Teach Yourself Music Theory – 24.) Diatonic Modes

Now, there are more scales in music than just the major, natural minor, harmonic minor, and melodic minor. In fact, I have came across a reference book that listed over 2,000 different scales. That being said, we are not going to cover all those (just yet), but we do want to cover a new way to look and build scales.


Modes are scales the encompass the same pitches as a key area, but are not technically our known major or natural minor. Their “tonic” and tonal sense of gravity is elsewhere away from the accepted tonic. Diatonic modes are ones constructed from the diatonic pitches of a key – we will go over this shortly.


There are 7 diatonic modes (6 to some people that do not include Locrian), with one scale built on each pitch of a key. Taking the key of C Major for example, here are the modes with their names:


Notice that each mode is a scale that travels an octave length in distance; basically C major scales starting on different pitches. However, they are all obvious different scales even though the contain the same pitch-class collection because of the intervals in the scale.

NOTE: the major scale is the Ionian Mode, and the natural minor scale is the Aeolian Mode.


To build a diatonic modal scale, you can do one of two things:


Say you wanted to build E Dorian. Dorian is the second mode – so, we know that Dorian comes from D Major, just keep the accidentals and start a scale on the second pitch. Or, you can memorize that Dorian is | 1 – 2 – b3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – b7 – 8 | and construct it from there.


Practice building the modes, playing them, and memorizing the names.

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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 23.) Relative Versus Parallel Keys

We have talked about this before when covering major and natural minor scales. So be sure to review those sections if these concepts seem unfamiliar or difficult.

Relative keys, are two key that share the same number of accidentals. We know that the key of D Major and the key of B minor are relative keys because they both have the same number of accidentals added to their key signature (two sharps).

We figured this out before that in a major key, the minor key (where the natural minor scale is derived from) is a m3 interval below the tonic. Vice-versa, in a minor key we can tell that the relative major is a m3 above the tonic.

Parallel keys are ones that don’t necessarily (if ever) share the same accidentals, but share the same tonic.

Let’s take a look at the two parallel keys of C major and C minor:

Notice how they don’t have the same accidentals, but they do share the same tonic of C. More to come on how to use parallel keys in composition, but more now this is learning on how to distinguish between relative and parallel keys.

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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 22.) Metric Accents and Syncopation

An accent (which we will cover more later) is an emphasis on a note during performance. Usually, this is indicated by the composer on the sheet music to tell the performer on which notes to put the accent.

However, accents can also naturally happen. We have talked about this before with metric grouping. Within a measure a specific number of beats are grouped together. Not only is it used for organization, but it helps tell the performer where to put the emphasis when playing.

A metric accents is a natural emphasis put on a note due to its placement in the meter. Below is a graph with the level of accentuation put on different beats of various metric groupings:

You have probably already realized this knowing that an upbeat is light, while a downbeat is strong.

Now for a new term:

Syncopation, placing the accent on a weak or unexpected part/division of the beat.

When the emphasis avoids the strong metric accents and is applied to the weaker beats, or to the beat divisions (eighth-notes, etc.), it is called syncopation.

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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 21.) Polyrhythms and Hemiolas

As you can see from the title, we are going to talk about some new concepts and add new vocabulary into our musical terminology usage.

Polyrhythm, is the juxtaposition of two different beat divisions happening at the same time. This will create an interesting composite rhythm of the combining beat divisions. Let’s take a look:

Above is a piece of music with a lot of beat divisions working together to create one polyrhythm. We can see that the C4 pitch is played on every down beat of the 3/4 measures, but the arpeggiation (breaking apart of a chord) of the C major triad below is in a division pattern similar to a 6/8 time signature. Play it out and you will hear it.

In the melody line, we see four notes in equal length of a dotted eighth-note. Within the 3/4 time signature, we have four notes of even value going against the quarter-note pulses and 6/8 division grouping arpeggiation. So that too is another addition to the overall polyrhythm.

A hemiola, is similar to a polyrhythm in that it goes against the conventional beat division – but it is more defined of when normal groupings of three become groupings of two:

Here is another exaggerated version of a hemiola, going from odd to even groupings:

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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 20.) Mixing Beat Divisions

To remind: when you are in simple meter (4/4) the beat is easily divided into 2s or 4s, and when you are in compound meter (12/8) the beat is divided into 3s or 6s. Review old posts if you are not familiar with these concepts.

However, just because you are in simple meter doesn’t mean that you can’t incorporate compound meter divisions.

Take an example below:

We know that this piece is in duple meter because the time signature is 4/4, but there is a figure notated with a “3.” This is called a triplet, and it appears in duple meter pieces to tell the performer to divide the beat into three eighth notes of even length instead of two – just as you would find in a compound meter.

This can happen in reverse, too…

Thae a look now at this example:

This piece is in compound meter (12/8 and the beat is divided into 3s), but there are two figures – one noted with a “2” and the other with a “4.” They are called duplets and quadruplets respectively, and they divide the beats in compound meter pieces into even divisions.

Practice performing switching between these different divisions.

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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 19.) Tetrachords and Pentachords

Okay, so we have learned a lot of scales so far. This can become confusing and jumbling trying to remember them all and how different they are from each other.

A way to remember is to break them apart into smaller pieces. This is so you can compare and contrast between the scales – essentially see what makes them similar and different.

We can break them up into different groups.

A tetrachord (tetra – meaning “four”) is not a chord, but a group of 4 consecutive notes.

Take a major scale for example and split it down the halfway. Compare the two different tetrachords:

You will see that they are formed of the same interval pattern of W-W-H (or M2-M2-m2). These are major tetrachords, because they are distinctive of the major scale.

Another way to break scales into smaller groups is into pentachords, groups of 5 consecutive notes.

Once again, this is to help understand and memorize the structure/functions of scales.

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Teach Yourself Music Theory – 18.) Harmonic and Melodic Minor

Review time! What scale is this?:

If you said “a natural minor scale” you are correct! Don’t worry if you didn’t get the answer correctly, you can review on all the past posts on music theory.

We can tell that this is a natural minor scale because…

1.) The key signature has no sharps or flats, and it starts on the A pitch

2.) The scale is built in the intervallic pattern of all natural minor scales of M2-m2-M2-M2-m2-M2-M2.

Now, it is time to introduce two different kinds of minor scales.

The first is called the harmonic minor scale, and it is made by raising the seventh scale degree (the subtonic) up a half-step (the leading tone). It would look like this:

As the name goes, it is used for harmonic purposes to achieve a dominant V sound. More on that soon!

The second is called the melodic minor scale, and it is made by raising the sixth and seventh scale degree up a half-step. HOWEVER, that is only when you are ascending up the scale. Those scale degrees return back to their natural position as you descend down the scale:

As the name goes, it is used for melodic purposes to retain a “minor” sound with the lowered third degree, but have leading motion in the sixth and seventh degrees to resolve to the tonic.

Play those scales in different keys to see how they sound.

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