Keys other than major/minor?

This describes some others I think …

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Getting out of the West …

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But those are scales! My argument is key vs scale!

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OK, we are over my head then. I would think these scales are outside of being able to call them major or minor keys because the base interval patterns don’t match at all.


I don’t know for sure but I think the reason is that none of this stuff was designed up front. Western music theory and nomenclature evolved to fit the current thinking at the time as it was all discovered piece by piece.

And so with hindsight it is easy to look at this as “there is only one key, with seven modes in it, for each of the twelve semitones”, it was not obviously that way at the time.

And of course that only covers “Western” music theory.


Key implies that there is a tonal home for a piece of music - a place where the music feels at rest. The way that traditional Classical Western European music (aka music theory music) was defined and described was by J.S. Bach and his work on creating a musical home (resolution), moving away and away and away and developing that music through different themes and keys (tension) and then, finally, with a feeling of great eventuality, inevitability and resolution, bringing you back home (to the home chord - thus defined as the key of the song).

This worked for the Classical, Romantic and Baroque periods, and even into the 20th century and modern compositions… but post WW1 and WW2, traditional harmony, theory and tonality were all hugely challenged.

The modern classical compositions went all super crazy on the theory of key. They abandoned it altogether in pursuit of new ways to compose, new systems to compose with, and new sounds and instruments to play with.
The results are really challenging to listen to if you’re used to (and enjoy) the pleasant and inherent logic of traditional harmony. It is not popular with anyone but music students, composers, and that fun streak of the population that gets into weird, crazy, avant garde things.

During all this experimentation, composers played with invented (new) keys and key signatures. But because the music has not made its way into the popular repertoire, and because there are zero popular songs composed with these more dissonant and experimental techniques and ideas, there is no reason to teach it or apply it to 99.99% of the music making world.

Key implies that there is a home, a series of logical chord/sound locations that are moved to that are all related, yet different (to create the tension) and that there will be resolution in the end. To achieve a harmonious resolution, we humans of the Western European Musical Tradition have decided (sometimes actively, sometimes tacitly) that we only believe in resolutions to 2 places - major and minor chords.
Thus, there are only 2 keys - major and minor.

The alternative composition and musical traditions outside of the Traditional European Classical Music world don’t generally have complex and moving harmony through different tonal centers, devleoping and eventually resolving. They tend to work over a drone and utilize different (what we would equate to) scales to create, compose and improvise melodies. The idea of key doesn’t work in Indian Traditional Vocal Music, for example, because the instruments are not tuned to an abstract mathematical construct (measuring and standardizing the frequencies of pitches), but are tuned to the comfortable and natural resonance of the singer.

This is an excellent discussion and question, and if I’ve misspoken at any point in the above, or if it raises more questions, please give a holler!


Thanks, @Gio - this could be chapter 1 from Gio’s Primer to (Western) Harmony!! Fantastic write-up!

So good for the burgeoning bass player - so sad for music as a whole!!


Thanks @Gio. Great write up.


Tell me about it. As a programmer I’m used to turn chaos into order. Music has been a challenge in this field. It’s an already an ordered system… but very chaotic in the way it’s ordered.

Indeed! That was a fantastic and insightful read! Thank you @Gio!

Alas, I’m still left baffled with this issue. Imagine the scenario where you write a piece in Dorian B2. How do you communicate that to other musicians? Is it a minor key or has no key at all? And what about the key signature? Should we use the corresponding signature and use accidentals where it deviates from the signature?


Hm, maybe I’m off, but I don’t think you sit down and decide to write a piece in “Dorian b2”… or, maybe they do!?! I completely understand and share you bafflement.

I think in most cases a composer would work with some chords that are diatonically connected, and thus belong to a common tonal center (the key). Chords that are diatonically related just work well together (in the context of most Western popular music). And the tonal center could be either a major key or a minor key, which then gives you the number of accidentals!

Sure, the composer could also write a melody and then “find” (upon looking closer at the melody) that it uses, e.g., the notes from the melodic C minor scale, but as he/she also notices that their melody wants to resolve to (i.e. tends to start and/or end on) D, this leads the composer to realize that he/she wrote a melody in the Dorian b2 mode of the melodic C minor scale. But, it still “belongs” tonally to C minor and there are thus three accidentals here (namely, three flats).

In any case, this is my understanding as it stands right now. I find this all quite fascinating, but I would be the first to admin that I fully understand all of this. The thought process during composing is intriguing, and so is chord analysis of existing songs to (retro-actively) understand what the composers were doing.


