For piano players who wish to achieve mastery, or may wish to simply become competent, knowing the important Piano Chords and Scales is a must, but also having some knowledge of important piano playing modes (based on these scales) is an important skill. In our previous articles, Part 1 and Part 2, we covered the Dorian, Aeolian, Phrygian, Lydian and Mixolydian modes. In this article we will address the remaining important playing modes as well as cycle of fifths.
All keys within an octave have their own relative minor. For instance, A minor is a relative minor of C major. To find a key’s relative minor, you can either count six notes up from the key’s root note or count down three half steps. Both methods will take you to the major’s 6th note. By playing the notes of the major starting from it’s 6th you create the Aeolian scale, or you can play a minor chord with the 6tth as the root. So while the relative minor of C major is A minor, the relative minor of G is thus E minor. You may have seen a chart that depicts each chord’s relative minor like this one:
On the final note of the major scale, the seventh note of the major, (B for C-major). By using B as the root or tonal center, you play the notes of the major an octave higher to produce the Locrian Mode of play. This mode is not commonly used for soloing, because it is “unstable”, not having a perfect fifth. It contains a diminished fifth instead making it an odd fit on top of most musical pieces.
Typically you will find yourself playing the Dorian, Aeolian and Mixolydian modes a lot when soloing and improvising.
Here is a basic reference you can use in the case of the key of C based on C-major:
|C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C||C Ionian mode|
|D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D||D Dorian mode|
|E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E||E Phrygian mode|
|F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F||F Lydian mode|
|G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G||G Mixolydian mode|
|A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A||A Aeolian mode|
To become a better piano player, you can work on getting used to playing the different scales. Don’t be afraid to experiment and create new melodies with your right hand while using your left to lay down chords. It is also a good exercise to practice these to background music. No doubt it will feel a bit awkward at first. You may find that trying new things is difficult at first, especially when combining right and left hands at the same time. You may even find your hands beginning to hurt, the longer you play. Some will frown on the idea and urge you to stop when you are feeling tired in your hands, but many skilled piano players advocate plowing through your discomfort, especially when learning something that is advanced and technically demanding.
Once you’ve practiced something repeatedly, you’ll get to the stage where it seems a little easier next time you sit down to attempt it. Eventually it will become second nature to you which is what you are ultimately aiming for.