Modes Part 1 - An 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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Let us see these words immediately and get it done with.
Used as names.
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.
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.
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!
Modes Part 2 - Modes in Series
Following that brief Introduction to Modes, the journey proper begins here.
Modes in series is often described thus:
It’s just the major scale but starting on a different note.
This leads to the oft used sequencing below.
The 1st mode is Ionian.
The 2nd mode is Dorian.
The 3rd mode is Phrygian.
The 4th mode is Lydian.
The 5th mode is Mixolydian.
The 6th mode is Aeolian.
The 7th mode is Locrian.
For anybody who has had a most cursory of introductions to modes that may be a familiar listing.
Let us start simple and use the C Major scale - no sharps or flats to confuse things.
Here is a depiction of the C Major scale with the respective whole steps (Tone = T) or half steps (Semitone = S) as you move from one to the next.
Note: For this study you should be familiar with the major scale formula of:
Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone Semitone.
If you are not, may I suggest that you study as much as you can on the major scale, including the scale patterns and making music with it, before you study modes.
What we will now see is basic a simple and repeating process.
Step 1: Start with the C major scale written out to its first octave.
Step 2. Remove the first note, C. The new beginning note is D. It becomes the new root note of a 2nd scale so D is added at the end to complete the octave.
Step 3. Remove the first note, D. E is the new root note so place an E at the end.
Step 4 and beyond. Continue this process until seven scales have been written out.
Maybe you will prefer, and can relate more to, the logic and sequential nature of this scale building process with an overlapping diagram. Here, the notes can more clearly be seen as remaining in their original positions, with their respective intervals maintained and with one extra note (the octave of the new root) added each time.
As the diagram above shows, this process starts with the major scale then leads through seven scales in total. Each has a unique pattern of steps and scale degrees. Each is a new mode. The first – the major scale itself, is the Ionian mode. The others follow in turn.
First - Ionian
Second - Dorian
Third - Phrygian
Fourth - Lydian
Fifth - Mixolydian
Sixth - Aeolian
Seventh - Locrian
There we have it.
The seven major scale modes.
It’s just the major scale but starting on a different note.
Personally, I do not particularly warm to or benefit from this description and the type of demonstration it leads to. I will elaborate.
The ‘Do_Re_Mi’ song, mentioned above, almost follows the ‘start on the next note’ instruction. Almost. The first melodic line (Doe a deer, a female deer) starts on the root note of the major scale. The next melodic line starts on the second note of the major scale. The third melodic line starts, yes you guessed it, on the third note of the major scale. And so on. All the way through all seven notes until we are brought right back to the root (Do).
Each and every melodic line uses only the notes of the major scale but starting on the next note. A bit like many descriptions of how to find the modes – using the major scale but starting on the next note.
We could, perhaps should, hear each melodic line of ‘Do_Re_Mi’ as a succession of modal melodies. But I suggest we do not. I suggest we categorically hear the major scale and only the major scale throughout the song. After all, the song was designed to teach the sound of the major scale. That is its essential purpose within the narrative of The Sound Of Music.
To which I add a further thought about why it does not sound modal. I believe our ears have the major scale sound fully embedded in them from its prevalence in virtually all musical forms. I think that when someone tries to explain modes and plays seven modes in succession, each starting on the next note of a major scale, the majority of people (and I definitely place myself in this group) cannot unhear the major scale and find it impossible to discern the distinct sound qualities of each separate scale. Playing the modes like this simply sounds like a scale study pattern built from the major scale to my ears. Maybe to yours too.
Note: there is another reason Do-Re-Mi will not necessarily sound modal. It is to do with the underlying harmonic movement of the chords and the fact the main melody does not accentuate the ‘colour notes’ of the modes. It never strays from being a major scale melody. But this necessary technical footnote obscures my main point.
I have created two audio samples to listen to at this point - so we can hear the modes in series and perhaps to perhaps illustrate my point above.
In the first we can hear all seven modal scales that can be built from the C major scale in ascending order. Starting on note 1, then on note 2, then on note 3 etc.
All seven modes of C Major in succession
You are listening to
- C Ionian
- D Dorian
- E Phrygian
- F Lydian
- G Mixolydian
- A Aeolian
- B Locrian
In the second we hear a repeat of the first but with the addition of the diatonic chords played before the scales.
All seven modes of C Major in succession with chords
You are listening to
- C Major chord then C Ionian
- D minor chord then D Dorian
- E minor chord then E Phrygian
- F Major chord then F Lydian
- G major chord then G Mixolydian
- A minor chord then A Aeolian
- B diminished chord then B Locrian
Listen carefully. Listen more than once perhaps.
Do you hear C Major chord as a tonic chord for the C Ionian mode?
Do you hear D minor chord as a tonic chord for the D Dorian mode?
Do you hear E minor chord as a tonic chord for the E Phrygian mode?
Do you hear F Major chord as a tonic chord for the F Lydian mode?
Do you hear G Major chord as a tonic chord for the G Mixolydian mode?
Do you hear A minor chord as a tonic chord for the A Aeolian mode?
