Another way of looking at modes--from a sax player

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?

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Hi Woody,
You say: “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.”
But this isn’t true. You are not playing in a different MODE, you are playing in a different KEY.

With transposing instruments, we simply need to transpose the key, or scale. But the mode, as well as the relative chord progression, stays the same.

For instance, if your wife would play chord 1 in the key of G (which is Gmaj), on your tenor you would need to transpose this 1 chord to the key of A (which results in Amaj). Your KEY moves up a whole step. However, you are not transposing the 1 chord towards your 2 chord, thus shifting the MODE.

if your wife plays chord 2 in the key of G (which is Amin), on your tenor you would need to transpose this 2 chord to the key of A (which results in Bmin). Your KEY moves up a whole step. The MODE (2nd harmonic environment) stays the same.

You also mention “So as long as I know the key signature, it doesn’t matter what mode I’m in.”.
This is true for the majority of popular music, which often contains chords from one scale, we call this ‘Pure Harmony’.

About your remark “She thinks in chords, I think in scales”. This makes total sense to me, since she plays an harmonic instrument and you play a melodic instrument. I don’t think the question is whether to think in either chords or scales. Your scales are related to her chords and vice verse. Both these chords and scales are part of the same key. This key shows us how chords are related and which scales fit with these chords.

In IFR, we define the key with the major scale. When playing in a minor key, we relate this key to the parent major scale of the minor key.

All of this information is part of some of the upcoming lessons of the workshop you are currently participating in. I think this will help clarify a lot for you.
Let me know if you have any questions Woody.


On guitar (& Chapman Stick), with their ‘egalitarian’ fretboards I just think, where’s my ‘1’. :wink:

From there I’m familiar with the patterns of frets on strings separated by ascending 4ths (i.e. my guitar, which I tune in 4ths right across i.e. EADGCF, and on the melody side of the Stick). I need to become used to the descending 5ths on the bass side of the Stick, but that should come with time. Given that 4ths & 5ths are inversions of each other the ‘layout’ of notes on the two sides have strong similarities, but the intervals within the layouts are different, however that’s getting off the subject…

There’s a little more need to think about sharps & flats on keyboard, but if you know the interval patterns anything can be worked out from ‘where’s my 1’ (it’s just a whole lot more convenient to become familiar with the fingerings you need regularly!).

Essentially I try to ‘think’ in IFR, translating other approaches (e.g. classic music theory explanations or descriptions of ideas) into IFR, because IFR just feels so right to me. It’s an elegant solution, managing to leverage relatively simple fundamental ideas to great effect.

You might say that IFR is the ‘lens’ through which I consider musical ideas and concepts.

Seen through that lens, I don’t find modes in the least confusing.

I think that perhaps my situation, i.e as a late, mature, & fairly independently minded, starter picking up IFR and classic music theory at the same time, who just plays solo (with no particular prospect of that changing), might even be considered advantageous, in that I’ve been able to learn from both approaches, comparing & contrasting to enhance understanding, with no ‘baggage’ of pre-conceived view points or habits to get in the way?

@Jelske I don’t know what I was thinking when I wrote that. Of course you’re right. I was overthinking things when I wrote that.

This is how I relate to minor keys. For example if she is playing E-, on my tenor, I’m playing in F#-, which has the key signature of A. If I have a setlist, I’ll have the title of the song followed by F#-(A). Because I’m playing not from memory, but by ear, all I need to know, as you put it, “The parent major scale of the minor key.” I relate everything I play to the major scale.

Sounds good to me Woody. I am very happy for you that this simple mental model gives you so much musical freedom. Enjoy your playing.

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I know what you mean, @DavidW. Ever since I first came upon IFR, my whole perspective on music shifted. What was agonizingly complex suddenly was surprisingly simple. I spent a lot of years learning music theory, but being unable to make music. It was out of my reach until IFR.

I was already a couple of years into my intense study with weekly hourly lessons and hours of technical practice daily. Intellectually, I understood theory at what my instructor said was college level. But I couldn’t improvise, I couldn’t play in time, and whatever came out of my horn wasn’t musical. IFR changed all that, especially ‘Sing the Numbers.’

Our paths are seemingly parallel, as we both found IFR and were shaped by it in our early 60s.

So well put! I don’t find them confusing either. It is so much easier to think of music and understand it in terms of numbers. Like you, I think in IFR, and look at every scale based on numbers. There is no difficult key.

That’s the advantage of being a late starter and being old enough to have a mature and self-assured, and self-devised way of learning. I think I took on some baggage when I was working with a teacher, and had to shed it when I came upon IFR. She wasn’t too keen on it, and tried to steer me more in a conventional approach to improv and music. I chose IFR over what she was teaching because of it’s elegant simplicity and it resonated with me.