What’s the Aeolian mode?
‘Aeolian mode’ is fancy talk for the natural minor scale, just like ‘Ionian mode’ is for the major scale.
It’s helpful to think about minor as the musical opposite of major.
If major is sunshine ☀️ then minor is moonlight 🌒
- The two occasionally cross paths, but most of the time they’re separate.
- The emotional difference between them is quite obvious – even to non-musicians.
- One is bright and happy, the other dark and melancholy.
Why do major and minor sound different?
In the simplest terms, the minor scale is more dissonant than the major scale. This is due to flattened intervals.
Let’s look at the intervals for both scales and see how they compare:
We need to flatten (lower) three notes to turn a major scale into a minor scale – the 3rd, 6th, and 7th.
So what does this mean in guitar terms? We can see it more clearly by comparing the fretboard patterns.
Ionian fretboard diagram (major scale)
When learning modes, we use Ionian as our neutral reference point – there are no sharp (#) or flat (b) intervals:
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Aeolian fretboard diagram (natural minor scale)
Now we can see how Aeolian differs:
1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7
There’s one other scale worth mentioning here – every guitarist's bread a butter…
Minor pentatonic fretboard diagram
The minor pentatonic scale is a simplified version of Aeolian – just remove the 2nd and 6th intervals:
1, b3, 4, 5, b7
- You can see how the shape is extremely similar to the previous diagram.
- If you already know your minor pentatonic scale, Aeolian is just two extra notes away!
What does Aeolian sound like?
Music is all about listening – so let's do that!
Songs written in a minor key are found throughout Western music, so you shouldn’t have any problems hearing examples of Aeolian in your favorite genres. Here are a couple of examples to get you going:
If you've not heard this song before, then we're honestly shocked and appalled. For those that want to play along - it's in the key of D#minor. Good luck with the solo!
Another iconic song in a minor key. Guess what time signature it's in. Hint: The clue is in the title.
Best chords for Aeolian
The min9 is the perfect chord to outline the sound of Aeolian mode.
- The b6 is really the defining note of Aeolian, but due to its unresolved feeling, it’s rarely used in a chord.
- It’s much nicer to use the b6 in a melody or as a passing tone.
Wait… where did that 9 come from?!
Minor chord extensions
So far we’ve only looked at scale degrees within one octave (1 - 7).
When reach the next octave (8ve) we can do one of two things:
- Start counting from ‘1’ again (like we did in our scale diagram).
- Continue counting up – 8, 9, 11 (this is how we get chord extensions).
Let’s deconstruct the Cm9 chord to understand what’s inside it.
- Cm = C minor (1, b3, 5)
- 9 = 9th interval
- Full chord = 1, b3, 5, b7*, 9
*Note: The 7th is always implied in an extended chord, if you wanted to have a Cm9 chord without a 7th you would write it as Cm(add9).
When to use Aeolian
All the time!
The minor scale is the second most popular in Western music. Regardless of the style or genre you play, there will always be an opportunity to use this versatile mode.
If (like most guitarists) you’re a fan of the minor pentatonic scale, consider the Aeolian mode as some additional notes you can throw in for some extra flavor.
When not to use Aeolian
If you’re trying to write something cheerful, it’s best to stay away from this mode.
Aeolian exercises for guitar
Internalize the mode
Modes are not just a set of numbers to memorize. You should learn how to feel the relationship between each degree and the tonic (root).
- The best way to achieve this is to slowly play the scale over a drone note.
- This gives you a stable reference point and allows you to really absorb the individual character of each note in the mode.
- Pay attention to the amount of dissonance (tension) or consonance (harmony).
Sing the mode
This is the next step in creating a solid connection to the mode. If you can sing the notes – then you truly have the scale locked in your mind.
- Don’t stress about sounding good – that’s not our aim with this exercise.
- The goal is to know the notes of the scale, without relying on the guitar to play them for us.
- We want to be able to hear the notes in our head, and then play them – not the other way around.
- Play a I chord or just a root and 5th.
- While the chord is ringing, sing the notes of the mode sloooowly.
- Call out the number of each scale degree as you sing it.
- When you get more confident, try to sing the notes out of order.
- You can practice singing arpeggios for a real challenge – 1, b3, 5, b,7, etc.
This type of exercise will improve your ear dramatically and help you interact with chords and scales in a much more intentional and musical way.
Aeolian jam tracks
The real reason you’re here is because you want to make music, right? So let’s do that – it’s time for a jam!
Whenever you learn some new theory, it’s important to put it into practice immediately. All this stuff only makes sense once we apply it in a musical context.
Today you’re in luck. We’ve got some awesome jam tracks for you.
C Aeolian guitar jam track
This first one is very neutral – just looping the I chord.
- Use this track to really dial in on those intervallic relationships.
- Concentrate on the 9th and b6/b13 to highlight the Aeolian sound
A minor guitar jam track
How about jamming along with a real band? We’ve got you.
There are a bunch of tasty tracks on our YouTube channel, with different keys, tempos, and styles.
Here’s a neo-soul number in the key of A minor (A Aeolian mode).
- Get creative here – settle into the vibe and try to contribute to the song.
- Find a short rhythmic phrase that sits well with the track and then find different note combinations from within the scale.
Remember: You can always fall back to the minor pentatonic, then when you feel ready throw in the 9th or b6th for some Aeolian flavor.
If this is the very beginning of your modal voyage then you’ve landed in the right place.
We’ve written articles for all seven diatonic modes on the guitar – and you’re already one down!
- Ionian mode (major scale)
- Aeolian mode (natural minor scale)
Ready to supercharge your soloing by becoming a melodic maestro? Check out Soloing Learning Pathway.
It’s a step-by-step guide to crafting singable solos, with daily lessons, guided exercises, playalong jams, and personalized feedback on your playing from pro guitarists on the Pickup team.
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