Key Centers and Modes

Key Centers & Modes: What your home economics teacher may not be telling you By Scott Allen

Hi all, and welcome to my article on the wondrous and mysterious topics of Key Centers and Modes. For those of you rolling your eyes and thinking “Oh god, not another boring article on music theory”, all I can say is that ignorance is only an endearing trait if your last name is Hilton. But for the rest of us whose sex tapes are still in post production, we need to learn a thing or two about what those powdered wig wearing, opus writing, crapping outside in the Vienna winter, pantaloon sporting geniuses knew all too well. Namely, the fundamentals of music theory. And hey, on the scale of funess, 1 being watching a special on Lifetime about the teenage years of Margaret Thatcher, and 10 being watching Scarlett Johansson oil wrestling Eva Longoria for mardi gras beads, music theory ranks about a 7. Just one point less fun than seeing your ex girlfriends new Hummer getting struck by a falling satellite.

Key Centers Pay lots of attention to the man behind the curtain.

Key Centers are the group of chords that make up a given Key. They can be expressed in Major or Minor forms, as well as Modes (more on this later), and they are the absolute key to understanding improvisation. Right now you may be thinking to yourself, “Dude, I just want to learn how to blaze across the fretboard, I don’t need to know no stinking Key Centers”. Wrongo, my unenlightened friend. Learning to shred without learning key centers makes about as much sense as asking Tom Delay to do a lecture series on ethics. How, may I ask, are you going to know what scales go with what chords, if you don’t know how keys work? Sure, you can just try out all the different scales you know, and maybe one of them will be right. And, if you’re driving to New York, you can ask for directions, or just get in your car and start driving. Hey, maybe you’ll get there, but chances are you’re going to wind up on the side of the road in Arkansas with a guy named Cletus telling you that you’ve got a pretty mouth. No I think we should just learn these things, what do you say?

The formula for a Major Key Center using triads can be expressed as follows:


            I  -  ii  -  iii  -  IV  -  V  -  vi  -  vii  -  I

      Ma   Mi   Mi    Ma   Ma   Mi   Dim  Ma


Okay, so what’s up with the roman numerals? Well, each Roman numeral represents the corresponding step of the major scale. The numeral I refers to the first step of the scale, the numeral ii refers to the second scale step, etc. Essentially, it is saying, on the first step of the major scale build a major chord, and on the second step build a minor chord and so on. When you are finished plugging in the chords, voila, you just built a Key Center. Chord progressions from key centers are usually expressed like: I –IV – V – I. Meaning, start on the I (or One) chord, and then go to the IV (or four) chord, then on to the V (or five) chord. Once you understand the key center, you can put the chords together in any combination that starts and ends on the I chord, and still be playing in that major key.


The formula for the Minor Key Center using triads can be expressed as follows:


        i  -  ii  -  III  -  iv  -  v  -  VI  -  VII  -  i

      Mi  Dim  Ma   Mi    Mi    Ma    Ma   Mi


This is the same deal as with the Major Key Center, except using the Minor formula plugged into a Minor scale. As you might have noticed, Major chords are expressed using upper case Roman numerals, and Minor chords are lower case. This can also be thought of as Aeolian mode, which we will talk about in a second.


            To move the newly built Key Center around to different Keys, all that must be done is: Build the Major or Minor scale off of the desired root note, and plug in the chords according to the formulas that we just went over. When you are faced with trying to figure out what key a song is in by looking at the chords, you just have to see what key Center all of the chords belong in and, boom, you know the Key the song is in. My suggestion is to assume that the first chord that you see is the I (or one) chord, and see if the other chords belong to that key. If all the chords don’t fit the Key, you may be encountering what is known as a Modal progression. It is also possible that a couple of other fun things such as: modal interchange, secondary dominants, pivot chord or direct modulations, or passing chords could be what you are seeing.  But these things, sadly, are another article. Oh, and by the way, did I mention that this only really relates to Tonal music? Before you freak out, yes, Metallica is tonal music.


The Major and Minor formulas for the Key Centers using Seventh chords or larger are as follows:


  Major Key Center –

 I   -      ii    -    iii  -     IV  -     V  -     vi  -     vii  -     I

Ma. 7    Mi. 7       Mi. 7       Ma. 7      Dom. 7   Mi. 7      Mi7b5    Ma. 7


  Minor Key Center

i    -    ii    -    III    -    iv    -    v    -    VI   -    VII   -   i

Mi. 7   Mi7b5    Ma. 7        Mi. 7       Mi. 7       Ma. 7       Dom. 7    Mi. 7


Okay, there were a couple of changes. The V chord in Major, and the VII chord in Minor became Dominant, and the vii chord in Major and the ii chord in Minor became Mi7b5 chords. Don’t worry about why just yet, just memorize the formulas and experiment with them across the neck. As a great sage once said, “ There are known knowns, and the are unkown unknowns”. Hopefully, there are a few less unkown unkowns in your life after this article.


