A beginner bassist's foray into the unknown

Coursera – FoMT Week 1 / Video 4

So, its been like 2 1/2 weeks since I last posted about the Fundamentals of Music Theory class – and I think I only shared one post outside of that as well. Luckily, the baby’s grandparents (a.k.a. my folks) are back from the west coast and I should be able to sneak in some time to write again. Without further ado…

The 4th video for Coursera’s FoTM Week 1 class is called “More on scales“. Its a 6-minute lesson that delves into scales beyond C major. Somehow, I’ll find a way to turn it into a 3-hour tour by typing about it though. It begins by introducing a scale with the tonic (root note) of A. This scale uses all of the notes found in the C major scale, but begins them on A instead of C. So, instead of C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C we have A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A.

By starting on A, Moir explains that we still use the same notes as C major but now have a different pattern of tones and semi-tones. If you think about this using the numbers 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 as C major, we now have 6-7-1-2-3-4-5-6 if we begin on A. He lets us know that this is called the Natural Minor Scale or Aeolian Mode, and that we’ll talk about it more in Week 2’s lesson.

C major starting on A is also called the Aeolian mode, or Natural Minor scale

C major starting on A is also called the Aeolian mode, or Natural Minor scale

Its still a diatonic scale, because it has 7 notes with 5 tones and 2 semi-tones (the same number of tones & semi-tones used to create a major scale). The pattern, or sequence, is different because we started on a different note. In the long term, what does this mean? Basically, that the notes we heard in one arrangement or scale are now in different places in this one, so they have different functions.

Essentially, for we bass players, it means that the chord tones are now different notes. The next video is supposed to delve into chords. I’m sure that more advanced musicians will want to elaborate on this, but for the time being, especially for me, that’s the core of it.

Where C was our root, E was our 3rd and G was our 5th note in a C major scale, if we make A the root, then C is the 3rd and E is the 5th. It looks like this:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

C major scale


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Same notes, starting on A – called the A Aeolian Mode

If you take a minute to play C-E-G on your bass and listen to the sound, then play A-C-E, you’ll hear the difference. Functionally, [C=1, E=3 and G=5] in C major while [A=1 C=3 and E=5] in this other scale.

The 1, 3 and 5 in any one of these diatonic scales are chord tones but the actual notes that they represent are different depending on what note is our root, or “1”. That’s the meat of what makes each scale distinct. Certain notes carry a particular sound when played in a particular succession and scales are basically a dictionary of what those arrangements are. There’s also this concept I’ve read about called parallel modes vs. relative modes.

The above illustrates a relative mode – we keep the same notes but have a different pattern. Parallel modes are easier for me to follow – we start on the same root note but follow a different pattern of tones & semi-tones. But, enough of my blather – on to what the actual educators are saying:

Worth then puts flute to lips and regales us with a song called God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. He says that we can hear that its different from Auld Lang Syne and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or God Save the Queen. This is because he was orienting the melody around the A, or as he elaborates, Aeolian Mode, instead of the C that’s used in the others. Its the same notes, but because the order, and thus the functions of the notes are different, the entire mood of the piece changes.

Moir adds that the relationship between the notes changes because of the new sequence of tones and semi-tones, which is what gives us a different flavor, or quality, between notes being played. Worth then shows us the C major scale again, which he refers to by its proper name, C Ionian. He explains that if we play those same notes starting on D (the 2nd note in C major) we end up with a variation called the D Dorian mode.

Like with the A, above, starting on D gives us a different pattern of tones & semi-tones and a different sound. The sequence looks like this:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

D Dorian mode


Moir goes on to show us the same notes starting on E, which he called the Phrygian mode:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8


Worth then shows us the same notes starting on F, or the Lydian mode:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8


Moir takes his turn starting on G, which he calls the Mixolydian mode:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8


And finally, Worth says that we’ve already seen A, or the Aeolian mode, so he moves on to B, or the Locrian mode:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

He then says that he’s given us the 20th century names for these modes. which are also called the Church modes because many of them were used in ancient church music as well as in other styles like jazz from the late 50s and on (I think this is called modal jazz) and in pop music.

Moir says that to practice and get the feel for each pool of notes, we should sit at a piano (or, if you’re like me, stand with your bass) and play each, from C to C, D to D, E, to E, and so on. This lets us get used to the sound and quality of the different modes. The dynamic duo then plays something using both piano and flute oriented around G, or the 5th mode, to show us how different it sounds and feels from something oriented around C or A, as we heard before. Worth says its a slightly jazzy version of She Moved Through the Fair, built along G Mixolydian.

Ok, so what was the point of all of that? For someone on my level, its not to learn the names of any of those modes. What I try to remember is just that if we take the major scale pattern of whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half and start on a different tone (whole) or semi-tone (half) we end up with a new pattern. The notes in particular positions of these patterns – most importantly the chord tones – determine the overall sound of the piece that’s being played.

hate music theoryThat’s basically it. The 7 modes of the major scale share the same notes in different sequences. Because of that, they sound different and evoke different moods, or as Moir likes to call them, flavors. Is it important to know all of them? I’m undecided. I think its important to know that they exist though, and that some are used more heavily than others in popular music. My understanding is that the C and the A modes make up the bulk of music on the radio. Songs will often contain parts written in other modes, and metal, in particular, uses minor scales, so that A Aeolian mode is important, as well as any of the others that could be called minor. I’ll post more about that later though.


2 responses

  1. Pingback: Coursera – Fundamentals of Music Theory Week 1 | Ugly Bass Face

  2. Pingback: BassMatter – Learning Modes on Bass | Ugly Bass Face

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