Monday, March 24, 2014

Modes of thinking of modes

 The basics of modes

In music theory, a scale is a pitch collection comprised of 7 different pitches, where each pitch is either a whole step or half step away from the next. Typically, there are 5 whole steps and 2 half steps. A good starting point to understand scales and modes is the major scale, which I explained in an earlier post (click to read).

After we understand the interval make-up of the major scale, we can continue onward and look at different modes of the major scale.

I will be using solfeggio names to address certain scale degrees of the major scale:
  1. Do
  2. Re
  3. Mi
  4. Fa
  5. Sol
  6. La
  7. Ti
  8. Do (octave higher)
*Note that the half steps occur between scale degrees 3-4 (mi-fa) and 7-8 (ti-do).

Now let's get into the modes. There are seven different modes, corresponding to the seven different pitches found in a major scale (listed above). The major scale is also known as the Ionian mode (achieved by playing a scale beginning on the first scale degree, do). And by starting on different scale degrees, we get the rest of the modes, each with their own unique sound. Here are their names:
  1. Ionian (major scale)
  2. Dorian
  3. Phrygian
  4. Lydian
  5. Mixolydian
  6. Aeolian (natural minor scale)
  7. Locrian
And that is how they are typically arranged, in order of the major scale's pitches, 1-7. But there's another nifty way of organizing the modes, and it's an idea I first heard about in a master class by Gary Burton.

Another way: Bright to dark


The arrangement of modes that Burton explained is one which orders the modes based on each of their unique aural qualities. Scales/modes can be described as sounding happy or bright (major scale), or as sad or dark (minor scale). The brightest mode is Lydian, and by continuing through the modes via a cycle of descending fourths, the modes get darker and darker, finally reaching Locrian—the darkest of modes.

If that didn't make sense (did it?), perhaps this table will make things clearer...

Modes, arranged from 'bright' to 'dark'

Sol-feg syllable of first note
Alterations to the major scale
Ionian (Major scale)
Cmaj7, C6
b3, b7
C-, C-6
Aeolian (Natural minor scale)
b3, b6, b7
b2, b3, b6, b7
b2, b3, b5, b6, b7

The first column gives you the order of the modes from brightest to darkest, and the second column gives you the corresponding sol-feg syllable of that mode.

The third column shows how each mode is related back to a major scale. For example, to turn a C major scale (Ionian mode) into a C Dorian scale, you lower the third and the seventh scale degree (Eb and Bb).

In the fourth column I listed one or two chords which correspond to the modes. In other words, if someone were playing a C7 chord on the piano, you would find that if you played Mixolydian scale along with that chord, it would sound pleasing to the ear.



What's the point of arranging the modes in different ways like this? Valid question.

The first arrangement of modes I listed above (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian...) is very helpful in showing how each mode relates to the Ionian mode (major scale). Once you realize each mode is comprised of the same notes as the other (one just starts on a different scale degree than the other), you may very well let out a big sigh of relief. And this has important applications to the world of music improvisation, too (it's much easier to improvise when you know which modes to use and when).

The second (newer for me) arrangement (bright to dark) is, I think, just inherently interesting. It makes you more aware of each mode's unique sound quality. If you hear a bright/happy song, familiarity with the modes' aural quality can help you identify which mode the song is in (Lydian or Ionian). But if you hear a darker-sounding piece of music, you'll consider perhaps the Dorian or Aeolian modes.

Of course there is no one correct way to conceptualize the modes, but I reckon that familiarity with as many ways of thinking about them will prove to be beneficial regardless. Do you have another way you think of scales/modes? Tell me about it in a comment below!

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