The Aeolian Mode – Have You Mastered The Natural Minor Scale?

With its sombre and pensive mood, the Aeolian mode – also known as the natural minor or aeolian scale – is not just something your music teacher wants you to learn, but a distinctive minor sound that can be seriously useful to master.

As part of our series on the different scales and modes, we turn our attention to this ancient mode to see not just how you can easily learn the aeolian, but its use in everything from medieval music to Bob Dylan and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers…

Whilst it may not be as well-known as the more famous major (ionian) or dorian minor scales, the aeolian mode is still an essential building block of music and an important one to master.

It’s also not so hard once you have the secret formula for playing it!

And, once you get the sound in your ear, you’ll notice it popping up in a huge range of Western music, from classical to pop to jazz, and more..!

Before we jump into that, though, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page when it comes to the topic of “what are modes?”

Originating from ancient musical traditions, modes offer distinct tonal landscapes, enriching composers’ and musicians’ palette for crafting melodies and harmonies.

If scales are sequences of notes arranged in a specific order, then modes are unique variations of these sequences, created by starting on a different note of the parent scale.

“Imagine a scale as a set of steps you climb, where each step is a different note. Now, start climbing the same set of steps, but starting from a different place; that’s your mode.”

Scale steps example

But enough of that; where does the aeolian mode fit into all this?

What Is The Aeolian Mode?

In terms of music theory, the Aeolian scale is the sixth mode of the major scale.

That means you simply need to play a major scale starting on the 6th note. The example below is the easiest one to understand, as it is based on the C major scale, which has no sharps or flats.

As you can see, you count up to the 6th note (c, d, e, f, g, a…) then play all the ‘white’ notes.

The A Aeolian Mode
A aeolian scale (ascending)

The Aeolian mode is also known as the Natural Minor scale which is the form of the minor scale when it is unaltered from its diatonic form.

In practice, it’s minor third and seventh give it a minor sound, not dissimilar to the dorian mode.

The only difference? The Aeolian also has a flattened 6th.

What Does The Aeolian Scale Sound Like?

Like all minor scales, Aeolian has a dark or sombre sound which can sound angry or oven inspired – as it often does in classical music.

Whilst this is true of all minor scales, it’s flattened 6th is the thing which makes it stand out and gives it a certain mystical quality that other minor scales lack.

Take a listen:

Example of an A Aeolian Scale played ascending then descending on piano

How To Play The Aeolian Scale

If you have never studied the modes, think of it this way: the major scale is the parent scale of the modes.

The modes are made of the exact same notes as the parent scale, only they are played in a different order. The mode you get depends on what scale tone you begin and end on.

The Aeolian scale can be built in two ways.

The easiest way is to simply play a major scale starting on the 6th degree.

In the key of C Major, for example, you would take the C ionian scale:

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

Then you will play it from the sixth note, in this case A, and follow the scale tones to the next A, like this:

A Aeolian: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A

The ‘A’ becomes the tonal centre and is said to be the root note or first degree of the new scale, which is A Aeolian.

The second way to build the Aeolian mode is to follow the interval pattern or scale formula…

What’s The Formula For An Aeolian mode?

A way you can build an Aeolian scale without knowing a relative major scale is by using the scale formula.

All scale formulas are written relative to the major scale and, in the case of the Aeolian scale, looks like this:

Aeolian Scale Formula: 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7, 8

If you prefer working in half and whole steps, it looks like this:

W – H – W – W – H – W – W
(Whole Step – Half Step – Whole Step – Whole Step – Half Step – Whole Step – Whole Step)

The scale formula written out in this way gives you all the intervals in the scale.

Lastly, if you prefer to think in terms of intervals, Aeolian can be learnt like this:

1 – Root
2 – Major second
3 – Minor third
4 – Perfect fourth
5 – Perfect fifth
6 – Minor sixth
7 – Minor seventh

These intervals give you a minor seventh chord when you build a chord off the root tone, with a flattened 6th or 13th.