Modes The reason that Satriani is better than you.

          Okay, if there is one topic that I find is the hardest for most players to learn, it would definitely have to be modes. Much like string theory, modes are a mystery that only a few egg headed people are meant to understand, right.  Nope, just like Tara Reid after two beers, modes are so easy it is staggering. First we must break down modes into how they relate to Majors scales, and how they relate to Key Centers.


            The names of the Modes


            Ionian – Major – Based off of the first step of the Major Scale.


            Dorian – Santana – Based off of the second step of the Major Scale.


            Phrygian- Spanish – Based off of the third step of the Major Scale.


            Lydian – Satch – Do you really need me to say it?


            Mixolydian – Steve Morse – If you are wondering what step of the scale this is    based off of, I hate you so much.


            Aeolian – Minor – As in Aeolian vs Predator?


            Locrian – Diminished – You know that pretty music at the end of Titanic, Yeh,  this isn’t like that.


            All you need to do to build a Mode, is start with a Major scale, say C Major.


            C Major: C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C


Each mode of C Major will be comprised of the C Major scale, just starting on a different scale step. As we saw above, each mode is assigned to a particular step of the Major Scale.


            The Modes of C Major


C Ionian – C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C


D Dorian – D – E – F – G – A – B – C – D


E Phrygian – E – F – G – A – B – C – D – E


F Lydian – F – G – A – B – C - D – E – F


G Mixolydian – G – A – B – C – D – E – F – G


A Aeolian – A – B – C – D – E – F – G – A


B Locrian – B – C – D – E – F – G – A – B


So in essence, the Scale patterns that make up C Major are also the same scale patterns that make up all of the modes I just mentioned. The only difference being, which note is called the root note. Before you go thinking that there is no difference between say, C Major and E Phrygian, I would say that there is no difference in terms of the scale patterns, but there is significant difference between the sounds and applications of these two scales. Remember the root note IS different, as is the sound of the scale. Try it out, Play a C Major scale starting and ending on C. Now, play the same scale, but this time start and end on E. See what I mean? The best analogy I can think of to explain the relationship between Modes and the Major Scales that they come from is this, the relationship between you and your parents. If I were to say that you and your parents are exactly the same, you’d probably throw something heavy at me (a bust of Aristotle perhaps). Then you would explain to me during the ambulance ride to the hospital, that while you come from your parents, and probably have many features in common, you are in fact a separate entity. Such is the relationship of Modes to the Major scales that they come from. The same and yet different, just like K-Fed and Vanilla Ice. By the way, modes relate to the Key Center in much the same way that they relate to the Major scale. The only difference is that the mode will relate to a specific chord of the Key Center. For instance, if I were to play a chord progression that started and ended on a chord other than the I chord, I would have a Modal progression. Which mode? Well, that depends on what chord you start and end on. If  I start and end on the ii chord, then I have a Dorian progression. If I start and end on the iii chord, it’s a Phrygian progression, and so on.


            Also, it is possible to build the Modes by simply altering the major scale using the following formulas:


Ionian – 1 – 2- 3 – 4- 5 – 6 – 7- 8

Dorian – 1 – 2 – b3 – 4 – 5- 6 – b7 – 8

Phrygian – 1 – b2 – b3 – 4 – 5 – b6 – b7 – 8

Lydian – 1 – 2 – 3 - #4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8

Mixolydian – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5- 6 – b7 – 8

Aeolian – 1 – 2 – b3 – 4 – 5 – b6 – b7 – 8

Locrian – 1 – b2 – b3 – 4 – b5 – b6 – b7 - 8


The numbers refer to the step of the scale, with Ionian being the pure Major scale, and all the other scales being alterations of the major scale. What about Minor? Funny thing, what we call the Minor scale is in fact, nothing more than the Aeolian mode. If you look at the A Minor scale and the A Aeolian scale, you will quickly notice that they are the same. Ditto for the Minor Key Center. If you start and end the Major Key Center on the vi chord, you will find that it is exactly the same as the Minor Key Center. You see, it’s so easy I bet even Sean Hannity could understand it.


            Well folks, that about does it for me. I hope that you now have a greater understanding of Keys, and Modes. Music theory can in fact be your friend. Being afraid of it is akin to cave dwellers fearing fire, cats fearing water, and Lindsey Lohan fearing facing an evening sober. Remember, it is not knowledge that binds us, it is knowledge that sets us free.


Artwork by Scott Thomas

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