I had posted this in another topic, but I feel it warrants a topic of its own.
I just realized that as a single-note, transposed instrument player, I am always playing in a mode of concert key. On my alto, I am always playing in the third environment, and on my tenor, the second. This is really of that much significance as far as playing with others goes. The transposed instrument is transposed 2 or 3 fifths. But for the sax player who is playing with guitar players, it really comes into play.
If I’m asked to sit in, I might have to figure out the key or be told the key. In either case, I have to transpose that to my instrument. I have it much more useful for me to think not in modes, but in key signatures. It’s easier for me to add three sharps to the key signature for alto and two for the tenor. Flats work as -1 sharp. So as long as I know the key signature, it doesn’t matter what mode I’m in.
If it was transposing the major key, that would simpler. But with major keys, the key signature becomes even more important. I subtract 2 sharps if it is minor. But what am I doing? I’m going from Mode 1 to Mode 6, but to find the correct notes, I need to transpose from one key signature to another.
The cool thing about looking at key signatures rather than modes, is that all I need to know that it is __ minor, and the key signature of ___ major, which has the particular 7 notes, I don’t have to know what the mode is. A scale is a collection of notes in ascending or descending order. Music randomly places those notes to create melody. It’s the same 7 notes of that particular key signature.
I think that this approach might not work well for a chordal instrument. I’ve gotten into many discussions with my wife about music theory. She thinks in chords, I think in scales. I’d love for David @ImproviseForReal and @Jelske and @DavidW to weigh in on this.
The way my wife and I play together is we come up with a song. We decide if it is one we will perform. f so, she plays and I play along. Usually I just automatically play in the right key. If we decide to go ahead with the song, we record a backing track with her singing and playing, leaving gaps for my solos. I then practice with the track, work out the fills and get a sense for my solos. All this is by ear, with no chart. I don’t try to do the melody in my solos because I want to improvise.
But back to my point. She plays tunes in many keys, and I play both alto and tenor. Our repertoire is about 130 songs, of which, I could probably perform 40 without rehearsing. Again, none of this is memorization. Everything I do, I do by ear—solely because of what IFR taught me. When we perform, she calls out my key signature or I have it written on a setlist. That is all I need when I perform, knowing the key signature. The harmony guides my note choices and my wife is an amazing rhythm player, so her grooves are solid, and I can always feel my way through the structure of the progression. I must admit, most our stuff is from the 60s, 70s and folk, so the progressions are usually either predictable or easy to internalize.
I can’t, at this stage of my real purpose-driven journey to becoming a musician, which began in 2017, that I can sing the melodies of the songs we do on my own. I have used sing the numbers with my instrument, which is what I attribute my ability to just play, the sax just an extension of my soul, the prosthetic that enables me to sing. I’m in Jelske’s class right now, and it has been hugely helpful.
But again, I digressed. Who sees music based on 12 keys–each with it’s own symbol, the key signature? And modes just another way of telling the player which note is 1?