Ask Leon: Is it a key change?

Wedgie from Yahoo Answers asks:

I was recording my GCSE composition today, and I asked my teacher what he thought of it. He said it was in the B to A grade region (in his opinion). I asked what I could do to up it to an A. He suggested a key change.

I pointed out that it changes from Eb Phrygian to Eb Locrian, which is a different scale. He said that it wasn't a key change, and my mind exploded.

How is this not a key change?

Let's start with defining what a key is. The word key refers to the major or minor key system. Your question also involves modes. Modes are rotations of the major scale (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian).

The real issue you are dealing with is that keys as well as modes both rely on the concept of a tonal center, or a main tonic pitch.

In the example you have stated, starting in Eb Phrygian and changing to Eb Locrian, the tonic pitch in both cases is Eb. This means that the tonic pitch has not changed. A change in tonic is required to change key, otherwise you have only changed the mode, thus creating a modal mixture instead of a modulation.

Also, you are mixing the words key and modes a bit. Indeed you have changed modes. But in order to change keys you will need to change from one major or minor key to another major or minor key.

However, you can absolutely change from a major key to a mode, or vice versa, or do just as you have and change from one mode to another. There are no rules to say what is not allowed in music composition, only conventional practices that composers in the past have used.

To answer your question about how to raise your grade on the assignment: Do just as the teacher has asked. Change the tonic pitch in the second part to incorporate a change of key or mode.

On a more philosophical level, you are the judge and jury of your own music. If to you the change you have composed from Eb Phyrgian to Eb Locrian sounds pleasing, then you have accomplished what you set out to create musically.

If you do decide to change the piece to fit the requirements of the assignment you might try Db natural minor, also known as Db Aeolian. This keep the all the same pitches from Eb Locrian.

Eb Locrian: Eb, Fb, Gb, Ab, Bbb, Cb, Db, Eb

Db Aeolian: Db, Eb, Fb, Gb, Ab, Bbb, Cb, Db

This will not be a fool-proof change. You will have to be the judge as to if you like the musical results.

I hope this answers your question Wedgie. If you need any more help email me at

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Thanks for the question, and keep up the good practice,

Leon Harrell