That actually made sense to me @joergkutter, thanks for taking the time to write this. Let’s see if someone has something to add


A piece could absolutely be written in B dorian, but the octave is irrelevant. Octave will never be indicated in the key of a song. If pitch level is important to the song, it has to be indicated in the notation of the music and the instrumentation.

Any triad with the intervals Root, flat third, perfect 5th is a minor triad, and will allow for a consonant resolution. Thus, B dorian is a minor key because the triad built (using the root third and fifth) in that mode gives you a minor triad. Because B dorian shares a key signature with A major (A ionian) you would write the key signature for A major in the piece. You would communicate to the musicians that the piece is in B dorian through the music - the fact that the music resolves to B dorian. Context is the only way that you know what musical home the piece is in. This is the case for any piece of music, and any of the 7 modes.

The key signatures are named after their most common usage which is still the major scale/ionian mode.

For example, the famous jazz song “So What” from the Miles Davis album “Kind of Blue” is in D dorian. The songs musical focus is D dorian, the resolutions are all to D dorian. It begins and ends on a D minor chord. The song (on paper) is written with the key signature of C major - no sharps, no flats, because those are the notes in D dorian.

I think the problem may be one of terminology.
Key signatures could (and probably should) be named for the notes that make them up, not for a single note and system that the key signature creates.
Meaning - The key of A major has 3 sharps, creating a 7 note pattern that repeats through all octaves infinitely. It could be called The Key of 3 Sharps. Or the key of ABC#DEF#G#, or it could be called the 3-o-clock Key (because of where it sits on the circle of fifths). A less harmonic-centric name for the Key Signature might help in understanding the key of 3 sharps to be simultaneusly the key of:
A major (ionian)
B dorian
C# Phrygian
D Lydian
E Mixolydian
F# minor (aeolian)
G# locrian
Because the most referenced, popular and historically significant pieces written with this system favor the major or minor scale (ionian or aeolean) the nomenclature for key signatures remains simplified as: the key of 3 sharps is the key of A major.

You’re absolutely correct that music theory is a mess. It is a system created for the aid in studying great compositions of the past. It comes up with terminology and rules and descriptions to describe things that already happened, and in the meantime musicians are bending and breaking all the rules and pushing music into new sonic places.
Learning music theory is frustrating in this way.
It starts out with - here are the rules and names for things, and you can’t break them or its wrong.
Then you go to your next year of theory and the rules change: OK, now you can break all those first rules, but here are the new rules and names for things, and these are the ones you can’t break.
Then you get to 20th century music and the rules get ridiculous. OK, so this composer made up his own rules, and to compose like this, here are the rules to follow. Also, all the rules can be broken now, so long as you know they’re there.
And then, finally… you end up in theory Nirvana:
If it sounds good, it’s right.

Not sure how this lands or if it helps.
I sure do love talking about this stuff though.


@Gio maybe you can split these posts into a topic of their own? That would make them easier to find again.


Oh that’s my fault. I meant to write Dorian b2 (flat 2nd) and not a Dorian with a B2 tonic :stuck_out_tongue: (I still have to read your post with full attention, but didn’t want this detail to linger)

I agree. There’s gold in some posts. That maybe don’t fit the “ah hah!” thread but are very valuable theory wise.


Ha! Maybe? Maybe not. Check out some of the music by Anton Webern, Charles Ives, Arnold Schoenberg, Elliot Carter (in the classical world)… or more Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler in the Free Jazz world. And then there’s the super bizarre noise/performance-art music of now. It’s all music because people say it is.
It’s real real real difficult.
I love checking out all this stuff, but I can’t try and put it on around friends and family… or even say I enjoy it or get it.
Pretty awesome regardless.



Here is another look at this (with the dorian b2; i.e., the second mode of the melodic minor scale) and even Beato calls it at some point “the key of A dorian b2” - so, there you have it.

The other take home messages from this video (my “aha” moments) are that: 1) yes, these modes can be the tonic of a song (or a melody, as I speculated further above); and 2) if you encounter any of the chords he mentioned and want to improvise, you can use the notes of the A dorian b2 scale :grinning: So, it is often about knowing which scales to use to improvise on certain chords!

I know! It was a bit tongue-in-cheek what I said, but it is kind of sad how most music that does not adhere to the popular melodic framework gets easily pushed aside as “too far out there”. But, yeah, some stuff is really out there :grin:


I don’t think I know how to do this… shame on me. @eric.kiser! Help!


Splitting the topic has to go to @JoshFossgreen.

This would make a great addition to the Theory category.


Once more, very insightful.

I still haven’t made my peace with it, but you opened new angles for me to look at it.

And thank you for that, really! The information is priceless.


Moved all this stuff to its own topic as requested @Mike_NL @eric.kiser @Gio!