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How Pitch is Divided
In Western music, there are 12 notes in the chromatic scale. These notes are grouped together in systems of scales and modes, which offer composers a palate from which to work. Each scale and each mode has its own particular flavor. Today, there are two scales that are in use more than any others: major and minor. Modes are antiquated, but the Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian and Mixolydian modes are still used, to some extent, with the Dorian and Phrygian modes being popular in some Spanish and Latin American music. Most often, however, you’ll only deal with major and minor, which correspond to the Ionian and Aeolian modes, respectively.
In the modal system, each mode is defined by the note on which it starts and its particular feel derives from the arrangement of whole and half-steps between the notes. The Ionian mode—or the C major scale—for instance, has a bright feel. The Dorian mode, which starts and ends on D, has a somewhat darker feel and sounds more exotic. Modes are not particularly important in modern music, though some contemporary musicians use them extensively, as they provide a rarified palate of tones. The modes are as follows.
- Ionian (C Major): C, D, E, F, G, A, B
- Dorian: D, E, F, G, A, B, C
- Phrygian: E, F, G, A, B, C, D
- Lydian: F, G, A, B, C, D, E
- Mixolydian: G, A, B, C, D, E, F
- Aeolian (A Minor): A, B, C, D, E, F, G
- Locrian: B, C, D, E, F, G, A
The modes you need to most concern yourself with, however, are the Ionian and Aeolian modes, as they are the only two in common usage. There were other systems for naming the modes, but most of them have fallen by the wayside over the course of the years.
Major and Minor
For most people, major and minor modes are the equivalent of light and dark themes in music. This is not necessarily the case, and only using one or the other for such narrow purposes diminishes their flexibility. For your first melody, however, these definitions are adequate. If you want a lighter sounding melody, use the major scale; for a darker sound, use the minor scale. Use C Major or A minor, as neither requires sharps or flats.
The C Major scale is:
C, D, E, F, G, A, B,
The A Minor scale is:
A, B, C, D, E, F, G
When you’re writing, you can use a system of numbers to help you understand which pitches in which combinations will create particular effects. This system is very easy to use and understand. You start by assigning numbers to all of the notes in your scale, and they’re always assigned in the same way.
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