Do you hear B diminished chord as a tonic chord for the B Locrian mode?
I do not.
I hear the successive chords of a harmonised major scale. I hear an etude, a scale study piece made up of chords and ascending patterns of notes from a major scale.
I do not hear any different flavours, any exotic and bewildering modal qualities.
This is likely subjective, but, for me, hearing the modes like this does not help me at all. I wholly understand and admire the logical beauty of their creation. The overlapping, intertwining, one-preceding-another nature of the notes. My mathematical, logical brain can fully grasp that as an abstract concept.
But I am not hearing the musical magic.
I am simply not feeling or grasping the passion and zest that modes are supposed to bring me to enrich my life.
The order of the modes
The modes are given ordinal names to match their relative position from the parent major scale, to match the scale degree from which they take their start point and root note.
Perhaps there is some special something which can be discovered here that reveals the reasons why so many lessons on modes introduce them in series.
Once again, for simplicity, using the C major scale.
Against the ordinal for each mode we will see listed any scale degrees they contain that are not natural notes (i.e. flats or sharps).
1st = C Ionian containing no sharps or flats
2nd = D Dorian containing b3 and b7
3rd = E Phrygian containing b2, b3, b6 and b7
4th = F Lydian containing #4
5th = G Mixolydian containing b7
6th = Aeolian containing b3, b6 and b7
7th = Locrian containing b2, b3, b5, b6 and b7
Apart from the counting up from the 1st to the 2nd to the 3rd and on, where is the logic in any of that?
Is there any sort of pattern or logic to the number and placement of sharps and flats from the 1st mode through to the 7th mode?
None that is readily apparent at first glance.
Those (mainly) flats and the one sharp seem to be a random and haphazard mix.
There is something familiar and maybe useful. Looking at the 3rd scale degrees of each, the type of mode runs:
Major, minor, minor, Major, Major, minor and weird!
To determine this we simply look to see whether a mode has a b3 or note. If it does not, it must have a natural (major) 3 so is a major type of mode. If it does it must be a minor type of mode. The last, Locrian, has a b3 but much else going on that makes it a little unique and, dare I say, awkward.
Aha! The diatonic chords from a major scale follow the order:
Major, minor, minor, Major, Major, minor, diminished. That certainly seems to match what we have here in the type of modes. Perhaps this is the power, the goodness, the usefulness that people find when presenting and using modes in series. Many people do seem to use the M, m, m, M, M, m, d pattern as a peg to hang the modal types on to and as an aide-mémoire. If it works then all good.
But, for the aural / musical reasons already stated – the missing modal magic - and due to misgivings over those unanswered questions, I am going to move past this view of modes for now. I am going to look at modes from another view, which is modes in parallel. Doing so in hopes that it rounds out the understanding, gives deeper insight and addresses some further uncertainties.
So early on and already dissing Locrian Its not weird or awkward
Its just special, so very special !
I (still) Don’t Play Like MAL !
So good to see this again Richard.
I’ve made up a rock based little mnemonic to help nail remembering which is which of the common minor modes.
So, using the notes of C major scale
AC: Tonic of A using the notes of C major is A Aeolian
DC: Tonic of D using the notes of C major is D Dorian
Modes Part 3 - Modes in Parallel
The adventure continues now with a further perspective on modes.
Parallel modes share the same root note but contain different intervals, hence different sets of notes.
This contrasts with modes in series where all modes have the the exact same seven notes in the exact same sequence but starting from a different note of the sequence.
As we explore and discover, each of the seven modes will be shown with root note C. They will all be shown as a collection of seven notes taken as a cluster from the circle of fifths.
The Circle of Fifths
This is a basic representation of the circle of fifths. Hopefully you have at least seen this and can follow the logic of note placement by way of knowing a little major scale theory. Each of the twelve notes appears once. The notes do not appear alphabetically. Each immediately clockwise note is the fifth note of its neighbour’s major scale.
C major scale
G is the 5th note and is immediately clockwise of C on the circle.
G Major scale
D is the 5th note and is immediately clockwise of G on the circle.
D Major scale
A is the 5th note and is immediately clockwise of D on the circle.
This pattern applies no matter what the start note.
The Circle of Fifths in colour
The circle represents twelve notes, has twelve sectors and can be viewed as a clockface. I am going to steer in a different direction and overlay a 12-sector colour wheel. The circle of fifths now looks like this:
Note that we have moved to single names for the sharps / flats, apart from F# / Gb in the 6 o’ clock position. The reason for that choice and simplification in appearance will hopefully become apparent as we continue.
The colours on the right could conventionally be described as bright or warm. The colours on the left as dark or cool. More on this later.
We are going to discover seven modes using the Circle of Fifths, each having C as its root note. Each mode will comprise of seven adjacent notes together in one unbroken arc around the circle.
To begin, we will find the seven-note cluster that contains only natural notes, no sharps or flats. Hopefully you can identify this cluster, spanning from F at one extreme to B at the other (think 11 o’ clock to 5 o’ clock).