is also A♭ major (see Fig. F-3). Since both keys share the same chord, we can use this to our advantage. We can use the A♭ major chord to pivot between C Aeolian and E♭ major. 

Fig. F-3  Aeolian Mode and its Relative Major Scale
The audio features playback in C Aeolian.
Theory in-depth) Relative Keys
Relative Keys are major and minor keys that share the same key signature. Ex) E♭ Major and C Minor share the same key signature. The same is true for G Major and E Minor, and A Major and F♯ Minor, etc.

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