How Stairway To Heaven use modes

Stairway To Heaven, a modal masterpiece!

Stairway To Heaven, the most unlikely hit of all time.

No other tune has been requested more on the radio in the U.S.A. Before we dive into the modal works of this tune let’s look at all the reasons for why this shouldn’t have been a hit!

The vocal starts at 0:50. Usually the cliche is that the chorus has to kick in at 0:55 latest or it won’t be played on the radio.

  1. The tune is almost 8 min long, that’s twice as long as the maximum 4 min.
  2. It was never released as single!

That’s three pretty strong reasons for not getting on the radio…

So how did this tune become so huge?

When Stairway was released Led Zeppelin was a very well established band with several world tours under their belt.

The tune was a collaboration between all band members utilizing all their strengths as a unit.

The recorder(s) in the intro was played by John Paul Jones, who also added the ascending bass line which ties the genius modal progression together.

The odd time signatures before the solo that seem to flow so naturally shows John Bonham’s genius of taking something complicated and making it sound natural purely through the way he plays it.

The lyrics were Robert Plants and the guitar chords and original concept was Jimi Page’s. The tune took well over a year to complete and Jimmy Page said in retrospect: “I have to do a lot of hard work before I can get anywhere near those stages of consistent, total brilliance.”

There was a stage of Stairways birth were it was played on piano, but this was later adapted for the guitar.

Why is Stairway To Heaven modal?

So let’s start to look at the modal works of this master piece.

Before we begin, remember, no one in Led Zeppelin had any idea about this stuff, it is only in hindsight that we can see these things. But by looking at it like this, we can learn from it. Let’s begin.

Usually people refer to Stairway as: it’s in A minor. Most likely they say this because the intro starts with Am, and the solo use Am, G & F, which are classic chords to solo over in A minor.

All Along The Watchtower for example use the same progression. But actually, it’s not just in A minor, it’s in A Aeolian, A Dorian and A Melodic Minor. The majority of the tune is in A Dorian and A Melodic Minor.


Using the DIY TAB in the Guitar Conspiracy we see how two keys are notated through out: C major (A minor/Aeolian) and G major (A Dorian).

The vocal melody however never hits the 6th interval, it completely stays away from it leaving the chords to move between these two keys giving the tune several modal interchanges and by doing this drives the track forward.

The second chord, an Am with an added 9th use the ascending bass lines G# and by doing this we are either in Harmonic minor or Melodic minor. The G# acting as a major 7th in relation to A.

The third chord, a C/G could either be in the key of G, so a IV/I or in the key of C as a I/V.

The fourth chord, a D/F# or a Bm7/F# carries on the ascending bass line and indicates that we no longer can be in Am or A harmonic minor, we have to be in the key of G here due to the F#.

The fifth chord, a Fmaj7 however tells us we can’t be in G major anymore, we have to be in C, Fmaj7 acting as the IVmaj7 chord.

These chords can therefore only be seen as modal, giving us:

Chord 1, A Dorian (or A Aeolian)

Chord 2, A Melodic Minor (A Dorian with a maj7)

Chord 3, A Dorian (or A Aeolian)

Chord 4, A Dorian

Chord 5, A Aeolian

Chord 6, A Aeolian (or A Dorian)

Chord 7, A Aeolian (or A Dorian)

The tension of this progression is paired with the very simple 8th note rhythm which makes it feel less adventurous. The vocal melody avoids hitting either the b6th to indicate Aeolian (F) or the natural 6th to indicate Dorian (F#).

The next part is the chorus (which doesn’t start until 2:15!) is in A Dorian throughout, giving it a more up-feel than Aeolian would have.

These two parts keep interchanging up until the breakdown at 5:35 where we get different odd time signatures almost every bar.

Stairway To Heaven odd time signatures

The reason the odd time signatures don’t feel strange is because of the loose and behind the beat feel Bonham provides. If you buy the sheet music for this tune you will see how it’s notated 9/8, 4/4 etc.

This is very difficult to follow so the conspiracy has written this part as a constant /8 time. Simply double the time throughout as you count and things should be much easier to understand.

The solo, as previously stated is in A Aeolian due to the Fmaj7.

The opening lick (one of the two licks in this solo that Jimi Page wrote before the recording) ends on an F. This is the first time the 6th is played in the melody. Giving us a familiar release after 6 minutes of modal interchange!

The solo carries on into the final vocal section which is sung an octave up, still not utilizing the 6th.

The last vocal section is then followed by a second solo that ends on the Fmaj7 chord and Plant sings the final very drawn out line now for the first time staying in Aeolian.

Stairway To Heaven can only be compared to Queens masterpiece Bohemian Rhapsody which it ironically usually competes for the #1 spot of greatest rock tunes of all time.

So if your thinking of creating the next big thing, go modal and break all the rules that the music business have laid down as criteria’s to get on the radio, it certainly worked for Led Zeppelin!

Next blog will pick Ain’t No Sunshine apart and show how a factory worker can become world famous by singing “I know” 26 times.

