Modes Part 1 - introduction (an adventure, an exploration)

What are modes?

Some scary, musical dark-alley that smug musos entice unwary wannabees down only to mug them and steal their shiny-shiny?

Elaborate traps to snarl the fingers of unsuspecting guitarists and hurt still-developing confidence?

Some fiendish device designed to provoke any sane person to yell ‘I don’t get it! I can’t do it!’ and throw down their guitar?

Hopefully not.

If you have ever played a simple chord progression then you have probably been immersing yourself in the sound of something modal.

If you have ever noodled around on a seven-note (most likely major) scale, then you have certainly been doing something modal.

Because modes are not some way-out-there mystery, unfathomable and unknowable.

They are simply seven-note scales.

That’s it.

Just scales, used to make music.

Not only that, being scales, they can and do give rise to triads and chords and chord progressions too. They have a melodic (single note melodies) and a harmonic (chordal movement) nature. Just like the major scale. In fact, the major scale is a mode.

Ain’t that a kick in the head!

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Let’s start this adventure, this exploration, with that basic idea.

Modes are scales, collections of sounds, intervallic sequences of musical notes.

The Major scale is one such mode. In modal naming systems it is called Ionian. And this is a first hurdle to tackle head on as it need not be an obstacle to understanding at all.

That word – Ionian.

It is just a name.

Nothing more.

If it better suits your way of trying to learn, we could reassign our terms of reference and refer to it using an adjective instead. Major as a description, an adjective.
The major scale – the huge, big, great, enormous, ubiquitous, magnificent scale … something fundamentally m-a-j-o-r.

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Indulge this thought a moment and consider that we could have other scales described (not named) as, for example, major, minor, super, fabulous, dark, happy, sparkling, rapturous, bizarre etc. It just so happens that there do exist major and minor scales. There is also a scale named super-something-or-other too, though that will be outside of the scope of this conversation.

Yeah – imagine the world of music if scales were referred to by a description rather than a name. Would music be better, easier, more comfortable?

Perhaps, perhaps not.

Whatever your thoughts on it, that is not the musical world though, so we must come back to acknowledging that these words are given as names to the scales, not descriptions of the scales.

We will develop the idea of ‘describing’ them later however, so hold that thought.

This small digression was, hopefully, to allow you to pierce through any misgivings that the words may cause.

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Let us see these words immediately and get it done with.

  • Ionian
  • Lydian
  • Mixolydian
  • Aeolian
  • Dorian
  • Phrygian
  • Locrian

Just words.
Used as names.
That’s all.

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Returning to the already mentioned major scale for a moment. It is so widely used and so instantly recognisable that it does stand on its own in many ways. A most familiar and comfortable mode with which to begin.

The famous pattern of - do, re, mi, fa, so, la, te, do - is the sound of the major scale.

As already mentioned, the major scale is a mode.
The Ionian mode.
Which means that the song from The Sound Of Music “Do-Re-Mi” can be legitimately categorised as a modal melody. This more than famous melody illustrates that modes need not be obscure, something only the afficionado dabbles in.
Note: Major scale music and minor scale music tends not to be categorised as modal even though, technically, it can be.
More on that later.

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I would like to present two ways of coming to view and hopefully understand seven modes. At least present what they comprise, where they come from, the sounds of them as scales and perhaps a little beyond that.
I will aim to do so by exploring and explaining their inherent logic and beauty from the perspective of intervals, the circle of fifths and some simple musical and numeric sequencing.

Modes can be viewed as in series or in parallel.

Modes in series are related to each other in that, for any given key, there are seven modes all sharing the same seven notes. They can be referred to as relative modes.

Modes in parallel are comprised of different notes but all share the same root note.

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Exlporation can be dangerous.Like going on a quest and continuing on and on, and once you get back home ,if you do, the chores( basics and fundementals have piled up).Thats when I resume… Sysiphus huh!