Which Songs Use The Aeolian Mode?

You can hear the aeolian scales in famous classical pieces as far back as Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and much more recently in pop music including:

  • Californication – Red Hot Chilli Peppers
  • Shine On You Crazy Diamond – Pink Floyd
  • Street Spirit – Radiohead
  • All Along The Watchtower – Bob Dylan
  • Losing My Religion – R.E.M
  • Hello – Adele

It made its way into the standard jazz vocabulary with the emergence of modal jazz.

An excellent example of this is its use in the classic jazz tune Milestones which utilises a simple form alternating between G Dorian and A Aeolian.

Aeolian as a Key – The Relative Minor

When you write a melody and harmonise it using the Aeolian scale, you are said to be in a minor key.

As the 6th mode of the major scale, Aeolian is known as the relative minor key.

Every major key has a relative minor key and the two share a special relationship as they have exactly the same notes, but without the same tonal centre.

Composers have taken advantage of this special relationship between major and relative minor keys for centuries, moving back and forth between them whenever the composer is looking for a new emotional colour.

If you look at any diagram of the circle of fifths, not only will you see all the major keys mapped out, but you will also see the relative minor keys inside the circle.

Each of these minor keys is the Aeolian scale relative to the major key.

Harmonising the Aeolian Scale (advanced theory)

If you’re just getting started with scales and modes, learning how to play it is enough.

If you’d like to go a little deeper, it’s interesting to look at it’s context within harmony…

When you harmonize a scale, you build chords on each degree of the scale using only scale tones. The chords are then numbered according to the scale degree, 1-7. They are designated by Roman Numerals.

The Aeolian scale yields the following:

i – minor 7
ii – half diminished 7
III – Major 7
iv – minor 7
v – minor 7
VI – Major 7
VII – Dominant 7

The minor iv and v chords in Aeolian make it difficult for composers to resolve cadences, which is why Harmonic Minor and Melodic Minor scales, which are both like Aeolian except they have a raised 7th note, are sometimes substituted for Aeolian.

Summing Up the Aeolian Mode

To sum up our look at Aeolian, remember that almost any time you hear music in a minor key, you are hearing the Aeolian scale.

Aeolian is the sixth mode of the major scale. You can easily play it on a piano by playing the white keys from β€˜A’ to β€˜A.’ Play them in this way and you are sure to get a sense of Aeolian’s uniquely moody, somber sound.

List of Aeolian Scales

Below is a complete list of Aeolian scales to help you get started studying this powerful musical tool.

Note: in the spirit of keeping things practical, we’ve avoided ‘double flats’ where possible.

C Aeolian | C – D – Eb – F – G – Ab – Bb – C

C# Aeolian | C# – D# – E – F# – G# – A – B – C#
Db Aeolian | Db – Eb – E – Gb – Ab – A – Cb – Db

D Aeolian | D – E – F – G – A – Bb – C – D

D# Aeolian | D# – E# – F# – G# – A# – B – C# – D#
Eb Aeolian | Eb – F – Gb – Ab – Bb – Cb – Db – Eb

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

F Aeolian | F – G – Ab – Bb – C – Db – Eb – F

F# Aeolian | F# – G# – A – B – C# – D – E – F#
Gb Aeolian | Gb – Ab – A – Cb – Db – D – Fb – Gb

G Aeolian | G – A – Bb – C – D – Eb – F – G

G# Aeolian | G# – A# – B – C# – D# – E – F# – G#
Ab Aeolian | Ab – Bb – Cb – Db – Eb – Fb – Gb – Ab

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

A# Aeolian | A# – C – C# – D# – F – F# – G# – A#
Bb Aeolian | Bb – C – Db – Eb – F – Gb – Ab – Bb

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

Looking for more scales and modes?

Check out our guides to the lydian mode, dorian minor and the mixolydian scales here.

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