Dan (your guitar guru)

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21 thoughts on “How Stairway To Heaven use modes

  1. cortezthekiller

    I never thought about the 6th in that way …. thank you very much, I’ll try to go modal in my playing

    Are you planning to post some melodic minor lesson in the advanced/master scales section?

  2. Nal

    Just a thought about this :

    “The fourth chord, a D/F# or a Bm7/F# carries on the ascending bassline and indicates that we no longer can be in Am or A harmonic minor, we have to be in the key of G here due to the F#.”

    Could we also be in A melodic minor see as this too had an F#?

    So the 3rd and 4th chords could both indicate the tunes is in the melodic minor mode? Or did I miss something?

    Thanks as always for these great lessons!

  3. Nal

    Wait a minute, I think I’ve answered my own question…

    The D chord in the key of Am is a minor chord, not a major chord!

    Given that it is D/F#, this major D chord is found as the V chord in the key of G!

    Ok, 4th chord means we have modulated to G major – got it (I think).

      1. Nal

        :) , yep I got that when I saw we were in G.


        Funny how these guys may not have known or inteded to write in this modal way?

        I wonder how a song writer would intentionally ‘think’ modal to write such a piece…

        1. Guru Post author

          That’s what I was hoping you were gonna share with us, give it a try and let us know, it will be down to each individual how to exactly think of it.

          The vocal avoids all these notes so it’s only the chords that suggest it.

          One idea could be to have basic chords first, check what intervals the melody hits, then start manipulating the chords, suggesting all kinds of harmony.

          In this case I think chromatic descending bass line was the intention, I doubt led zep got too theoretical about it, but who knows!

          They did spend an awful long time on this song starting on piano.

          They never spoke about how they wrote so who knows.

          I’m suspecting trial and error :)

          1. Nal

            I suppose, if the melody hit the ‘tell tale’ modal notes, it would have wedged the song to much, first in this mode and then in this one… The transitions between the modes would have seemed less natural, like changing from rock to classical, but if you sit in the middle you can go both ways more fluently.

            I think that’s one of the points you were getting at isn’t it, when you say it avoids those notes yeah?

  4. llc

    Do you people have a facebook fan page? I looked for one on twitter but could not discover one, I would really like to become a fan!

    1. Guru Post author

      Yeah we do, Pages/spytunes can’t say I use it much, all facebook activity is on my facebook profile /dan.Lundholm come and be my friend :)

  5. Amoxil

    I found your site from wikipedia and read a few of your other blog posts.They are cool. Pls continue this great work. Later on other fantastic American rock acts such as Lynrd Skynrd, The Eagles, America, the Allman Brothers, and the Doobie Brothers would come on the scene and shake up the world with their string of hit songs.

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  8. Erick

    As you mention in the post, the Led Zeppelin writers did not approach the song this theoretically, so any analysis is mostly a matter of perspective.

    Still, from my observation, I think holding to a cohesive modality in the first section, is a bit more complex than what the organic flow warrants. I only see two key’s present in the song, with some descending chromaticism in the bass line. Namely, A min (Aeolian) and G major. It should be noted that these keys differ only by an F# in G Major, whereas F is natural in A min. I also don’t look at the intro as a series of chords, as much as an evolving harmonic center. The melody starts on an A minor chord, and in three steps (chord 3 for your purposes) evolves into a C major/G. It gets there through a chromatically descending baseline, which is an independent theme from the underlying A minor or C major harmony being droned underneath the bass and melody. Additionally the melody on the high E string is initially an ascending melody contrasted against the descending bass line. Part of why this is so organic, is because of the relationship between an A minor triad and C Major/G. They are relative chords, each sharing two notes in common (A,C,E – C, E, G). The baseline provides a leading tone progression from (G#) that offers pleasant resolve to the relative major. Following that the chromatic descending bassline on the Cmajor/G, the chromaticism descends yet again a half-step to F#. F# is used to briefly introduce some tonal ambiguity by being played under a D Major, a theme which is reinforced and embellished throughout the song as pivot between Gmajor and Aminor.Cmajor. Lastly the bass line descends a fifth-half-step, to F natural returning to A minor. The resolve on A minor for this section of the song can be seen in two lights. First it is a relative chord to FMajor 7, the preceding chord (F, A, C, E – A, C, E). Additionally, while not the lowest note in pitch, the Aminor played in open position contains the sixth-half-step from the dominant baseline, E (played on the 4th string in open position).
    This trend continues throughout the song, in an embellished way, but given the half-step chromaticism, I think it makes more sense to view the song as a harmonic tension between Cmajor/Aminor and Gmajor, rather than independent chord modulating through different keys. In other words, the bass-line is fluid rather than static, and entitled to occasional harmonic deviations within a centered key. Just my perspective.

    1. Guru Post author

      Great points! When I say modes I think of major, minor and Dorian as all being the modes Ionian, Aeolian and Dorian.

      It’s difficult to distinguish between chromaticism and modal interchange sometimes, I guess it’s a grey area where they, as you say, look different depending on your perspective.

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